Wednesday, August 5, 2015

It's a Sunshine Day (for Open Government in our State)

Regarding the public's access to governmental records, Wisconsin has been noted for having some of the finest "sunshine laws" in the nation. With over 1,900 counties, towns, cities, villages, and school districts - plus a multitude of special purpose districts, Wisconsin ranks 10th among the states in the number of local governmental entities. With so many governmental units, it's all the more remarkable (and commendable) that our state makes open government such a priority.

Cover Art for "It's a Sunshine Day" Brady Bunch Music CD
Cover Art for a CD by The Brady Bunch
On July 29th I had the opportunity to attend Attorney General Brad Schimel's Open Government Summit held in Madison. Due to the high level of interest in this summit, the venue - originally slated for the Capitol - was changed to a nearby hotel so they could accommodate the 200-plus participants.

The Summit was structured as a series of panel discussions. Topics included an overview of our state's public records law, open government and public safety, public records in the modern era, the cost of open government, and an overview of our state's open meetings law.

Here are some of my impressions from the Summit:
  • All 50 states have public record laws
  • Open records law has evolved in Wisconsin
  • 1981 was the last year that Wisconsin's public records law was substantially changed
  • A majority of the speakers feel that our state's open record laws are working very well; a few speakers advocated for updating the statutes, especially relating to current technology
  • Concern was expressed by several speakers about the current legislative climate relating to open government
  • With so many elected governmental bodies in our state, education for record custodians is an ongoing challenge, so it should become a top priority
  • Open meetings and public record laws work "hand-in-glove," so any changes to one will require changes to the other
  • Attorney General Schimel closed the Summit by saying he plans to convene smaller groups to continue these open government discussions 
If you'd like more information on the Summit and the topic of open government, there's a wealth of resources available. The Department of Justice's website has links to full videos from the Summit as well as handouts and presentations.  Our DPI website contains an overview on Open Meetings Law and Library Board Closed Sessions for library directors and library board trustees. The Wisconsin Department of Justice's website also contains compliance guides / compliance outlines for both the Open Meetings Law and the Open Records Law.

And if I've given you an "ear worm" by my use of The Brady Bunch's song "It's a Sunshine Day," I do apologize.

Written by:
Denise Anton Wright, Public Library Development