RACINE — A hearing is scheduled to be held Wednesday to address which documents, if any, will be unsealed in the open-records case involving Racine Alderman Sandy Weidner. But access to the case will not be open to the public.
The Journal Times requested to attend the hearing, but the request was denied by Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz.
“The Court of Appeals allowed the court to have further proceedings, with the media included in that, but it did not lift the seal order,” Gasiorkiewicz said. “That’s what the purpose for the hearing is tomorrow (Wednesday).”
Court of Appeals decision
On Dec. 5, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals issued a ruling in the case. It states that “the news media shall be allowed to participate in further proceedings related to whether record items are appropriately sealed from public view.”
In the document, the news media is defined as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, USA Today Network-Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Free of Information Council, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. The Journal Times is a member of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.
On Tuesday, Gasiorkiewicz said that the news media will be represented via counsel, but members of the news media would not be allowed to attend the proceedings and report on them.
“The Court of Appeals’ decision did not make open the matter. It has not reversed my seal orders with respect to any of those matters,” Gąsiorkiewicz said. “Consequently, the media will be represented in that process tomorrow, but that process will be held in closed court.”
Gasiorkiewicz said that depending on the court’s review of Wednesday’s hearing, there may or may not be items released, with input from both the city and Weidner’s counsel, as well as media’s counsel.
“The court, under the direction of the Court of Appeals, sent the remand to me. They are a higher court. They asked me to relook at this with input from the media and that is exactly what I’m going to do,” Gąsiorkiewicz said.
Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council expressed disappointment regarding the decision.
“It is deeply disappointing that a proceeding that is literally about the public’s right to know is being conducted behind closed doors. Judge Gasiorkiewicz has consistently shown undue deference to claims that the records at issue in this case should be treated as top secret. What this whole case comes down to is the heedless over-application of secrecy,” Lueders said.
The decision to seal
Gasiorkiewicz said that the initial decision to seal the case was made prior to the first hearing in the matter. He said that the City of Racine, represented by attorney Michael Cohen, initially requested to seal the case.
“Weidner’s attorney did not object to that, or oppose it,” Gąsiorkiewicz said. “There was never a revisiting of that initial ruling by this court or the request by Mr. Cohen until after this court rendered its decision regarding some of the confidentiality issues in what was called a attorney’s confidential log.”
After that, Gasiorkiewicz said that Mark Hinkston, a representative for Weidner, asked the case to be opened up for public scrutiny.
“At that point, I declined to do so because the matter was still to be reviewed in an anonymous ethical setting by an ethics board from the City of Racine, which by its very ordinance, which is a law, although a city law, is to be kept confidential,” Gąsiorkiewicz said.
The case began with an open-records lawsuit filed by Weidner, the longtime alderman for the city’s 6th District. Last year, City Attorney Scott Letteney held a meeting with City Council members, showing them a collection of emails Weidner and two other aldermen had sent to constituents that he felt violated attorney-client privilege.
Weidner claimed the emails were publicly available information, like ordinances and resolutions. Letteney said he was going to send the emails to the city’s Ethics Board. When Weidner requested a copy of the emails, she was denied. She filed a lawsuit in December 2017 demanding the records.
After discussing the case with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Associated Press in August, Weidner was found guilty on Sept. 25 of civil contempt of court by Gasiorkiewicz. She was ordered to pay the attorney’s fees accrued by the city in the contempt case.
Weidner’s attorneys filed a challenge to unseal the case, as well as to the contempt of court charge, with the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Enforcement of the fine depends on the outcome of the case.