Few Wis. open-government complaints investigated

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen

GREEN BAY (AP) – The power to enforce Wisconsin’s open-government laws rests with the state attorney general and local district attorneys, but a review shows that Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has never pursued such a case in his seven years in office.

He and his staffers defer legal action to local prosecutors. However, those local offices tend to be understaffed and less experienced with open-records laws, Press-Gazette Media reported.

That means there’s little action on the hundreds of complaints from residents alleging violations of open meetings laws and public-record requests.

For example, Oconto County resident Raymond Blair complained to Van Hollen’s office after two of three town board members participated in a meeting of another committee, enough for a quorum of the town board.

In an August 2011 letter, Assistant Attorney General Bruce Olsen agreed with him that the meeting should have been posted as a joint session of the town board and committee. But Olsen said it was a local matter, and that the decision was “a matter of policy and resources.”

The letter said Van Hollen “may elect to prosecute complaints involving a matter of statewide concern.” But Van Hollen’s spokeswoman, Dana Brueck, confirmed he hasn’t done so in office.

That leaves nuanced open-government complaints to local prosecutors, who may only see one or two such cases a year.

“I usually have to refresh myself with what the open meetings law is, because we just don’t do it that often,” Sheboygan County district attorney Joe DeCecco said.

County prosecutors generally place a lower priority on open-government complaints because they’re not criminal matters. Fines range up to $300 for violations of open-meetings laws and $1,000 for public records violations.

The previous attorney general, Peg Lautenschlager, filed court cases at least twice against public entities to enforce state open-government laws.

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