Gov. Tony Evers has once again found himself under fire over his commitment to transparency after his office denied a news outlet’s request for a day’s worth of his emails.
Open records advocates are blasting the administration for repeatedly denying a Fox 6 reporter’s requests for records.
“The governor is the top of the food chain and he should be setting an example for all state government,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “It is concerning when his office does something that falls short of the maximum commitment to transparency.”
Advocates of transparency in government say open records requests keep public officials accountable and help ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely and legally.
The episode is the latest instance of Evers being criticized for open records practices. In September, a conservative legal group released a report slamming the administration’s handling of open records as “disorganized and dysfunctional.”
According to the Fox 6 report, the Milwaukee news outlet initially requested just over four weeks of emails to and from Evers as well as his chief of staff, Maggie Gau. The outlet had requested emails sent and received over the specific time frame, without specifying a subject or keywords to further narrow the scope of applicable emails.
The administration denied the request, arguing it was overly broad. Even after the reporter narrowed the request to ask for just one day of emails the governor had sent and received, the administration denied the request on the same grounds.
“While you have provided a time frame, you have not provided a subject matter, only a medium/format,” wrote Erin Deeley, assistant legal counsel for Evers.
In correspondence with the Fox 6 reporter, Deeley defended the administration’s decision to deny the requests, arguing their lack of specificity would bog down the office’s response.
“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, and job responsibilities,” Deeley wrote.
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When asked by a Fox 6 reporter about the matter, however, Evers offered a different take, saying he sends few emails and that the public should be allowed to see them.
“That’ll be pretty, pretty boring I’ll tell ya,” Evers said. “If I do one email a day, that’s an extraordinary day. So, we’ll work on that.”
Deeley also cited the Department of Justice’s interpretation of public records law, which states “[a] request must be reasonably specific as to the subject matter and length of time involved.”
But open records advocates see the law differently. They say it allows for records requests to be granted if they reasonably specify either the subject or the length of time, not necessarily both.
Wisconsin law says “a request for a record without a reasonable limitation as to subject matter or length of time represented by the record does not constitute a sufficient request.”
In the case of the Fox 6 reporter, open records advocates argue that asking for one day’s worth of records is reasonably limited.
“If we’re talking a week, a day, a few hours within the day, I think that’s something that a judge is more likely to view as reasonable,” said CJ Szafir, executive vice president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. “State law presumes that records are accessible to the public, so there’s a clear presumption on the side of transparency.”
Szafir said being able to request emails using only a length of time, and not a subject, is important because it’s not always clear to the requester what keywords or subject terms he or she should use to get at the information they want. Requiring a specific subject, he argued, could make it easier for government officials to hide documents.
April Rockstead Barker, a Waukesha-based attorney who specializes in open records law, said Wisconsin courts — at least in a case the DOJ cited — did not directly interpret state law as requiring a requester of public records to specify both length of time and subject matter in every instance.
The Evers administration has stood its ground in its denial of records, citing similar cases where former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration denied records requests because they were too broad.