MADISON — In advance of Sunshine Week, Gov. Scott Walker is ordering his administration to improve its handling of public records requests, speed up response times and provide mandatory records training for all state workers.
The move comes months after he helped draft legislation, later withdrawn, to severely restrict the kind of information the public can learn about how state and local governments work on behalf of taxpayers. Walker is also fighting a lawsuit over his refusal to disclose certain records by saying they were part of a “deliberative process”
Walker on Friday issued an executive order that emphasizes a number of areas in the state’s Public Records Law, including responding to requests quickly and not charging for electronic responses to requests when possible.
The order directs all state agencies to:
Implement “best practices” in processing records requests.
Create a system that allows the public to track how well state agencies respond to requests.
Require records training for all state employees.
Fulfill any “small and straightforward request” within 10 business days “whenever it is practicable to do so.”
Acknowledge in one business day the receipt of a request through an official email address.
Respond to a requester within five days when asked for an update.
Develop a system to track requests.
Under the order, a state agency will be regularly evaluated by the Department of Administration on its adherence to the new rules.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said Walker’s order “is welcome news.”
“The governor’s executive order establishes clear rules and goals for state agencies to meet,” he said. “If followed, it would represent an improvement over past practice for many agencies.”
Lueders pointed out that some of the order restates what has been determined by court rulings and recommended by the state Department of Justice “but it is nonetheless good to see.”
He said the most significant requirement is the allocation of “sufficient staff resources” to create the tracking system and directing DOA to work with cabinet agencies to assess performance.
“It is my hope and expectation that state agencies will take this seriously, and that records access will improve, from the governor’s office on down,” Lueders said.
Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said the new standardized practices “go above and beyond” the requirements of the records law and will “support an open and transparent government for our citizens.”
She said the directive should not require new agency spending.
The executive order comes eight months after lawmakers attempted through the 2015-17 budget process to significantly reduce public scrutiny of lawmakers by shielding most of their records from public view. The effort was quashed after massive public outcry.
It also comes after the liberal advocacy group Center for Media and Democracy filed a lawsuit last year to obtain records related to the Walker administration’s proposed changes to the University of Wisconsin System’s mission statement, known as the Wisconsin Idea.
The Walker administration, which pulled back on the changes, denied the group and media outlets, including the Wisconsin State Journal, access to the records by saying they were part of a “deliberative process.”
The administration also has denied the State Journal records that it deems “transitory.”
The Legislature’s effort to diminish transparency prompted the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists to create a statewide tour next week to promote the state’s open records law.
The order comes ahead of Sunshine Week, a national celebration of open government. It runs from Sunday through March 19. Walker issued an executive order declaring next week Sunshine Week.
Since Walker took office, his office has released more than 6 million pages of documents in response to requests, the office said. He has received 841 requests to date compared to 360 received by predecessor Jim Doyle through the same period.