A conservative legal group on Monday said a test of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers administration’s compliance with open records law found its process for handling requests is “disorganized and dysfunctional” and a step backward from the previous Republican administration.
The report from the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty alleges Evers, who campaigned on prioritizing government transparency, has fallen short in maintaining a commitment to transparency and has failed to follow standards used by his predecessor.
The Evers administration, however, dismissed the report as riddled with inaccuracies and insists it is following the state records law.
The report claims the handling of open records requests by Evers’ office is “disorganized and dysfunctional” and that the Evers administration took down a website former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration created to provide information about its transparency practices.
“Unlike his predecessor Governor Scott Walker, Governor Tony Evers is clearly not prioritizing government transparency,” WILL executive vice-president CJ Szafir said in a statement. “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.”
The WILL report claims one in three open records requests submitted to Evers’ office are either unfulfilled or not recorded properly, but the Evers administration provided an updated open records tracking sheet disputing the claim.
The report also found the office of Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has lagged in responding to requests and that two state agencies, the Department of Transportation and Department of Children and Families, did not respond in a timely fashion.
‘A rough start’
To complete the study, WILL filed records requests with 11 state agencies and offices for documents that track the fulfillment of open records requests.
The WILL report isn’t the first time the Evers administration has faced criticism over transparency. Earlier this summer, the conservative MacIver News Service sued Evers, claiming his administration regularly excludes its writers from access afforded to other media outlets.
Shortly after taking office, the administration initially refused to provide the Associated Press with a copy of the note Walker left for Evers.
Monday’s WILL report claims the Evers administration has struggled to maintain transparency goals Walker set in two executive orders in 2016 and 2017 that directed state agencies to respond to records requests in 10 business days, keep and maintain an organized records tracking system and develop a website, or dashboard, for the public to monitor how the administration handles records requests.
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council president Bill Lueders said the Evers administration “got off to a rough start” with its open records practices but that he hasn’t noticed a significant difference between the Walker and Evers administrations when it comes to providing records.
Still, he said the WILL report hits on a critical issue.
“Tony Evers needs to establish his laurels before he can rest on them,” Lueders said. “He’s going to have to set the tone, and it’s particularly important that a governor do that when we have a Legislature that is so dismissive and so hostile to open government.”
A budget amendment introduced in the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2015 would have kept private most records and communication produced by state and local lawmakers, including memos, emails and drafting files of legislation.
Lawmakers quickly abandoned the proposal in the wake of withering criticism from the public, open government advocates and liberal and conservative interest groups. Critics said the proposal would have prevented the public from learning how its government makes decisions.
Records later obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal show that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos sought the changes but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Walker’s office also were involved.
In a response to WILL’s report, Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff disputed the group’s claim the governor’s office does not properly record the records requests it receives but acknowledged the website Walker used to display information about records requests has been taken down.
“The dashboards used by the prior administration did not provide consistent information across agencies,” Baldauff said. “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.”
As for WILL’s finding that Barnes’ office took 22 days, on average, to respond to records requests, Baldauff said Barnes has received “complex and expansive requests.”
Baldauff rejected WILL’s claim that Evers’ office is “disorganized and inconsistent” when it comes to tracking records requests. She said the claim is erroneous because it is based on a tracking spreadsheet the administration was in the middle of updating when it provided it to WILL.
“Instead of making the requesters wait until updates to the spreadsheet were complete, we provided the document in an ‘as-is’ state in the interest of transparency,” Baldauff said.
WILL says it contacted Evers’ office for more information about the tracking spreadsheet but received no response.
An updated document provided to media outlets shows that as of Sept. 6, the administration completed 195 of 209 records requests. During the first six months of the administration, it took an average of 23 days to respond to 149 public records requests.
Baldauff said the administration follows the Wisconsin public records law as well as guidance provided by the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Public Records Law Compliance Guide, which says 10 working days is a reasonable amount of time to respond to a simple request, while a longer amount of time may be necessary for more complex requests.