Wisconsin's Latest Open Records Fight: Deleting Emails & Texts
In August, the state's little-known Public Records Board declared that state government does not always have to retain 'transitory' records such as emails and text messages.
On Monday, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council filed a complaint against the board, insisting it did not follow the state's open meetings law when issuing its declaration and had no business telling government agencies they could destroy certain records.
Council President Bill Lueders says state officials have since deleted some communications.
"They point to a change in the policy that was adapted by the Public Records Board in August, as giving them the authority to destroy text communications at will, giving them the authority to destroy the records of who visits the governor at the executive residence," Lueders says. "To my mind, the language that was passed by the Public Records Board does not in fact give the government this authorities, but they are claiming it anyway and they are using it to block access to records."
Lueders claims that one instance involved text messages with a faltering Milwaukee company that had received a state loan worth a half-million dollars. The council is asking the Dane County Executive to pursue an open meetings violation against the records board for its August meeting, at which time Lueders says it changed the definition of transitory records.
"That meeting, the agenda item, was not properly noticed. You could look at that agenda from here until eternity and not know that they were going to dramatically change the definition of what a transitory record was, so that public officials could begin destroying any record they felt like destroying," he says. "You would never know that from the way it was noticed or from the minutes of that meeting."
Lueders says public officials should understand that all messages concerning government business are public and must be retained.
One of the last big open records fights in Wisconsin occurred this summer when Republican leaders inserted new rules into the state budget that would have let elected officials keep many communications private. After groups and citizens across the political spectrum objected, GOP leaders scrapped the changes.
Regarding the council's complaint against the Public Records Board, it has not yet replied to requests for comment, but its website describes the board as "responsible for the preservation of important State records, the orderly disposition of State Records that have become obsolete and cost-effective management of records by State agencies."