March 25, 2019
Perspective By Bill Osmulski
Held in early March, Sunshine Week celebrates openness in government. As journalists, we grew complacent during the administration of Gov. Scott Walker that whenever we asked for a public record, we could count on public officials handing it over in a timely and fair manner.
Times have changed.
Walker took action via an executive order to ensure a high level of compliance with the state’s open records law by directing state agencies to not only provide electronic documents free of charge, but also within a two-week timeframe whenever possible, among other changes.
The MacIver Institute informed the new Evers administration of this policy when making its first open records request this year. Unfortunately, it would appear Gov. Evers does not share Walker’s interest in government transparency.
On Jan. 25, I filed my first open records requests with the Evers administration. It took six weeks to get a response for my two inquiries.
First, there were five members of the transition team that grabbed my interest. I wanted to see their emails with other members of the team. One of those members was Scott McDonell, the Dane County Clerk. I filed a separate open records request with him directly. He said he didn’t have any of his emails.
“The transition created everything in Google. Gave me my own Google transition email account (along with everyone else) and then we sent everything to them…You should ask them – they have everyone’s over there,” he said. “All emails and documents were set up, controlled, and saved by the transition team and they are the custodian.”
When the Evers administration finally fulfilled my request, it only contained an agenda and a couple of worksheets for the “What’s Best For Kids Advisory Council,” a memo of policy recommendations from Candice Owley, president the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, as well asa single email chain from Ron “Duff” Martin, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, trying to figure out the PIN to a conference call.
Two months of work setting up an entire gubernatorial administration, and that is all the transition team sent around over email? That doesn’t seem very likely.
Open records requests to individual agencies in the Evers administration generated similar results.
Over at the Department of Transportation, a call for proposals returned a single bid for the next leg of the I-39/90 expansion project that was $20 million higher than the estimates. We know about this because Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) asked secretary-designee Craig Thompson about it at his confirmation hearing.
Thompson spoke about the issue competently and confidently, and he even admitted to meeting with Marklein and DOT engineers about it. However, an open records request for his communications about the matter yielded nothing – not a single letter, note, memo, email, text message, voice mail, or file. Maybe the DOT operates under a strictly verbal basis these days.
My colleague at MacIver News Service, Matt Kittle, has experienced similar challenges with the Evers administration. The governor’s communications team has on multiple occasions failed to respond to requests for comment. On Feb. 28, Kittle and I were not allowed entry into the governor’s press briefing on his $83.5 billion biennial budget, before he officially unveiled the document that evening. MacIver News Service, which has long been a credentialed member of the Capitol press corps in good standing, was barred from that briefing despite two separate requests to the governor’s office asking to attend. The communications team did not respond to those requests, sent the day before and the day of the briefing. And in the first days of the administration, we personally asked to be on their email list. As of today, the governor’s communications staff has refused to answer why it blocked us.
This story is not unique to the MacIver News Service. Other journalists have also reported a disconcerting level of secrecy and pettiness that the Evers administration has demonstrated in its response to open records requests. The most notable example was the administration’s refusal to release Walker’s letter welcoming Evers to the job.
Perhaps Walker’s letter should have told Evers about how compliance with open records requests is not a matter of individual preference – it is the law.
Bill Osmulski is news director for the MacIver News Service, a division of the MacIver Institute, a Madison-based free market think tank.