We understand open records requests can require both patience and persistence.
The Milton Courier recently requested a copy of a retirement agreement. We were advised that the record subject (the person who retired) is entitled to judicial review of the district’s decision to release these records. We were told his or her rights to judicial review are as follows:
Within five business days after the date of receipt of notice, he or she may provide written notification to the district of his intent to seek a court order restraining the district from providing access to the records to the requester.
Within 10 business days after the date of receipt of notice, he or she may commence an action seeking a court order to restrain the District from providing access to the records to the requester. If he or she commences such an action, he or she must name the district as a defendant.
In June, school board president Joe Martin at a school board meeting said information requests were causing “tremendous burden” on school district staff.
In last month’s interview with the Milton Courier, he said that one request flagged 30,000 emails and then was further refined. Without a communications person this summer, he said someone had to be assigned the task. He said his intent in June was not to whine but to help people understand, “If you make a request, we have a diligence to make sure that we don’t release anything we can’t.”
The term “excessively burdensome” was used at the state level.
Arn Pearson, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, wrote about this July 3, 2019, in Your Right to Know, a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org).
The department (Wisconsin Department of Justice under Attorney General Brad Schimel) acknowledged identifying 1,940 records potentially responsive to CMD’s request, but claimed it would be “excessively burdensome” to review and redact them. It also claimed the request was not reasonably limited as to subject matter or time. It denied the request.
CMD filed suit in response and, in the course of the litigation learned that Schimel’s office had adopted a policy of rejecting open records requests based on an arbitrary 500-email threshold.
The DOJ’s rule pertained to potentially responsive emails, not actually responsive emails. Requesters are then pressured to narrow the scope of their request.
The problem? While the open records law does require requests to have “a reasonable limitation as to subject matter or length of time,” there is no “burdensomeness” exception, and the 500-email threshold is not recognized anywhere in state law.
In May, the department backed off in a settlement with CMD that states the policy “is no longer in place and that references to this policy have been removed from the Department of Justice website.” The change came after the state elected a new attorney general, Josh Kaul.
If a newspaper is accused of being relentless, it’s the never- ending task of seeking to make public information available to the public.
A recent interview Martin gives us hope.
“We, as a school district, want people to feel like they can ask a question,” Martin said.
He added he hopes questions could be answered before they become an open records request, though that’s not always possible.
He’s approachable and he said he aims to be accommodating.
A new communications and community outreach coordinator is in place and it’s a new year.