Attorney General Brad Schimel said Wednesday state lawmakers are the ones to address how quickly a government agency must respond to open records requests.
Schimel's comments come after a lawsuit was filed earlier this week by a public-interest law firm against the Department of Natural Resources for taking months to respond to three records requests, and after an open government advocate suggested on Tuesday that records custodians have been emboldened to take a long time to respond because attorneys general have declined to tackle the issue of delayed responses.
"The law does not establish a bright-line rule on how quickly an agency must respond to a public records request. The Attorney General’s role is advisory in nature, however, this is an area where the legislature could clarify the public record law," Attorney General Brad Schimel said in a statement.
Department of Justice spokeswoman Anne Schwartz didn't say whether Schimel believes a time frame should be defined in state law within which government agencies must respond to requests.
Madison-based Midwest Environmental Advocates, a public interest law firm, filed a complaint this week in Dane County Circuit Court against the Department of Natural Resources alleging the state agency is violating the state's Public Records Law by taking months — 10 months in one case — to respond to three requests for information related to a group of wetlands permits, concentrated animal feeding operations and air testing data.
Last month, the nonprofit group Midwest Environmental Defense Center also filed a lawsuit against the DNR for not responding to a records request the group filed on July 3 and for providing an incomplete response to a request filed on July 22. Both requests sought pollution discharge data.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said in response the specter of the Legislature making "matters worse by building in long response times" into state law is a concern, and there's also a chance that courts could issue decisions that allow "long delays."
"It would be good if we all agreed that improving response times is a state priority," he said.
Spokeswomen for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
State law currently tells government agencies to respond to requests "as soon as practicable and without delay." Other states have chosen to define response times with a specific number of days. For example, Illinois' open records law gives records custodians five business days to respond and allows another five days if the custodian says the request will take that long to fulfill.
Lueders said the language in state law was chosen, as opposed to a set period of time, "because the drafters did not want to let custodians take ten days to provide a record that should be provided in ten minutes."
"If the language were changed, I would like it to retain this feature, something like: 'as soon as practicable and without delay but in no event more than five working days,'" Lueders said.