The lack of transparency by the governor’s office continues to cause concern for advocates of openness in government.
Fox 6 News in Milwaukee is reporting that Governor Tony Evers’ administration will not release emails the television news agency requested even after the governor said he would release them.
In September, the FOX6 Investigators requested just over four weeks of emails to and from Governor Tony Evers and his chief of staff, Maggie Gau. Assistant legal counsel Erin Deeley denied the request. FOX6 narrowed the request to emails from one week; Deeley sent another denial letter.
Finally, the FOX6 Investigators asked for just Governor Evers’ emails from just one day.
“It’s part of a concerted effort, unfortunately, to come up with ways to limit public access,” Schott, Bublitz & Engel open records attorney April Barker said.
The Evers Administration would later tell Fox 6 that would not release the emails requested because the parameter given was only a period of time and not a subject.
“It turns public records requests into a guessing game,” Barker told Fox 6. She explained that requesters will not know what emails to request if they need to know what’s in the emails before they’re requested.
A reporter for Fox 6 confronted Evers about the refusal, seeking a comment. Evers claimed he did not know about the request.
After the deadline for response passed, FOX6 reporter Amanda St. Hilaire went to a press conference about healthcare to ask Governor Evers about his emails. From the Fox 6 report:
Amanda St. Hilaire: “Governor, you’ve said that you are committed to transparency, so why is your office denying our request for one day’s worth of your emails?”
Governor Evers: “When? No, I have no idea.”
St. Hilaire: “No one’s told you?
FOX6 explained the request.
Evers: “Oh, that’ll be pretty, pretty boring I’ll tell ya. If I do one email a day, that’s an extraordinary day. So, we’ll work on that.”
St. Hilaire: “So you think the public should be able to see one day’s worth of your emails?”
Evers: “Yeah. It’s pretty boring. I mean, I can’t remember sending an email all week.”
The FOX6 Investigators cannot verify Evers’ claim because minutes after the press conference, Evers’ deputy chief of staff Melissa Baldauff said the line of questioning was in “poor form,” and there were no plans to grant the request for the governor’s emails.
Fox 6 also reported that other state agencies followed the lead of the governor’s office in denying similar open records requests.
This is not the first time alarms have been raised about the lack of openness of the Evers Administration. A report by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) warned that Evers’ office was undoing some of the open records best practices of Governor Scott Walker’s administration by removing publicly available tracking of open records requests.
The report also foresaw how other state agencies followed the example of the governor’s office, as Fox 6 News experienced. An op-ed in the Wisconsin State Journal last week by WILL Executive Vice President CJ Szafir and WILL’s director and legal counsel of education policy Libby Sobic also warned about state agencies mimicking the behavior of Evers’ office when it comes to open records.
As the leader of the executive branch, Evers sets an example for his agencies. Our study shows that it takes Evers’ Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, on average, 22 business days — nearly a calendar month — to comply with a records request. Two of Evers’ agencies, the Department of Transportation and Department of Children and Family, were unable to give us any records for our study within 40 business days. Some state agencies are following Walker’s executive orders and best practices, though without leadership from the governor’s office, it’s only a matter of time until that stops.
Szafir responded in an email to RightWisconsin about the Fox 6 News report that the lack of openness shown by the Evers Administration was “troubling.”
“Government transparency should not be a partisan issue. Yet once again Governor Tony Evers has decided to make it harder for the public to learn what his office is doing,” Szafir wrote. “It’s deeply troubling that his office is taking Wisconsin backwards on open government.”
The Evers Administration told Fox 6 that their open records policy was created to save taxpayers money.
“Wisconsin taxpayers should not be asked to pay the salary of a state employee to work exclusively on an insufficiently specific request for weeks, to the detriment of all other requests, requesters, and job responsibilities,” Assistant legal council Erin Deeley wrote to Fox 6.
Ironically, the WILL report found that the Evers Administration has three full-time employees dedicated to answering open records requests.