MADISON — A state open government watchdog group has filed a complaint alleging an obscure board made changes to the state's records retention policies in August in violation of the state open meetings law.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, wrote Monday in a verified complaint to Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne that the Public Records Board made changes to the state's records retention policy without proper notice or record in its minutes of motions and votes.
Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker's Department of Administration said last week "while we do not agree that there was any violation, to the extent the Department of Administration provides administrative support to the Public Records Board, we plan on working with (the Department of Justice's) Office of Open Government to implement best practices for both the agenda and meeting minutes moving forward."
Werwie did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the complaint.
Ozanne said his office received the complaint Monday morning but had not yet reviewed it.
The Wisconsin State Journal first reported on the change to the records retention policy last week.
Among the many changes made to the records retention policy on Aug. 24 was a change to the definition of "transitory" records, which are now defined as being "of temporary usefulness that have no ongoing value beyond an immediate and minor transaction or the preparation of a subsequent (final) record." Under the policy they no longer have to be retained, whereas previously they were to be maintained until no longer needed.
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The day after the board changed the definition, Gov. Scott Walker's administration denied a Wisconsin State Journal request for text messages from a former top DOA official related to a failed $500,000 loan to a now defunct Milwaukee construction company. DOA spokesman Cullen Werwie explained at the time that such "transitory messages are not required to be maintained," citing the new records retention policy.
Open government experts dispute DOA's interpretation of the records retention policy, which doesn't explicitly mention text messages, as applying to text messages related to a state loan applicant.
In another case DOA denied a liberal advocacy group's request for police records of visitors to the Executive Residence in Maple Bluff prior to April 8. A DOA lawyer said the records don't have to be maintained because they are "transitory."
Christa Westerberg, a lawyer and vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said a judge could void a decision by a public body that takes action in violation of the open meetings law.
It's unclear, however, what recourse the public would have to obtain the text messages from former DOA deputy secretary Chris Schoenherr. The Walker administration has not responded to State Journal questions about what happened to the text messages and why they weren't retained.
On Friday, Walker referred a question about whether Schoenherr's text messages were public records to lawyers. He said he doesn't have an explanation for what happened to them.
"I haven’t talked to them about that," Walker said. "I asked that overall for our administration the bottom line is I expect everyone in this administration to follow the open records laws now and into the future."