Your Right to Know: Citizens have a right to electronic records

 

John Foust

 

By JOHN FOUST

Computers have made examining government records easier than ever. The smallest townships across Wisconsin post the meeting agendas and minutes online. And websites for government agencies at all levels contain an enormous amount of other information.

Electronic records also are available on request. Say you want to see a skate-park-feasibility study you’ve heard about. You can request this record from the agency that keeps it, and receive it via email. The whole process can be completed in minutes.

In the past, such a request might have meant days of waiting for a paper copy with a per-page reproduction cost, as well as postage. A requester might have to first send a check to cover these costs.

Fulfilling requests in a digital fashion benefits both hard-working public employees and the curious public. It saves time and effort. The cost of reproduction is negligible.

There are other advantages in having a record in electronic form. Reading a 50-page paper study takes a long time, but it takes only seconds to search and find a particular phrase within a document on your computer.

And sometimes the paper copy doesn’t tell the whole story. The term “metadata” describes everything in an electronic document that doesn’t appear on a printed page. This may include, say, the name of the file, such as “Secret Meeting Agenda.docx.” Most files also contain the author’s name and information on when it was created and last modified.

In July 2016, the UW System officials refused to release their annual budget proposal, as they had in past years, claiming it had not been finalized. The proposal wasn’t distributed until 90 minutes before the Board of Regents met to take it up, eliminating any chance for public scrutiny. The metadata revealed that no changes had been made to this allegedly unfinished document since six days before the meeting.

Last month a Dane County judge ruled that Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) should have supplied more than a thousand emails in digital form because the requester specifically asked for them in that format. Legislative staff had offered more than 1,500 pages of paper printouts for in-person review at an Assembly office, with copies available at 15 cents per page.

The requester who brought the suit was Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “The records were virtually unusable in the provided hard copy because they could not be searched,” the lawsuit said.

Lueders requested emails that Krug received from constituents on proposed changes to the state’s water laws. To properly fulfill this request, Krug’s office likely located the responsive emails using the search function within their email program, looking for particular phrases and bill numbers.

Shouldn’t we all have the benefit of this convenience? Providing records in piles of paper makes them less usable and requires requesters to physically travel to where the records are located to avoid paying for hundreds and even thousands of pages of copies. The Legislature’s policy discourages inquiry and prevents an easy examination of public information.

If you want records in electronic form, ask for them that way. And that’s how responsible officials will provide them — with or without the intervention of the courts.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. John Foust is a Council member and a computer consultant in Jefferson.

Comments are closed.

  • Editorial cartoon

    September 24th, 2018
    by

    […]


    Book review: Wright book offers insights into Scientology

    September 20th, 2018
    by

    This is not a book review, but rather a book awareness. It is likely that you’ve come across the term Scientology.


    Editorial cartoon

    September 13th, 2018
    by

    […]


    Book review: Magnusson book explores ‘death cleanings,’ or reducing possessions

    September 13th, 2018
    by

    We like our stuff. During our lifetime, we tend to collect a lot of stuff, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by benign neglect.


    Book review: In ‘A Fatal Grace,’ electrocution occurs on a lake during a curling match

    September 6th, 2018
    by

    Louise Penny’s “A Fatal Grace” is the second book in the “Chief Inspector Gamache” series. Like its predecessor, it is set in Three Pines, Quebec.


  • Book review: ‘Sing Unburied Sing’ depicts wandering spirits

    August 24th, 2018
    by

    Narrated through the eyes of several of the main characters, Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 novel “Sing Unburied Sing” is unique. Richie, one of the narrators, is a ghost, one of the unburied.


    Book review: Aldo Leopold’s daughter reflects on work at family shack near Baraboo

    August 16th, 2018
    by

    Estella B. Leopold, the youngest of the Leopold children, has written about her experiences at “The Shack,” the setting of Aldo Leopold’s famous “Sand County Almanac.”


    Letter to the editor: Imagine if free lunch program in Norwalk was expanded?

    August 16th, 2018
    by

    It was great to see your write up on United Methodist Church in Norwalk and the excellent service it provides to the community.


    Editorial cartoon

    August 16th, 2018
    by

    […]


    Guest view: Ideas for real change

    August 9th, 2018
    by

    Running for sheriff of Monroe County has been a remarkable experience. Not only has it allowed me the opportunity to challenge myself, but also it challenged the community to provide feedback on how they view the Monroe County Sheriff’s office and their ideas on how we should operate in the future.


    Letter to the editor: Leah Vukmir is a caring nurse, military mom, tough-minded politician

    August 9th, 2018
    by

    Over the last many months, I have gotten to know and trust Leah Vukmir. Leah is running for U.S. Senate, aiming to unseat Tammy Baldwin. 


  • Local Weather

  • Facebook

  • [Advertisement.]
  • Archives