Open Records On The Tee

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“This cause is a bipartisan cause…it’s not something that liberals like and conservatives don’t.” It’s in everyone’s interest that government operates in the maximum amount of openness, Bill Lueders told Greg Neumann on today’s Capitol City Sunday.

He was talking about the question of transparency in government and the possibility of updating Wisconsin’s open records law, which was last updated in 1982.

“Technology is changing so rapidly, that I don’t know that it can really address all the issues we have regarding these text messages,” Neumann asked.

Technology like the use of personal emails for government business and the transitory nature of text messaging between government officials are among the concerns that the law is unclear on. Some relevant questions:

  • Why conduct government business over personal email? It’s not difficult to keep the two separate. Most phones allow you to choose which email account you’re using.
  • Why conduct government business via text? Sure, it’s convenient. But these days, email is almost as fast. There are also plenty of cloud storage options so text messages can be stored in bulk for future reference.

The state’s open records law needs an Internet-era update.

“I do think there is a need for some updating. It would be good if there were some clearer rules regarding how long we need to retain certain kinds of records, and whether the systems you have in place for archiving records so that they can be obtained later,” Lueders said. He’s the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

Lueders says politicians on both sides of the aisle have a problematic interest in keeping certain communications in the dark.

On the flip side, the media also has a responsibility to not take advantage to pounce on juicy stories in the interest of advancing a narrative. A recent FOIC story by Dee Hall did not adequately question the motives of former Walker administration officials in accusing former DOA secretary Mike Huebsch of instructing them to cover up their communications while he was part of the administration.

In an email exchange published by Right Wisconsin, Huebsch debunked the former officials’ accusations point-by-point. But he rightly did not question the motives of the former officials – which would’ve exacerbated the story into a destructive he-said-he-said among former Walker administration officials.

“While you may use a portion of my response to confirm your pre-determined narrative, you will never allow the new set of facts that I may present to alter your opinion or the focus of your story,” Huebsch said in a scathing email to Hall.

Huebsch also told Hall he doesn’t believe the reporter had done due diligence prior to contacting him. “At no point do you ask whether or not that actually occurred. You have accepted it as fact. You have already written the story,” he wrote.

Former official Peter Bildsten “resigned under pressure,” Hall wrote. Pressure from who? Huebsch, perhaps? Hall also writes that the other former official, Paul Jadin, “said he does not recall a specific directive” from Huebsch, but was left with an impression of some sort after those initial meetings with Huebsch.

Not asking further questions about these officials’ motives is actually counter-productive to the cause of open government. It creates an odor of drama that leaves readers with questions and undercuts the believability of future reporting on the matter.

The gist of the matter is this: open and transparent government is crucial, and the media plays a key role in keeping the heat on a select few legislators who want to circumvent it. But in that endeavor, the media’s credibility is an indispensable asset. Hall’s story appears to be exactly what Huebsch believed: a set of paragraphs fitting a certain narrative, into which Huebsch’s quotes were copy/pasted prior to publication. Under questioning following Huebsch’s response, both accusing officials’ accounts wilted.

Dubious accusations against Huebsch aside, there’s no question that open records have come under fire – and that certain members of the state’s leadership have lost credibility on the issue.

Lueders expressed doubt that the current legislature could be entrusted with making the proper changes, which is entirely understandable. Earlier this year, misguided Republicans tried inserting Nth-hour language in the state budget (of all vehicles) drastically changing the state’s open records laws. That move scuttled the current leadership’s credibility on open records, Lueders said.

forcefully objected to those changes, as did many right-wing activists and groups. The changes were rapidly withdrawn.

So Lueders has solid ground to stand on. But the chicanery of some in 2015 shouldn’t stop concerned caucuses on both sides of the aisle from pushing for changes in 2016 that are long overdue.

Lueders warned against a “full flowering” of a culture of contempt for the public’s right to know what’s going on inside state government. “That’s something we can’t allow to happen in Wisconsin…we need to regard [transparency] as something important that we have to protect as a state,” Lueders said.

About the writer: Chris Rochester is editor in chief of Morning Martini. He’s a communication specialist with experience in the private sector and on various campaigns. He's the communications director for the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy. Commentary here is strictly his own.