Last year, as word got out about Rep. Paul Ryan running alongside then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the clerk’s office in Ryan’s home county, Rock County, Wis., began fielding a variety of open records requests.
When he was officially named Romney’s running mate in August, an influx of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests funneled into the department, right up until the presidential election.
“A lot of the requests focused on his voting records, and that was fairly easy to pull up,” said Rock County Clerk Lori Stottler. “His mother lives in Florida, so there was also some interest in seeing if she was registered to vote there and in Wisconsin.”
Under FOIA, anyone has the right to access federal agency records, unless there’s a protection from public disclosure.
For the most part, Stottler said operations within her office remained status quo. The volume of requests were not out of the ordinary compared to operations before or since Ryan’s time in the national spotlight.
But the fact that Stottler and her two-person staff responded to most of the FOIA requests within days of filing is notable when other agencies nationwide can take much longer.
Since being elected county clerk six years ago, Stottler said she adopted a policy of sorting and storing many of the county’s records digitally — a scenario that lets her and her staff quickly recall information as FOIA requests come in.
“I’m an organization nut, and technology is an amazing tool in that regard,” she said. “It allows us to expedite things around here.”
For example, a FOIA request on voting records had once required the Rock County Clerk’s office to research hard copies of paper poll books. The process has been streamlined through the use of spreadsheets and an electronic conversion of old hard copies from years past.
“We used to charge 20 cents per copy from the paper poll books, but the efficient use of data has allowed us to share that same information at a more reasonable cost,” Stottler said.
Most of Rock County is unincorporated. Throughout its more than 700 square miles, six cities fall within all or part of the county, in addition to three incorporated villages. The rest of the county comprises 20 unincorporated townships.
Ryan lives in Janesville, a mid-sized community in south central Wisconsin. Janesville is the largest community and the official seat of Rock County.
Stottler is trying to spread her digital-first philosophy to municipal clerks throughout the county — a scenario that would be particularly helpful on election nights.
“The ballot-counting process can really bog down our office,” she said. “In today’s world, there are efficient ways we can do things, but I have [municipal] clerks around here who still store some of their records at their homes.”
In a state as politically charged as Wisconsin, Stottler said her office became well versed in FOIA requests in 2012. An unsuccessful attempt to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in early June resulted in citizen groups requesting assorted information, including the election results themselves.
Stottler said she’s using technology in ways beyond FOIA requests. She and her staff aim to harness technology in whatever form possible to ensure government is transparent and also efficient.
Stottler has been digitizing the county’s extensive records depository going back to its origins in 1836.
Ultimately Stottler wants to digitize all of the data and make it available through the county’s document management system. “I think this would be beneficial for people looking up genealogical information,” she said.
In terms of the county’s modern-day operations, Stottler said all meetings, minutes and corresponding ordinances and resolutions are placed on the official website. When applicable, social media also is used to make important announcements.
Response times and requirements vary by state based on language in particular statutes. Also, internal protocol, coupled with a request’s nature, could mean it’s fulfilled in a few days — or years.
The ease in filing FOIA requests linked to Ryan could, perhaps, be traced to Wisconsin’s long history in setting policies aimed at open, transparent government. Wisconsin was the first state to have some form of FOIA law on its books, doing so not long after incorporating in 1848.
Many states had no formal FOIA laws until the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.
Today, Wisconsin has two distinct laws dealing with FOIA: one on open meetings and another on open records.
Stottler said her goal is to handle all requests in a timely manner. Wisconsin is one of 15 states that don’t prescribe a specific time limit to respond to FOIA requests, though statutes do speak to filling the requests “expeditiously.”
“Our philosophy is to deal with any requests as they come in, and then get back to work,” Stottler said. “We really view it as a very small part of our job.”
While there are many variables, Stottler said her office responds to most FOIA requests within a few days of the filing date. In more complex cases, a request might need to be forwarded to the Government Accountability Board for interpretation. Redacting confidential information could also impede the process.
“It depends upon what exactly the request is,” Stottler said. “I do discuss issues with corporate counsel when necessary, but in general, I take more of an open approach. It’s a balancing act, and I’m the legal custodian of these records.”
For Stottler, the department policies are intertwined with her view of how government should be run.
“I run this office as a place that belongs to the people,” she said. “We have nothing to hide, and we hide nothing. I really think government needs to be accessible to citizens. Our whole mission statement underlies that point.”
Photo of Janesville, Wis., in Rock County, courtesy of flickr/cliff1066™