March 13 begins a week-long national initiative to promote and encourage openness in government and freedom of information. Sunshine Week is an opportunity for us all to celebrate Wisconsin’s proud history of strong public records and open meetings laws.
As Attorney General, I take seriously my duty to uphold these laws that are a cornerstone of democracy, which is why I was honored to learn that I will receive the Freedom of Information Council’s “Opee” Award for political openness. The Award recognizes “extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government.”
Aside from my statutory obligation to interpret and enforce the state’s public records and open meetings laws, I have committed Department of Justice resources to lead on a number of initiatives to let the sun shine on state government. While resources at the Wisconsin DOJ are finite, we have made great strides in giving the public greater access to their government.
In June, we opened the doors to the Wisconsin DOJ Office of Open Government. A full-time attorney and two full-time legal assistants staff the agency’s newest division and assist citizens and media in answering questions about public records and open meetings, and help mediate disputes whenever possible. The Office of Open Government led an internal review of our own public records practices and overhauled the process to ensure public records requests are processed promptly and transparently, dramatically reducing the average response time in 2015 while the number of requests also dramatically increased. Just last week, the Office of Open Government published an updated fee schedule that more accurately reflects the actual cost of retrieving electronic records and will reduce fees in many cases. The revised fee schedule makes the basis for fees clearer and will continue shining light on our processes and procedures.
In July, we hosted the Attorney General’s first annual Open Government Summit, with the acknowledgment among many in the public and media that Wisconsin’s open meetings and public records laws are outdated. Our state’s open government laws were written before technology changed the way public bodies conduct business and the current law leaves many unanswered questions about the limits of open government. This gathering of more than 200 stakeholders, from media representatives, to citizen watchdog groups to government records custodians, started the lengthy conversation about reforming and updating our open government laws. We continue this important dialogue with public officials, media representatives, and citizens and look forward to hosting future meetings and discussions.
I am proud of the steps the Wisconsin Department of Justice has taken over the last year to make government more transparent and I will continue to fulfill my promise to let the sun shine on state government.