A state board has rescinded a controversial decision that allowed public officials to quickly destroy certain records that they deemed to lack lasting significance.
The state Public Records Board, after voting unanimously Monday to undo the decision, signaled it is unlikely to revisit the matter soon.
The board’s decision drew little notice when it was made in August. But it came under scrutiny last month after Gov. Scott Walker’s administration cited it to explain why it had no records on file in response to requests from the Wisconsin State Journal and a liberal group, One Wisconsin Now.
In a statement last month, the chairman of the Public Records Board, Matthew Blessing, said “public concern” caused the board to revisit the issue. Blessing also cited the cost of responding to a complaint filed in response to the changes by an open-government group, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
In August, the board voted to change the state’s definition of “transitory correspondence” — or communications deemed to be of transitory, or temporary, significance. Under the new definition, records of such correspondence no longer were required to be retained. The new definition also expanded a list of examples of records deemed transitory.
The board’s vote Monday means the definition reverts to the previous version, crafted in 2010. That definition said transitory records had to be retained “until no longer needed.”
Blessing, speaking to the Wisconsin State Journal immediately after the meeting, indicated he wasn’t eager to discuss further changes to the definition.
“There’s a lot of other records management work that needs to be addressed,” Blessing told the newspaper after the meeting.
Bill Lueders, president of the WFOIC, said after the meeting he’s glad the board rescinded its August vote. Still, Lueders suggested the focus on the board’s actions — as opposed to how the Walker administration interpreted them — may be misplaced.
“The issue may not be the definition, but the way that the definition is being cited by people who want some reason — any reason — to destroy or withhold records,” Lueders said.
Walker’s office declined to comment.
The State Journal last year requested text messages from the Department of Administration relating to a failed $500,000 loan from the state’s job-creation agency, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. The loan was issued to a business, Building Committee Inc., owned by a top Walker contributor, William Minahan.
A day after the Public Records Board changed the transitory correspondence definition, Walker’s administration responded to the State Journal request. It said it didn’t have the requested records and noted that transitory records are not required to be retained.
The board’s decision is not the only recent attempt by state officials to curtail access to records about how government officials do their jobs. In July, state lawmakers endorsed — then, facing public outcry, quickly backpedaled from — a proposal to drastically limit access to public records in Wisconsin. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, advocated for those changes, a subsequent State Journal records request showed.
On Monday, Public Records Board member Carl Buesing, a Sheboygan attorney, disavowed any link between lawmakers’ actions and the board’s.
“Whatever Speaker Vos wanted to do has had nothing to do with what we’ve tried to do on the Public Records Board,” Buesing said.
Buesing said the attempt to redefine transitory records was meant to clarify their definition. But he said some have miscast it as an attempt to limit public access to text messages and other electronic communications by public officials.
The process by which the board reached the decision also has been questioned. The WFOIC complaint, filed last month with the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, charges that the board held the transitory records vote without proper public notice, in violation of state open records law.
Lueders said the council has no plans to drop its complaint. He said the council will assess its options if and when it gets a response from the District Attorney’s Office.
State Attorney General Brad Schimel, speaking before the board’s Monday vote, said determinations of what are public records should be based on “the nature of the content of the communication.”
“If you’re talking about the administration of government, it’s probably something that’s a public record,” Schimel said.
State Journal reporter Molly Beck contributed to this report.