Government Transparency Gets a Win in Wisconsin

Any record — a text, email, letter or note — about a failed loan costing the public money will now be available to the public.

by The Wisconsin State Journal / January 15, 2016
Wisconsin State House in Madison (David Kidd)

(TNS) -- State officials just lost their lame excuse for deleting or otherwise hiding text messages about a bad state loan.

The state Public Records Board, which sets policy for how long state agencies must keep public records before discarding or archiving them, unanimously voted Monday to rescind its action from last summer expanding the kinds of records that can be quickly destroyed if deemed “transitory.”

The public helped convince the board to reverse course by inundating it with nearly 1,900 emails and letters, the vast majority insisting on openness.

It’s an important and reassuring victory for transparency in Wisconsin government.

Yet citizens must remain on guard, given the Legislature’s sneaky attempt last summer — on the eve of the July Fourth weekend — to slip sweeping secrecy provisions into the state budget. The public helped stop that shameful bid, too, to undermine Wisconsin’s open records law.

A State Journal request for Department of Administration text messages was at the center of the latest unfortunate showdown over public access to government communications.

State Journal reporter Matthew DeFour asked for text messages related to a large state loan that has cost taxpayers $500,000. The company that got the loan was in financial trouble, and its owner was a campaign contributor to Gov. Scott Walker. He needed to pay off leases on luxury cars and failed to disclose being sued.

The DOA denied the State Journal’s request for the text messages the day after the Public Records Board expanded its definition of “transitory” records, which can be discarded if deemed to lack lasting significance.

The State Journal still wants to know if those text messages were deleted or what happened to them and when. And if they’re still available, the DOA should quickly turn them over as the law requires.

Any record — a text, email, letter or note — about a failed loan costing the public money should be available to public view. That’s how citizens can learn what happened and pressure state officials not to make the same mistakes again.

The Public Records Board was right to reverse course. Now the Walker administration should act on the State Journal request — which other publications have joined. The public has a right to see any details of what went wrong.

The administration can no longer hide behind its flimsy excuse for secrecy.

©2016 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.