MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration scrapped a public website created under his Republican predecessor to track compliance on public records requests, a move criticized in a report issued Monday by a conservative law firm.
Doing away with the website dashboard is one example of a step backward in open record compliance that’s occurred between Scott Walker’s administration and Evers, the report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty said. The report accused Evers of slow response times, disorganization and a lack of transparency on open records issues.
Evers disputed many of the report’s key findings, with his spokesman Melissa Baldauff saying Evers is actually responding more quickly to requests than did Walker.
While state agencies are no longer required to maintain the website showing compliance with public records, the Evers administration is evaluating how to better present “accurate information about public records to the public,” Baldauff said.
“The dashboards used by the prior administration did not provide consistent information across agencies,” she said. “Specifically, agencies used different means to calculate the same metrics. 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.”
The state’s chief advocate for open records, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders, said he hoped the Evers administration would take the report “as a prod to do better.”
“The executive branch should strive to be a model of transparency,” Lueders said.
Walker created the website in 2016 after a failed attempt by him and Republican legislative leaders to gut the open records law and keep secret almost all materials related to lawmakers’ work. Walker and lawmakers backed off quickly after a loud public outcry from both Democrats and Republicans against the move.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, known as WILL, has been a frequent critic of Evers and is suing the governor over partial vetoes he made in the most recent state budget. The group also has representation on the Freedom of Information Council and has fought for more accessible open records.
Its report released Monday accuses Evers of backtracking on a pair of executive orders issued by Walker establishing best practices for responding to open records requests.
Walker’s executive orders, which earned him an award from the Freedom of Information Council in 2018, required state agencies to track and post their compliance with record requests on a public website, imposed limits on what could be charged and called for responding within 10 business days.
Baldauff said Evers was following state law and guidance from the Department of Justice, which mirrors Walker’s executive orders in some areas. But Lueders said it was a “shame” that Evers was not “aggressively implementing” the Walker executive orders.
“While Walker was far from perfect on the issue of government openness, these orders created an official expectation of timely compliance, beyond what is proscribed by (law), so any retreat from those goals is of concern,” Lueders said.
WILL recommended that Evers re-issue the Walker executive orders and bring back the public website to track open records compliance. It also called on the Republican-controlled Legislature to step in if Evers doesn’t act.
WILL requested information from 11 state agencies to see how they were dealing with open records. The report determined that Evers’ administration’s tracking system of open records requests is disorganized and inconsistent with no tracking system in place.
Baldauff, Evers’ spokeswoman, disputed that and provided The Associated Press a spreadsheet tracking what she said was every open records request the administration has received. That showed that Evers had fulfilled 195 out of 209 open records requests received between when he took office in January and Friday.
Contrary to claims in the report, Baldauff said Evers is actually responding more quickly to open records requests than did Walker. During Evers’ first six months, the average response time to 149 public records requests was about 23 calendar days, Baldauff said. Walker’s average was 26.5 business days, based on his administration’s internal tracking sheet, she said.
The WILL report also faulted Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes for taking 22 business days on average to respond to just 13 open records requests. The law requires a response “as soon as practicable and without delay.” The attorney general’s office recommends responding within 10 business days, which Walker also ordered.
Baldauff defended the response time, saying Barnes has received “complex and expansive requests” that require a “significant amount of time to respond to.”
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