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Study: Evers’ transparency troubles threatening open government

Empower Wisconsin | Sept. 10, 2019 
MADISON — Open government has taken a beating in the initial months of Tony Evers’ tenure as governor.
According to a report by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL)  released Monday, Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and various state agencies have failed to follow the government transparency practices defined in executive orders by former Gov. Scott Walker. 

The departure from those policies have left citizens in the dark.

“Without an immediate course reversal, Governor Evers threatens to turn Wisconsin’s proud legacy of transparency in state government into a bureaucratic black box,” the Milwaukee-based, conservative public interest law firm stated in a press release. WILL describes the Evers’ administration’s handling of open records as “dysfunctional and disorganized.” 

To test whether the Evers administration was abiding by the transparency standards, the authors of the study submitted identical open records request to 11 offices and state agencies. By the end of August, WILL received responses on nine of the 11 requests and reviewed more than 4,000 records. 
Here’s what the authors found: 

  • Office of Governor Evers: The system to track records requests in Evers’ office is disorganized and dysfunctional. There are scores of missing data making it impossible to know whether the Governor’s office is complying with open government best practices. One out of three of all open records requests are either unfulfilled or not recorded properly. 
  • Office of Lt. Gov. Barnes: The office is not doing much better and their response time to records requests far exceeds the 10-day goal demanded under Wisconsin open records law. Despite only receiving 13 requests, it takes his office on average 22 business days to respond to a request. 
  • Walker’s open government website is no longer active: Since taking office, the open government dashboard the Walker administration created to provide the public with metrics and data on transparency practices has gone dark. The public is no longer easily able to determine how the Evers administration is practicing government transparency. 
  • Some state agencies are maintaining the Walker-era best practices: Five state agencies (DATCP, DNR, DHS, DOA and DOR) responded to WILL’s request for tracking documents. 
  • All five agencies are continuing to respond, on average, within ten business days. 
  • Despite being given over 40 business days to respond, the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Children & Families (DCF) have not complied with the request. 
  • The results are mixed for the non-cabinet agencies (DPI and DOJ): The Department of Public Instruction’s response time has slipped from, on average, within 12.5 business days, to within 15 business days. DOJ’s Office of Open Government, founded by former Attorney General Brad Schimel, continues to provide an unprecedented amount of transparency, including publishing a monthly metric of the department’s open records request responses. 

“In 2016 and 2017, Walker issued executive orders directing his administration to implement best practices to bring new transparency and responsiveness to state government,” WILL noted in its press release. 

The orders directed executive offices and state agencies to respond to records requests in 10 business days, keep and maintain an organized tracking system, and develop a dashboard website for the public to monitor how the administration is complying with records requests and best practices. 

Many of those transparency efforts have been abandoned, particularly in Evers’ office.

Conservative news outlets in particular have been slowed or stonewalled in their requests for information, including Empower Wisconsin. 

The MacIver Institute last month filed a federal lawsuit against Evers for excluding its journalists from press briefings and refusing to provide them with press material that is shared with other news outlets. 

“Certainly this is a disturbing trend,” said  J Szafir, co-author of WILL”s open records review. “Over the last six or seven months we’ve been hearing stories of a number of conservative groups having problems with the Evers administration and transparency, most notably the MacIver lawsuit, which highlights the lengths this administration has gone to shut out conservatives.”

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