Records-law compliance varies by entity

By Allen Hicks

Central Wisconsin Sunday
December 7, 2003

A spot check of central Wisconsin local governments’ compliance with the state’s public records law turned up wide-ranging results.

Twenty area units of government in Clark, Marathon, Taylor and Wood counties all provided information about their 10 highest-paid employees – eventually.

The Marshfield School District responded within about a week, while others, like the city of Stevens Point, took about a month.

State law requires that requests be acted on as soon as practical and without delay. It also states that "… all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them." There are legal penalties if units of government don’t comply.

Public employee salaries fall under the state’s public records law, said Bob Dreps, an attorney who represents the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

"The public pays these salaries; they’re entitled to know how much they’re spending," Dreps said.

It shouldn’t take more than a few days to receive a list of a unit of government’s 10 highest paid employees – and even less time if the request is made in person, Dreps said.

This records request included the name, job title, annual salary and employer cost of all fringe benefits, as well as the employer and employee cost of health insurance.

"That can certainly take longer to compile," Dreps said.

Some of the initial responses didn’t provide the names of the employees or failed to include other information requested. Follow-up letters, and in some cases phone calls, continued until the information was provided.

The UW Colleges’ response for University of Wisconsin-Marshfield/Wood County employees’ fringe benefits said providing that information would require an additional effort, and an unspecified cost. It gave an overall average instead.

The letters, which were sent in October, asked for information about the "most highly compensated employees."

The Wisconsin Rapids School District responded to a request mailed on Oct. 8 with information about its superintendent – its sole highly compensated employee, as defined by the Internal Revenue Code. The request letter made no reference to the IRS or its definition. A follow-up letter that requested information about the 10 most highly paid employees produced the same response.

Following a phone call from Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers, information about the 10 employees was sent on Nov. 4.

Daniel Weigand, the school district’s director of business services, said he thought the request was for information about employees who fit the legal definition of highly compensated.

"Because those are unusual terms," he said. "The person on the street doesn’t use that kind of terminology."

Wood County was among the units of government that gave employees an opportunity to augment the record before sending the information.

Within four days of the initial request, the country responded that it intended to fully comply, and then it sent the information 11 days after its response.

A state law that became effective in August says that public officials must inform employees before disciplinary records are given out, but they aren’t obligated to notify them before information about their salaries is released, Dreps said.

"Any delay for that purpose is not necessary, because the law doesn’t require that kind of notice," Dreps said.

When it comes to information, the custodian of records should release as much as possible, while considering whether there’s a compelling reason to keep some information from the public, said Sandra George, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

Ed Reed, Wood County director of Human Resources, said it’s a balance between respecting employee privacy and the public’s right to know information.

"Caught between a rock and a hard spot, we do our best to manage the situation," he said.

Citizens have the same rights as news organizations when it comes to public records, Dreps said.

"And they’re for the citizens’ benefit," George said. "It’s for citizens to be able to adequately inform themselves."

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which includes the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, conducted a state-wide open records audit in 1999.

George recommends that people who are interested in obtaining records begin with oral requests, so the public officials have clear pictures about the information being requested. That conversations should be followed by a dated written request.

"You have no recourse if you only make an oral request," George said.

Under state law, a court can award minimum damages of $100 and attorney fees if it rules the release of information was inappropriately denied or delayed. And punitive damages could be awarded if the denial or delay was arbitrary or capricious, Dreps said.

© 2003 Stevens Point Journal

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