SHEBOYGAN (AP) – Public officials in Wisconsin can be fined hundreds of dollars for violating Wisconsin’s open government laws, but court records show only seven citations have been imposed across the state in the past five years for open meetings violations, and none for public records cases.
Prosecutors say that’s because officials largely comply with the law and violations typically are best remedied by corrective actions rather than penalties. But Gannett Wisconsin Media reported Saturday that some residents say another factor is in play – their complaints fall on deaf ears.
After the Appleton Area School District denied Marilyn Bartelt’s request for disciplinary records of employees in the special needs program, she sent a letter to the Outagamie County district attorney seeking intervention. She got no answer.
Susan Lodl uncovered open meetings violations preceding a $500,000 outlay for two wind turbines in her Sheboygan County village in 2010, so she sought action from Sheboygan County’s district attorney. She got no answer either.
“Someone had to do something,” Lodl said.
Both spent thousands of dollars on civil litigation in an attempt to force their local governments to comply with state law.
They succeeded but say the onus shouldn’t be on citizens when state law empowers prosecutors to enforce the law on the public’s behalf.
“I absolutely believe that there is an obligation to enforce open records without requiring people to seek an attorney,” said Bartelt’s daughter, Rebecca Kostopolus.
Gannett Wisconsin Media hired Court Data Technologies in Madison for a search of circuit court records, which found seven citations since 2009. Seven stem from three meetings: in Dunn County in July 2011, in Iron County in August 2009 and in Grant County in June 2009.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said he was surprised the number was as high as seven.
“District attorneys are traditionally very reluctant to use the resources of their office to enforce the state’s openness laws. They just regard it as not a priority,” Lueders said. “I think that there should be more occasions in which district attorneys are going to bat for the public’s right to know.”
Wisconsin law provides for penalties of up to $1,000 for public records law violations and $300 for open meeting violations.
Five of the seven cases yielded fines, including three Town of Red Cedar board members fined $200.50 apiece in the Dunn County case. Two Smelser Township board members were fined $154.50 in the Grant County case. In Iron County, two Town of Pence board members were sentenced to 25 hours of community service with no fine.
Court records show 17 other cases related to open meetings violations were filed but later dismissed.