Audit finds nearly 10% of open records requests denied or ignored

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19 November 2008

A statewide audit by open records advocates found that nearly 10% of requests made under the Wisconsin Open Records Law were either denied or ignored. In addition, another 18% of requests were fulfilled but officials required the requesting party to take additional steps in violation of the law, such as identifying themselves or why they wanted the records.[1]

The types of records sought varied by jurisdiction. The five types of public records that were requested were:

  • "School board: Copies of meeting agendas and minutes and showing each occasion when the school board went into closed session in April, May and June
  • County sheriff's office: A jail booking log or documents that show the names and tentative charges facing individuals booked into the county jail within the past 48 hours
  • City police: Requested documents such as a list of police calls that show when and why police were called to a high school between Jan. 1 and June 1.
  • Town: Requested documents showing total legal fees paid by the town for the last complete fiscal year
  • City mayor: An electronic record of e-mails sent by the mayor on Sept. 2 and asks for them to be provided electronically."[2]

Audit Findings

The audit, conducted by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the University of Wisconsin Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, looked at 317 records requests made in September and October throughout 65 counties. The requests, made by journalists and other open records advocates, included jail booking logs, police calls to high schools, town board legal fees, and a day's worth of emails from mayors and city administrators.

Of the 317 requests, 228 (72%) were fulfilled without any problem, 30 were denied or ignored, and 59 fulfilled with problems. Council president Bill Lueders said, "They should have done better. We were asking for basic information that there shouldn't have been a lot of questions about."[1]

A desire to intimidate requestors was suggested by the Sheboygan Daily Press as a reason why so many requests were unsatisfactorily met.[3]

Adams County

In Adams County, the Sheriff's Office erred when a staffer informed the requestor that jail booking records are not public records. Sheriff Darrell Renner indicated concern when he heard that his office had failed the audit, saying "Since taking office, one of my priorities is to be as transparent as possible with all the operations in our department," and believed that the error arose from someone not in administration attempting to handle the call.[4]

City of Baraboo

There was much confusion over the public records request in Baraboo. First a receptionist in the Mayor's office wanted to know who was making the request and why they were making it. Both of those questions are prohibited by state law. Then there was confusion as to which Mayor's e-mails were being requested, as the request was made during a transition period after the resignation of Mayor Russell Will. Eventually the requested e-mails were provided, according to City Attorney Mark Reitz. "Why that didn't make it into their report, I don't know the answer to that. But I do know (the city administrator) sent down his e-mails for them to look at."[5]

Baraboo School District

The Baraboo School District performed well on the audit, quickly turning over meeting minutes and agenda. However, Kevin Vodak, Baraboo School Board president, has concerns about the rising amount of public records requests that the district is receiving, and is planning to revise the district's policy concerning access to public records. "I've seen the stack of open records (district business manager) Mr. Long has been presented with in the last year. We haven't seen that many in the last 25 years," Vodak said.[5]

Brown County

In Brown County "record keepers asked reporters to identify themselves and explain why they wanted the documents or to put their request in writing — violations of state law."[6]

Calumet County

The Sheriff's Department in Calumet County would not turn over the public records until the requestor supplied their press pass to be photocopied, a direct violation of state law.[5][7]

Dodge County

Jail booking records were partially denied to requestors in Dodge County, with the explanation: "you will find those records excluding any bookings that we had with immigration authorities as after checking with the Immigration Authority, they will not allow release of those records."[8]

Forest County

The Forest County Sheriff's Department charged $8 for six pages of requested materials, well over the 15 cents per page recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.[2]

Kenosha County

The Kenosha County Police Department charged a requester $5 for a first page and $1 each for subsequent pages, well over the 15 cents per page recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.[1]

Langlade County

The Langlade County Sheriff's Department charged $5 for a single page of requested materials, well over the 15 cents per page recommended by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.[2]

Lincoln County

In Lincoln County the Sheriff's Office did poorly on the audit due to asking the requestor to identify himself prior to filling the request, a violation of state law. The office did provide the records in a timely manner.[9]

Madison Metropolitan School District

The only local government in Dane County that responded poorly to the audit was the Madison Metropolitan School District. The district turned over requested meeting minutes from open meetings, but referred the requestor to the School District's attorney rather than providing minutes from closed session. The district did eventually turn over all the requested documents.[10][11]

Marathon County

The Sheriff's Department in Marathon County fared poorly on the audit because the requestor was asked both his identity and to provide his driver's license. Wisconsin law does not require that the identity of requestor's be made known. Sheriff Randy Hoenisch jumped to the department's defense, saying "If they're using one request to rate a department, it doesn't seem very accurate. They should be checking with the hundreds of requests we get. We handle open requests on a daily basis."[9]

Merrill Area Public School District

The Merrill Area School District was cited for minor infractions in their response to the request, but did provide the records.[9]

Milwaukee County

Milwaukee County provided requested records promptly and without incident.[1]

Ozaukee County

The request for jail booking records caught the Ozaukee County Police Department by surprise, and they indicated that no one had ever asked to see the booking records before. The office offered to look up information under what criteria they had available, but were not able to provide the specific records requested.[1]

Racine County

Racine County provided requested records promptly and without incident.[1]

Racine School District

The Racine Unified School District charged $25 for meeting minutes and agendas provided on a computer disc. Only charges for actual material costs are permitted under Wisconsin law.[12]

Sauk County

The Sheriff's Office in Sauk County simply failed to respond to the open records request at all. Only four other sheriff departments across the state denied or ignored the request. Sauk County Sheriff's Department Capt. Kevin Fults said that the matter is being looking into.[5]

Washington County

In Washington County, the Sheriff's Office insisted upon getting the name of the requestor before providing the jail booking log records. Wisconsin statute does not allow for government agencies to ask for the name(s) of requestors. There were also problems in the county with gaining access to school and town records.[1]

Waupaca County

Waupaca County scored poorly on the audit. "Of 20 records requests made in Calumet, Outagamie, Waupaca and Winnebago counties, 10 were denied or encountered resistance. Statewide, three in 10 requests were denied or not properly fulfilled."[13]

The Waupaca County police department also failed the audit by denying access to a list of police calls to the local high school "because it would include information about juveniles."[7]

Attorney General responds

State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen responded to the audit, saying he has "great concerns" that requests were ignored or incorrectly denied. However, he is not concerned that the audit also showed some officials were asking up to $5 for a photocopy. While the Wisconsin Department of Justice has said that "anything above 25 cents may be suspect," Van Hollen said that it is "not a mandate." William Cosh, spokesperson for the Department of Justice says "Mr. Van Hollen feels very strongly about open records compliance."[14]

Lueders sees it differently. Under the records law, officials can only charge for the "actual, necessary and direct" costs of copies. "If you're charging $5 . . . you're clearly not complying with the letter of the law, and the attorney general should be willing to say so," Lueders said. "In an age where a Kinko's will make copies for 10 cents a page, no Wisconsin official should be charging $5 or $1 or 50 cents."[1] Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign commented that "(Wisconsin has) a reputation of having some of the strongest open records laws … in the country. But those laws aren’t worth much if they’re not being followed by public officials."[15]

Jail Booking requests

Requests to review jail booking records saw denials from five counties and 16 other counties that made the requesting party take additional steps, violating the law. Jason Shepard, a Ph.D. candidate in UW's journalism program, coordinated the audit. He said an audit from 1999 was met with many similar problems. "We don't have secret arrests in this country, and the fact that citizens have difficulty accessing these logs throughout Wisconsin is a major concern," stated Shepard.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Nearly 10% of public records requests wrongly denied, statewide audit finds, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 19, 2008
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Editorial: We can do better on public records, Green Bay Press Gazette, November 23, 2008
  3. Editorial: Remove intimidation from requests for public records, Sheboygan Daily Press, November 28, 2008
  4. Adams County Sheriff's Department fails Freedom of Information Council open records audit, Wisconsin Rapids Tribune, November 20, 2008
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Records requests met with mixed results (dead link), Baraboo News Republic, November 20, 2008
  6. Brown County average in open records compliance, Green Bay Press Gazette, November 20, 2008
  7. 7.0 7.1 3 in 10 public-records requests in Wisconsin not properly fulfilled (timed out), Isthmus, November 19, 2008
  8. Editorial: Lockup, closed doors can't shut out sunshine, The Northwestern, November 20, 2008
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Records request audit finds few concerns, Wausau Daily Herald, November 21, 2008
  10. Compliance by local governments good on open records law, report says , Wisconsin State Journal, November 18, 2008
  11. Stop flouting open records law in Wisconsin, Wisconsin State Journal, November 20, 2008
  12. Some record requests not properly filled in Wis. (dead link), Chicago Tribune, November 19, 2008
  13. Fox Valley agencies score low in public records audit (dead link), Post Crescent, November 20, 2008
  14. Officials fail to comply in record requests, Badger Herald, November 20, 2008
  15. Many public records requests do not receive adequate response, The Daily Cardinal, November 20, 2008