FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Ken Bunting, Executive Director
NATIONAL FREEDOM OF INFORMATION COALITION
101E Reynolds Journalism Institute
Columbia, MO 65211
Racine Journal Times seeks information about Village Board's decision to fire administrator.
COLUMBIA, Mo. (July 20, 2011) – A Wisconsin village’s abrupt dismissal of its administrator, still unexplained to the public two months since the action was taken in a closed-door meeting of the Village Board and a month since the administrator died of a heart attack, is the focus of a Knight FOI Fund grant announced Wednesday by the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC).
The NFOIC announced the grant in support of The Journal Times newspaper of Racine, WI, which brought a lawsuit against the Village of Mount Pleasant on June 15. The newspaper’s lawsuit, in Racine County Circuit Court, contends that Village officials violated the state's open government laws by their manner of noticing and convening a hastily-called executive session during a May 9 meeting of the Village Board, and in denying the newspaper a copy of a letter that presumably prompted the sudden dismissal of the former Village Administrator Mike Andreason.
Christa Westerberg, a Madison-based attorney representing the newspaper, said that while Wisconsin law permits the withholding of records related to personnel issues in some instances, the city effectively waived any potential exemption it could legally claim by not stating a specific reason for its refusal to disclose the requested record.
Indeed, Village officials’ first two written responses to Journal Times reporter Mike Moore’s request for the letter, which was mentioned on the agenda item, cited no specific statute section at all: One official response stated that the letter had not been addressed or filed with that particular office, and another offered the vague justification that the decision to deny the request “fits within several exceptions to the Open Records Law regarding disclosure.”
It was only after four written requests by Moore between May 10, the day after the meeting, and June 2, the day after Andreason’s death, that a Village official attempted to identify the statute sections that formed their supposed basis for refusing to release the letter. And, Westerberg said the numbers listed in that June 2 letter from Village President Carolyn Milkie do not correspond to actual sections of law.
Under Wisconsin law, when a records custodian does not state a sufficiently specific reason, the record should be released, Westerberg said. Asserting that the city never cited a statutory provision that might be reasonably applicable to the situation, Westerberg said she could only speculate as to why the Village is refusing to disclose the requested records.
“It's hard to know what or whose interests they are protecting,” Westerberg said. “It looks like they are trying to cover their own failure to oversee the individuals at issue.”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (a member of NFOIC), which strongly endorsed The Journal Times’ grant application, said: "One of the essential functions of Wisconsin's Open Records Law is that it allows the public to gauge how well or how poorly public bodies handle disciplinary decisions. The document being sought in this case is integral to that function.”
“We see it as an important case of statewide significance and are delighted to have support from the National Freedom of Information Coalition."
Mount Pleasant is a small community situated on Lake Michigan’s western shore, north of Chicago and south of Milwaukee.
The disclosure issue began when the Village Board added a new item to the May 9 board meeting agenda just three hours before its regular meeting began. The item referenced a correspondence with former Village clerk and treasurer Juliet Edmands. The council went into executive session for two hours and after the session voted to fire Andreason “without cause.”
“If there is an employee under investigation, there is a specific way to handle that type of situation,” Westerberg said. She added that the village board would have needed to give Andreason prior notice that his employment with the Village was going to be discussed at the meeting. That was never done.
Kenneth Bunting, executive director of NFOIC, chided Village officials for not being more forthcoming with the public regarding their actions.
“When all the legal arguments are said and done, it simply is not a good governmental practice when a municipality's top executive can be summarily dismissed without citizens getting even a cursory explanation,” Bunting said. “It simply makes no sense. Anyone who claims to believe in open, transparent government, but justifies that level of secrecy, needs a healthy dose of small-d, democratic reality check.”
The $500 award in support of The Journal Times lawsuit was the 20th grant award since the Knight FOI Fund began in January 2010. Earlier this week, NFOIC announced another Knight FOI Fund grant to support prospective litigation over alleged open meetings violations in St. Pete Beach, FL.
Among significant access victories in cases supported by the Knight FOI Fund were a California case that kept the nation's largest pension fund from hiding details of a $100 million real estate investment loss, a U.S. Supreme Court case regarding election-qualifying petitions, and a case involving a New Mexico state college that had declined to disclose records detailing building projects and a search for a new president. Knight Fund-supported cases have resulted in 12 favorable court orders or settlements that achieved greater access or disclosure.
The NFOIC, a nonpartisan coalition of open government groups and advocates headquartered at the Missouri School of Journalism, administers the litigation-assistance fund. It is part of a $2 million, three-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced in 2010. Grants awarded under the Knight FOI Fund are intended to fuel and assist the pursuit of important FOI cases by helping to defray upfront costs such as filing fees, depositions, court costs and other expenses associated with legal actions. Those grants cannot pay attorneys fees, and the Knight Fund only seeks reimbursement if resulting awards in the cases cover fees and costs for which the Knight Fund money was spent.
For more information on the Knight FOI Fund, including the selection process for grants and how to apply, see http://www.nfoic.org/knight-foi-fund.
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Since 1950, the Foundation has granted more than $400 million to advance quality journalism and freedom of expression. Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote community engagement and lead to transformational change. For more, visit http://www.knightfoundation.org/.
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council seeks to safeguard access to information that citizens must have to act responsibly in a free and democratic society. The Wisconsin FOIC was created Oct. 31, 1978, about three weeks after 21 state journalists agreed informally that the group should be formed to protect First Amendment rights. The goal of the group, they agreed, would be to protect and promote access to public records and public meetings and to educate the public about press censorship issues. For more, visit http://www.wisfoic.org/.
The National Freedom of Information Coalition is a national network of state freedom of information advocates, citizen-driven nonprofit freedom of information organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies and attorneys. Its mission is to foster government transparency at the state and local level. A unit of the Missouri School of Journalism, the NFOIC is an affiliate of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. NFOIC is based at the University of Missouri, home to the nation’s oldest Freedom of Information Center. For more, visit http://www.nfoic.org/.
See a PDF of the release.
Also, see Racine newspaper suing for records in Mount Pleasant village official's firing gets FOI grant — from The Republic
And The Journal Times gets aid in open records request — from The Journal Times