open records

(Watchdog.org) Madison, WI – Mike Mikalsen, chief of staff for State Representative Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), is succinct when offering his opinion about how the Department of Public Instruction handles requests for open records.

“It’s pure and simple blackmail,” Mikalsen said. “There shouldn’t be that many records, and it shouldn’t take that long.”

The DPI effectively is denying public access by charging excessive fees for producing government records, multiple sources share.

When  DPI to produce emails regarding Andrew Harris, the porn-watching teacher at the Middleton school district, the records officer said it would cost $18,000. The officer then admitted a math error and said the records would be $1,870.

Harris was fired after a school district investigation found he viewed hundreds of pornographic images and videos on school computers at work over nine years. He was later reinstated after an arbitrator found the district improperly fired him. The district asked schools Superintendent Tony Evers to revoke Harris’ teaching license four years ago, but DPI has yet to finalize its investigation.

The state’s open records law presumes that government actions and records are open to the public.

Government agencies can charge locating costs for public records, if that amounts to $50 or more. After finding the records, agencies aren’t allowed to charge to review or redact them.

And “generally, the rate for an actual, necessary, and direct charge for staff time should be based on the pay rate of the lowest paid employee capable of performing the task,” according to the state Department of Justice’s “Public Records Compliance Outline.”

Apparently, the DPI thinks otherwise.

Recently, Wisconsin Reporter made a request was made for DPI records relating to Senate Bill 619, which, had it not failed, would have established a board to review and revise academic standards in Wisconsin.

The DPI went into political hyperdrive to defeat the bill, working with friendly lawmakers, producing YouTube videos, lobbying local superintendents to show up at the public hearings in opposition and sending emails statewide.

The request included emails sent internally during the three days prior to the bill’s hearing. DPI said it would cost $192 for copies of emails from fewer than 10 staff members. Wisconsin Reporter didn’t pay.

It later was discovered that Representative Nass, who sits on the Assembly Education Committee, made a similar, but broader, request for those records. So a request was made for DPI to send me the records sent to the lawmaker.

DPI said the lawmaker was charged $888, and our request would be charged $444, as a location fee, though DPI already had found the records. DPI ultimately relented and turned over the records.

It’s not just lawmakers. DPI has essentially blocked the disclosure of information regarding Common Core to reporters, too.

Joy Pullmann, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, made requests to DPI for records relating to the implementation of Common Core academic standards in Wisconsin. Pullmann also asked 10 other states to produce similar records.

Wisconsin’s DPI was the only agency that quoted her thousands of dollars for access.

“Several states served the request for no cost at all, but (DPI) demanded like $7k,” she wrote in an email to Wisconsin Reporter. “The end result is that I didn’t get the records because the cost is too high. Seriously, charging $7k for a bunch of emails? That’s outrageous. Let me use the search software and I’ll do it for free!”

Orville Seymer, president of Citizens for Responsible Government, said DPI quoted him more than $1,600 for records related to Common Core. He also asked for receipts for DPI credit card transactions.

“They are fighting tooth and nail to produce those records,” Seymer said. “I’ve been doing open records for close to 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything quite this bad before. They are stonewalling, stalling, delaying.”

Seymer said DPI’s proclivity to charge exorbitant fees for records is against the spirit of the open records law in Wisconsin.

“Other than the large newspaper, most people don’t have that kind of money to produce records,” he said.

Seymer said he was considering taking his complaints to the Attorney General.

Mikalsen is still waiting for the bulk of the records he requested from DPI. He said he couldn’t decide whether the agency has been “slow or intentional” in its pace in turning over records. Those records cost Nass $888 and took 16 hours to fulfill, according to a DPI attorney. That’s $55.50 an hour to search for emails.

Not long ago, Wisconsin Reporter made two separate requests of the city of Madison for emails from the mayor’s office and a city alderman. Each of those records requests produced hundreds of pages of emails — at no charge.

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