To the public and news organizations, the message was that the Public Records Board made a routine clarification that was not "substantive," but to state employees, the board made "significant changes" to which records are considered of temporary usefulness and can be destroyed.
(TNS) -- The state Public Records Board used contradictory messages to describe its decision last summer to expand what kinds of records could be destroyed immediately.
To the public and news organizations, the message was: The board made a routine clarification that was not "substantive." That was the explanation given by Matthew Blessing, the board's chairman, in downplaying why the board did not even give advance public notice by putting the matter on its Aug. 24 agenda.
But to state employees, the message was: The board made "significant changes" to which records are considered to have only temporary usefulness and can be destroyed. That was the update issued by Georgia Thompson, the board's executive secretary, to alert state records officers that the definition of so-called "transitory records" had been expanded.
Thompson's email was among hundreds of pages of documents released to the Journal Sentinel in response to a request under the state's open records law. In her email, sent Sept. 28, Thompson also urged records officers to share the update with other employees and agencies throughout state government.
The action by the Public Records Board could have limited the access of citizens and media outlets to information from texts, emails, Facebook messages and other methods that public employees might use to communicate about official actions. Amid widespread indignation that the action was another effort to hinder public accountability and transparency, the action was rescinded early this year.
Christa Westerberg, an attorney who also serves as co-vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said Thompson's email confirms the importance of the changes.
"I think that allowing records custodians or people who work in the agency to destroy records without further review by the agency or the Public Records Board is certainly not routine," Westerberg said. "And the fact that she flagged it as a significant issue confirms that interpretation."
But Blessing again said Monday that the changes were not out of the ordinary.
"The Public Records Board routinely reviews revisions and clarifications of record schedules," he said in an email. "The effort to eliminate non-technical language and provide actual examples was routine."
Westerberg said that interpretation was alarming.
"If this is something that the board considers routine, then I think further scrutiny of the board is warranted," she said. "And the response that the public gave to the board's action was appropriate."
The newly released documents show the changes to the definition of transitory records were considered for months.
An email sent by Thompson to records officers in May noted that there had been talk of revising retention policies — how long records are kept — to include transitory records beyond just "correspondence and related records."
Follow-up emails showed staffers mulling the definition of transitory records, with one employee — Dawn Bluma of the state Department of Workforce Development — raising concerns that the language wasn't clear enough.
"The description still sounds a bit vague to me, and the examples too much like 'email' if this is designed to cover 'other' short-term records," Bluma wrote in a June 10 email.
The state Public Records Board voted unanimously on Jan. 11 to revoke its August decision. The reversal came after nearly 1,900 emails and letters criticizing its action were sent to the board and posted to a state website. The change drew criticism from conservative and liberal groups alike, including the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, and One Wisconsin Now.
Before the board's August vote, transitory records were described as "correspondence and other related records of short-term interest which have no documentary or evidentiary value." The new definition expanded that description to include "emails to schedule or confirm meetings or events, committee agendas and minutes received by members on a distribution list, interim files, tracking and control files, recordings used for training purposes and ad hoc reports for individual use."
The recent battle over open records in Wisconsin is just the latest fight to erupt around the country over public access to government officials' texts and other electronic messages.
It's also the latest in a string of actions taken in Wisconsin over the past year that could be used to limit access to open records.
In July, just before Independence Day weekend, Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee unexpectedly amended the state budget to put sweeping limits on open records. Under withering criticism from both Democrats and other Republicans, GOP leaders quickly retreated, saying they would instead appoint a study committee to consider how to treat the matter.
Further, the governor's office has withheld some records that include internal deliberations, saying that releasing them could inhibit the free exchange of ideas within his administration. State law doesn't specifically recognize that as a reason for withholding records.
And the Journal Sentinel reported in February that the state Department of Natural Resources previously kept a "do not respond" list for a group of 16 citizens and activists with complaints about how the agency managed wildlife and administered clean water and other rules. The agency has dropped the list, which dealt with ordinary requests for information, not open records requests.
Attorney General Brad Schimel has called for stronger guidance to public employees about what records they need to retain. And he said he would like to see the open records law updated to account for changes in technology, noting government business is now sometimes conducted by text messages and instant messages.
State officials say they're now working to expand access to records.
In March, Walker issued an executive order requiring state agencies to promptly handle public records requests, better track them and give clearer guidelines on how much they should cost and how long they should take to fulfill. The executive order requires all agencies to put in place a common set of standards that citizens, journalists and others can use to measure the state's work in responding to open records requests.
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