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Evers office failing to heed open records training

Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 30, 2019

By M.D. Kittle 

MADISON — Talk about your transparency troubles. 

Empower Wisconsin had to file an open records request to learn what state employees are required to learn about Wisconsin’s open records law. 

Despite the unnecessary extra step, records confirm what government sources told Empower Wisconsin earlier this month — that despite Gov. Tony Evers’ administration’s many transparency failures, state employees are at least still required to go through open records training. 

Not that the course seems to be doing much good for Evers and his staff, defendants in multiple First Amendment and open government lawsuits. 

The training requirement is a holdover from Evers’ predecessor, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who was recognized for his transparency initiatives. 

“It is our understanding that 2019 is the third consecutive year in which online public records training has been required for all state employees,” wrote David J. Rabe, legal counsel for the state Department of Administration in the agency’s response to Empower Wisconsin’s Dec. 10 information request.  

“Additionally, in response to your question about the quiz at the end of the training, the course is not marked ‘Completed’ for an employee until they answer 3 of 5 questions correctly,” Rabe added. 

So a passing grade is 60 percent. No wonder so many failing public schools in Wisconsin are considered good enough. 

The training includes slides on maintaining government records, and a reaffirmation of what the governor’s office seems to have disregarded. 

“The clearly stated, general presumption of our law is that all public records shall be open to the public … This presumption reflects the basic principle that the people must be informed about the workings of their government and that openness in government is essential to maintain the strength of our democratic society,” states one of the training slides. The paragraph is taken director from the 2002 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision, Linzmeyer v. Forcey. 

One more time governor, just in case you and the legal team weren’t paying attention: 

“Every record is presumed available to the public. Denial is limited in exceptional cases.” 

But Evers’ office in particular has made denial more the rule than the exception. 

Earlier this month, Fox6 News, represented by the Wisconsin Transparency Project, became the latest news outlet to file a lawsuit against the governor after his attorneys refused to release Evers’ emails — even one day’s worth.

Earlier this year, the MacIver Institute sued Evers in federal court on allegations the governor’s office violated the conservative news outlet’s First Amendment rights. Empower Wisconsin’s executive director, Matt  Kittle, is named as a nominal plaintiff. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has sued the state Department of Public Instruction and the agency’s handpicked successor of the governor, who previously served as DPI superintendent. That lawsuit, too, involves transparency problems. 

Even simple information requests have been caught in the legal shuffle. 

Perhaps Evers’ team needs a refresher. They should start with the basics from the training slides: 

“Public records laws are also called sunshine laws. That’s because the laws exist so the people of this state are not ‘in the dark’ about the workings of the government that represents them.”  

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