As the internet and cell phones have provided more information at our fingertips, their use seems in part to have encouraged an increasing number of open records requests.
The Wisconsin Open Records Law is designed to guarantee that the public has access to public records of government bodies at all levels.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, open government laws “promote democracy by ensuring that all state, regional and local governments conduct their business with transparency. Wisconsin citizens have a right to know how their government is spending their tax dollars and exercising the powers granted by the people.”
The increase in the number of requests does pose challenges for local officials in communities, including Waunakee, but the village clerk said she understands fulfilling open records is part of her duty.
“It’s in our job description,” said Clerk Caitlin Stene. “We fully support the law, and I agree with it. It’s just grappling with the volume.”
Both Stene and Attorney Bryan Kleinmaier say other municipalities are facing similar situations.
“I think every municipality I work for is getting more records requests. First of all, it’s easier to even submit them,” Kleinmaier said.
Kleinmaier said he can’t exactly quantify the increase in records requests.
“Not only has it increased, but the complexity has increased,” Kleinmaier said. “Really, I think it all comes back to emails.”
Often, requesters will seek correspondence between local officials and others. When that happens, Stene will notify all department heads, who then provide her with their emails, and then Stene is tasked with researching all of those to ensure they pertain to the request. Stene may also have to redact certain sensitive information, such as social security numbers.
“You have to go through the winnowing and sifting process,” Kleinmaier added.
Other times, the requester will also ask for correspondences about a very broad topic, and the clerk must then contact the requester and try to narrow down the scope in order to provide information that’s valuable.
While the Department of Justice provides guidelines about what a municipality can charge for open records, Stene said it doesn’t cover the full cost of the time spent mainly on sifting through emails and looking for any information that must be redacted.
The village can charge for time based on the lowest paid employee who can do the search – the actual time of the deputy clerk. But it doesn’t cover the cost of the other higher paid public officials’ time – often the village administrator, engineer and others – in finding their email records. As for paper copies, the Department of Justice allows municipalities to charge 15 cents per page.
Municipalities can charge for the time it takes to research the emails, but not the time spent on winnowing them down or redacting sensitive information. Many records requests are fulfilled at no charge, because according to DOJ guidelines, costs associated with locating records may be charged if they total $50 or more.
“When you start getting these complex requests for emails, it take a lot of time,” Kleinmaier said. “The requests have gotten so complex these days that the attorney needs to be consulted.”
No specific language is required for record requests – the requester simply needs to ask for information. And the process has been facilitated in many communities like Waunakee, where the website includes a link for requesting records.
Still, Stene said about half of the requests are easy to respond to. Many ask for information about building plans. Vendors who want to submit a proposal for a service, such as waste management, may request the existing contract so they can be more competitive. Some are from residents seeking documents such as a certificate of occupancy.
Others, such as those from universities conducting research on voting practices, can be more time consuming.
The subject of records spans a wide gamut.
But Kleinmaier said one development project in Waunakee generated more than the usual number of records requests: the proposed development on Main and Second streets which was denied.
It “generated records requests all over the board, whether they come from residents, whether they come from the applicant…I can’t think of any other event or project or anything related to the village that stands out. That one was a little bit unique,” Kleinmaier said.
Recently, a request was made for a list of all records requests. No such record of that exists, and DOJ guidelines do not require municipal officials to create records.
Both Kleinmaier and Stene say they believe records requests will become easier to fulfill as electronic records-management systems improve.
And neither want to discourage the public from requesting records, but the fact is, providing the records can come at a cost and be time consuming, they said.
“It’s a right. We feel like we’re pretty transparent to begin with,” Stene said, adding that village board, committee and commission agendas, packets and minutes are all posted on the village’s website.