Wisconsin’s Open Records Law asserts the public’s right to the “greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.”
But the law’s reach has been tested in recent years by electronic communications that are easily sent — and just as easily deleted — from officials’ email and cellphone accounts.
In May, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that Madison Common Council members were sending email and text messages during council meetings, holding essentially private discussions on matters that were supposed to be debated in public.
State Journal reporter Dean Mosiman obtained 7,656 emails and hundreds of texts exchanged during council meetings. He found that council members engaged in back-channel chatter with colleagues, lobbyists, staff and constituents on issues ranging from the silly to the substantive, including multi-million dollar subsidies for a proposed redevelopment project.
“Whether or not such communications violate the state’s open meetings law, they certainly run contrary to the notion that substantive discussions of public issues should occur in the open,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “For members to confer and even strategize privately erodes trust in the process.”
Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Dee J. Hall, a reporter with the Wisconsin State Journal, is the group’s secretary.