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Kewaunee city officials keep citizens in the dark

By M.D. Kittle

Sunshine Week, which promotes access to public information, has come and gone.

But there is no sunshine in Kewaunee city government.

In fact, the Lake Michigan city of about 3,000 is precisely why Sunshine Week was created.

Recently, Kewaunee city government officials sent Empower Wisconsin a bill for more than $10,000  — the amount it would charge to turn over public documents. The insanely high cost estimate was in response to Empower Wisconsin’s request for records under Wisconsin’s open records law. The request asked for all communications “between Kewaunee City Administrator Fred Schnook and Mayor Jason Jelinek and the members of the common council regarding the city marina and loss of the city marina grant.”

Kewaunee’s bid for a $3 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant fell through. The mayor’s big plan for the city to purchase the privately-owned Salmon Harbor for $1.8 million was contingent on the $3 million EDA grant, according to a purchase agreement Jelinek signed without the knowledge of the Kewaunee Common Council. The mayor’s behind-the-scenes dealings raised some serious questions.

The records request also sought information city officials may find embarrassing, including communications between Schnook, Jelinek and common council members regarding comments Alders Jeff Vollenweider and Janita Zimmerman made to Empower Wisconsin or other media outlets. City sources have told Empower Wisconsin city officials gave Vollenweider and Zimmerman a dressing down for speaking with Empower Wisconsin about the city’s harbor issues, even threatening legal action.

Apparently the records request was just too much of a burden for city officials to bear. So, last month City Clerk Terri Decur sent Empower Wisconsin a letter insisting it would cost the city a whopping $10,645 to fulfill the records request. And they want their money upfront.

Decur cited Wisconsin law that allows government entities to “impose a fee upon a requester for locating a record … if the cost is more than $50. And boy did the city impose.

It’s itemized bill includes $55 an hour for Schnook’s locating services (which may beg an important question to Kewaunee taxpayers about the value of their city administrator’s services in general). The tab shows a contracted Computer Technician rate of $75 an hour, and the clerk’s billable rate of $35.85 per hour.

They estimate it will take more than 200 hours to download the documents, scan, “cross tabulate,” rinse, wax, whatever they think they need to do to comply with state law.

Except, as Empower Wisconsin reported, they aren’t complying with state law.

“The city’s 5-figure quote for responding to a record request is patently ridiculous and violates the Open Records Law,” said Tom Kamenick, president and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, specializing in the state’s open records law. “There is no way it takes 200 hours for them to find records on a single topic like the Salmon Harbor marina.”

Kamenick said Kewaunee’s unreasonable records production bill is a prime example why the Legislature should eliminate so-called location fees for records. He said records custodians pull numbers out of thin air and intentionally inflate their fees to discourage ordinary citizens from investigating government malfeasance.

“Custodians should not be able to charge people thousands of dollars simply because of their own shoddy and inefficient record-keeping,” Kamenick said.

“The city cannot charge for unnecessary tasks like scanning documents and then searching them or ‘compiling and coordinating’ their response to the record request.  And if somebody needs to perform the rote task of scanning documents at all, they shouldn’t be paying their city administrator $55.50/hour to do that simple task,” the attorney added.

But that’s how Kewaunee rolls. Just ask former Mayor John Blaha, who is running for a seat on the city council. The city sent Blaha a $5,000 bill for his open records request seeking similar internal information on the marina project and proposed purchase, according to records obtained by Empower Wisconsin.

With such exorbitant records location fees, you can’t blame Kewaunee residents for wondering if city officials are trying to hide something. Without sunshine in those dark places, it’s really hard to know for sure.

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