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Public records audit in central Wisconsin reveals delays

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    News Media Update         WISCONSIN         Freedom of Information    

Public records audit in central Wisconsin reveals delays

  • The Marshfield News-Herald conducted a public records audit of 20 local government entities, both to train reporters in newsgathering techniques and test public agencies’ compliance rates.

Dec. 18, 2003 — A recent audit of county and city officials in central Wisconsin revealed a poor rate of compliance and limited understanding of the state’s open record laws by public employees.

The Marshfield News Herald, a daily newspaper in central Wisconsin, had its reporters send letters seeking public records from 20 government entities — such as city councils and publicly funded schools — in Clark, Marathon, Taylor and Wood counties. The newspaper identified itself simply as a news organization, and asked for information pertaining to each public entity’s 10 highest-paid employees. It sought employee names, job titles, annual salaries and the costs of all fringe benefits, including employer and employees costs for health insurance.

“We thought it was time to do a project that gave our reporters some experience . . . to pursue some public documents,” Tom Berger, managing editor of the News-Herald, said. “There was also a goal to alert public officials that we intend to be vigilant about getting” public information.

Wisconsin’s open records law guarantees any resident access to that information. According to the state open records law, all requests must be acted upon “as soon as practicable and without delay; either fill the request or notify the requester of the authority’s determination to deny the request in whole or in part and the reasons therefor.”

Of the 20 government entities audited, five responded to the request within a week. Fourteen took between two and four weeks, while one took nearly a month to respond. Some complied with the open records request only after receiving multiple follow-up phone calls from the newspaper. According to the audit, published by the News-Herald Dec. 7, several public agencies wouldn’t release the information until it notified all of its employees. Such notification isn’t required by law, and long delayed filling the request.

Berger said he hopes his newspaper’s audit educated readers about their rights of access to public records. However, their ability to get those records — based on his newspaper’s findings — has him worried.

“The learning that we’ve had from this is that if we, as a newspaper, are being delayed, I suspect that average folks will have it more difficult,” Berger said.


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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