A new report is warning that state government under Gov. Tony Evers is becoming less transparent when it comes to handling open records requests.
The report by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty says that Evers’ administration “threatens to turn Wisconsin’s proud legacy of transparency in state government into a bureaucratic black box.”
“Unlike his predecessor Governor Scott Walker, Governor Tony Evers is clearly not prioritizing government transparency,” said CJ Szafir, the executive vice president of WILL in a statement Monday. “This is dangerous because open government is not just an ideal but a critical tool for the public in a democracy to hold their elected officials and public employees accountable.”
Libby Sobic, who wrote the report with Szafir, explained what WILL found in their research into how the Evers Administration handled open records requests.
“The first thing we found is that we wanted to see if the executive orders that Governor Walker had put in place in 2016 and 2017, and had really strong best practices for open records requests, we wanted to see if that was still in place,” Sobic said in an interview prior to the report’s release.
The executive orders by Governor Scott Walker required the administration to post online a “public dashboard” showing the amount of open records requests the administration received and the timeliness of the requests being handled. The order also required state agencies to track all open records requests and to handle basic requests within ten days.
“So we started looking for that public dashboard that was created in 2017 that used to show the agencies’ metrics on open records and it was gone,” Sobic said.
This forced WILL to send an open records request to the governor’s office to see how well it was tracking open records requests. The results were disappointing.
“Their open records system is a mess,” said Sobic. “I can’t even tell you the total number of open records requests they’ve received in the past seven months because I couldn’t understand the spreadsheet they had shared with us.”
Sobic said the open records mess was a cause of concern. “The governor’s office should be the place that really starts showing good transparency best practices,” Sobic said.
According to the records provided to WILL, 108 of 320 open records requests were missing data and were still showing open.
“This is a shocking number considering that the Governor’s office identified three full time staff whose duties include responding to open records requests,” the report said.
From there, WILL began a look at the state agencies and how they’re handling open records requests.
“We found that some of the best practices are still in place,” Sobic said. “We’re still seeing strong tracking systems and good average overall response times.”
However, while the agencies were doing better than the administration itself, some problems have begun to show.
“For example, we also contacted the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Transportation,” Sobic said. “Neither of which ever responded to my open records request. It’s been over 40 business days.”
The report noted the governor’s office is actually worse than the worst of the state agencies at handling open records requests.
“The most egregious of the agencies is the Department of Health Services (DHS), with 487 total requests and 112 with incomplete or missing data (23% of the total requests). DHS is a department of sixteen different offices, all of which must respond to open records requests,” the report said. “And compared to the much smaller Governor Evers’ office, DHS has fewer incomplete or missing records than the Governor’s office.”
Sobic said the open records problems are really disappointing since all the Evers’ Administration had to do was continue to follow the best practices of the Walker Administration.
“Before he was governor, then Superintendent Tony Evers had to do these same practices when he was the superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction,” Sobic said. “So he should be aware of what these best practices are and we’re really surprised that he has put no emphasis on transparency in the last seven months of his administration.”
The failure by the Evers Administration to be open about how it handles open records requests follows another troubling sign of the administration’s lack of openness, the shutting out of the MacIver Institute News Service from standard media notifications. The MacIver Institute filed a lawsuit in federal court in August in an effort to be treated like other media organizations reporting on state government.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Evers’ spokesman Melissa Baldauff denied the administration had a transparency problem, pointing out that they were doing slightly better than the Walker Administration with the speediness of their responses to open records request. Baldauff claimed the Evers administration handles requests on average 23 business days while the Walker Administration handled requests on average 26.5 business days.
And Baldauff defended doing away with the dashboards that allowed the public to track how well the administration was handling open records requests.
“The dashboards used by the prior administration did not provide consistent information across agencies,” she said. “Specifically, agencies used different means to calculate the same metrics. Further, the dashboards required significant staff time and resources to implement and maintain. Staff time and limited resources are better spent on responding to actual records requests.”
Still, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders told the Associated Press that he was disappointed by the report which he said should prod the Evers Administration to do better.
“While Walker was far from perfect on the issue of government openness, these orders created an official expectation of timely compliance, beyond what is prescribed by (law), so any retreat from those goals is of concern,” Lueders said.