- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Wisconsin State Journal, July 6

FOIA reforms guard against corruption

Our leaders in Washington have finally updated and improved the Freedom of Information Act, which provides public access to government records.

Congratulations to President Barack Obama and Congress for getting this done.

The timing allows the Democratic president to improve his poor record on transparency issues as he prepares to leave office. Conveniently, his administration won’t have to comply with the stronger provisions of the law for long, given his presidency ends in six months.

But his successor will. And because the next president is likely to be either the secretive Hillary Clinton or the brash Donald Trump, the stricter requirements favoring disclosure at federal agencies may be needed more than ever.

Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act on Thursday ahead of the law’s 50th anniversary July 4. The law requires federal agencies to presume documents are open to the public, which should give ordinary citizens, the press, researchers, interest groups and others seeking records more leverage in court if information is needlessly blocked. Federal officials must cite a “foreseeable harm” to keep documents hidden.

The law also seeks to simplify and speed responses to open records requests by requiring a single online portal for FOIA requests to any agency. Agencies now have different policies and places for obtaining documents. They also charge differing and excessive fees.

Shortly after Obama’s election in 2008, he tried to defund the Office of Government Information Services, which serves as a nonpartisan ombudsman for information requests. The FOIA Improvement Act thankfully goes in the opposite direction by making the ombudsman stronger and more independence.

That doesn’t mean it will get more resources, unfortunately. The OGIS is a small office tasked with the huge responsibility of overseeing compliance with transparency rules while striving to resolve disputes over records requests. Nonetheless, the OGIS will have more ability to track and hold agencies accountable for their performance. It also will have an easier time recommending changes to FOIA policy.

Another improvement is the release of certain “privileged” documents after 25 years, including letters and drafts. The exemption has been badly abused.

Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, with Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, and Darrell Issa, R-California, deserve credit for leading the bipartisan effort to pass this important legislation.

“The bill effectively cripples the ability of federal bureaucrats and power-hungry government officials to keep information from the American people,” Issa said.

We hope he’s right. Two-thirds of federal agencies take more than four months to release public information, according to a Syracuse University study. And some innocuous requests are inexplicably delayed for years.

The FOIA Improvement Act will shine more light on federal agencies to ensure they are truly serving the public.


Green Bay Press-Gazette, July 2

Address issues to protect our water

The state Department of Natural Resources’ enforcement of its water pollution laws has faced renewed scrutiny since an audit was released in early June.

The Legislative Audit Bureau examined the agency’s wastewater permitting and enforcement practices and found issues with staffing, procedures and backlogs.

The audit found the DNR didn’t follow its own policies when it came to overseeing about 1,250 municipal and industrial wastewater facilities and large livestock operations, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations.

Among the findings:

- From 2005-2015, the DNR met its permit backlog goal four of the 11 years for municipal permits and nine of the 11 years for CAFOs. However, in that time, it never met the goal for industrial permits.

- Turnover, especially among those responsible for CAFO permitting and oversight, has increased from 6 percent in 2005 to 20 percent in 2014. This not only affects the number of people available to monitor compliance, but it requires additional training of new hires.

- Of about 1,900 reports required from CAFOs, 36 had been electronically recorded as received. This might not seem like a big deal, but as the audit points out, “without this information, program managers have no way to reliably assess the extent to which timely submission of required annual reports is a concern.”

- Of 260 CAFO permits that expired and were reissued from 2006-14, the DNR inspected only 17 to determine that they were in “substantial compliance” before reissuing a permit.

- The DNR issued municipal and industrial permit holders a notice of violation for only 33 of 558 instance for which a notice should have been issued. Of those 33, 17 didn’t address all of the violations.

The findings surprised the Natural Resources Board, according to state Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez, who is co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which requested the audit.

The topic was brought up at the June meeting of the Natural Resources Board, where much of the discussion focused on staffing. In the 2010-11 fiscal year, 15 of the 70 staff members overseeing municipal and industrial permits left their positions, according to the audit, and four of the 16 staff members overseeing CAFO permits.

DNR staffing overall has been declining since the 1990s. It’s a bipartisan issue as cuts have happened under both Democratic and Republican governors.

The audit also comes at a time when environmentalists and critics of Gov. Scott Walker say enforcement efforts have declined since 2011.

Cowles has a suggestion that we believe the Legislature should act on: Allow the DNR to keep more of the fees it collects from CAFOs, municipal wastewater and industrial operations. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that the agency keeps less than $90,000 of the $5 million to $7 million it collects each year from these operations. The rest goes to the general fund.

That’s a start. But the next Legislature needs to seriously look at adequately funding the DNR so it can hire staff to enforce its water pollution laws.

On Nov. 1, the DNR reports back to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee about what’s being done to address the issues.

Meanwhile, DNR funding likely won’t be dealt with until the next budget next year.

That means the legislators we elect in November will have a say in this matter. Talk to the candidates. Ask them how they plan on protecting our precious water resource. We need to protect our surface and ground water for us and for future generations.


The Journal Times of Racine, July 3

An unsettling settlement

The full facts of the civil rights lawsuit against four Racine police officers and the City of Racine may never be known, now that the City Council has agreed to a $100,000 settlement of the case.

For city taxpayers, that’s either an unsettling settlement or a matter of cutting their potential losses.

The case was filed by city resident Miguel Veguilla, who claimed he was unfairly treated and had his civil rights violated by the four officers during an incident on July 3, 2014 when they came to his home to investigate a car crash involving Veguilla’s girlfriend, an accident that Veguilla was unaware of, according to the suit.

The lawsuit charged that Veguilla was allegedly handcuffed and beaten outside of his home while in his underwear. His attorney, Michael Sperling, said Veguilla suffered a torn rotator cuff in the incident and had to have surgery.

Veguilla was arrested and held on suspicion of resisting arrest in the incident - but that charge was dropped.

Racine police said the incident was reviewed internally and by independent use of force experts and the officers’ actions were determined to have been legal, but Chief Art Howell said last week that while force was used to effect the arrest, Veguilla’s injuries were not the “optimal or desired outcome.”

All four officers remain with the department.

City Council members went out of their way to voice support for Racine police officers during debate on the issue.

“I think it’s important for our police officers to understand that we, the City Council, have their back,” said Sixth District Alderman Sandy Weidner.

Then the council voted 12-2 to go for the $100,000 payment to settle. For the four officers that, unfortunately, still leaves a whiff of doubt in the air over their actions.

Yes, we understand that fighting lawsuits can run up the city’s legal bill. And, as 8th District Alderman Q.A. Shakoor put it: “True enough, it’s $100,000, but it could go up to 300 (thousand dollars), (a) half million (dollars), who knows? It all depends on what a jury would decide. I don’t think we need to take that chance. I think this is being responsible.”

Perhaps it is.

But, as we said, despite their praise for police, the council and the city did not stand with them here.

What’s perhaps more distressing is that settling a lawsuit - assuming the city is in the right - is often an invitation for more litigation.

Last week, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel chronicled the account of a Green Bay man who had threatened lawsuits against more than 40 companies, and extracted payments of more than $230,000 in legal settlements from some of those companies, after he accused them of violating an obscure provision of the Fair Credit Reporting Act by doing credit checks on him, after he applied for employment, without giving him proper notice.

Lawsuits, and threats of lawsuits, can be cottage industries or chances for opportunists to make some quick money.

It’s distressing as well that in this case the settlement, $100,000, comes before the city’s insurance kicks in, so the entire cost will be borne by taxpayers.

The city may have avoided a bigger payout, but it did so at a cost of not really backing its police officers, leaving a question mark over police practices, and encouraging other lawsuits down the line - in addition to paying out $100,000.

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