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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cedarburg parents battle for Open Records

The 2nd District Court of Appeals asked the state Supreme Court today to rule whether the transcript of a closed arbitration hearing involving former Cedarburg teacher Robert Zellner should be made public.

The Cedarburg School District fired Zellner for viewing pornography on his school computer. The district refused to reinstate Zellner after an arbitrator said it should do so.
A circuit court judge ruled that the transcript of that hearing was exempt from public records laws because releasing the transcript would defeat the purpose of having a closed arbitration hearing.

But a group of Cedarburg parents appealed, saying they had a right to know what information Zellner shared with the district so they could judge the appropriateness of the district's actions.

Then we read:

Under state and federal laws, the public is entitled to a wide array of information from all levels of government. In Wisconsin, the presumption is that records are available to the public unless there is a compelling reason for them to remain private. Except in very narrowly defined circumstances, the information and documents belong to everybody – and for good reason. A well-informed public is critical to the exchange of ideas that builds community strength. Just as important, residents need to have access to details that will help them make well-informed voting decisions and assist them in keeping government in line. The media has a watchdog function, but it’s a role every citizen can and should play.

Daily Tribune staff members routinely make open records requests, and they, along with members of the media from throughout the state, recently participated in a Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council audit. The audit, which involved 318 records requests in 65 of 72 counties, showed that three out of 10 requests were not filled properly, and one in 10 were ignored or denied entirely. In Adams County, for example, a sheriff’s department employee told a Daily Tribune reporter that the jail booking log was not a public record.

Clearly, under state law, it is.

To his credit, Adams County Sheriff Darrell Renner set up a meeting with staff members to review the department’s open records policy. He took the matter seriously and responded with an effort to educate – an entirely appropriate course of action.

Most public officials get it. They understand the law and will provide information upon request. Still, sometimes a reminder is needed. One of the benefits of public records audits is drawing attention to policies or behaviors of public employees that need to change.

A lack of understanding about relevant regulations certainly can be a reason a records request is denied. More concerning are government officials who openly and willingly flout open records and meeting laws. By doing so, they fail to properly serve their constituents, draw criticism and face possible lawsuits.

In this state, in this country, the records and information belong to everyone.


Do they? It seems that's what we are told, but when you take a look at incidents such as the one above (and I'll bet there are people that would come forward in droves to affirm this), obtaining those records can take quite a bit of verbal manipulation, lawful skills, and begging. But you don't have to take MY word for it.

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