One of the items inserted into the state budget bill by the Joint Finance Committee last Friday was a change to the state’s open records law exempting the University of Wisconsin System from having to disclose the finalists for certain key positions.
According to the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the change in the law would prevent the public from knowing what applicants were passed up for important university positions, including coaches and top administrators.
We fail to see the need for the change. The existing law about disclosure of the names of finalists is the result of a compromise crafted after a group of newspapers filed a lawsuit after being denied information about applicants for jobs at the University of Wisconsin.
Since then the rules requiring disclosure of the finalists for key positions has applied to all state agencies and to public employers generally. It is puzzling that the Joint Finance Committee would craft an exemption that only applies to the university system.
With the change, the finalists for key positions at institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, including some vice chancellor positions, would not have to be disclosed. The language inserted by the finance committee restricts the disclosure of finalists for key positions to, “the UW System president; UW System vice presidents and senior vice president; the chancellor of each UW institution; and the vice chancellor who serves as deputy at each UW Institution.” It wouldn’t apply to vice chancellors who do not serve as deputies or to lower administrators.
Once again, this is an example of a non-budgetary policy change being inserted into the budget for convenience. At this point, it’s not even clear who requested the change. The change was included in an omnibus motion that included 70 items. It passed 12-4 with all the Republicans in favor and all the Democrats against.
This change in public records law doesn’t belong in the budget bill. At the very least, a policy change like this ought to be discussed on its own, not as part of must-pass legislation.
It would not be likely to pass on its own. Keeping information from the public — and from legislators — about applicants for key public positions doesn’t serve the public well. The existing law does.