Citizens should not have to pay a tax to obtain information from public officials.
Yet that is exactly what a draft bill in the Wisconsin Assembly would propose by allowing government agencies to charge for time spent deleting confidential information from documents.
Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, wants to undo a state Supreme Court ruling last year that prohibited records custodians from charging requestors for redaction expenses. That settled a lawsuit from a 2010 opens-records request made by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which asked for reports as part of an investigation of the Milwaukee Police Department and how it classified crime data.
The newspaper sued after the police department demanded $4,000 to cover redaction time after it already had provided 100 copies of reports for free. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Wisconsin's open-records law allows custodians to charge only for reproducing, photographing, locating and mailing records.
We must remember that all records in Wisconsin are presumed open unless there is a specific statutory exemption. The number of records that would require redaction for confidential reasons is limited.
Bies and bill supporters argue that taxpayers should not bear the costs of redaction. But there is no indication that complying with requests creates widespread undue burden or expense. It is reasonable that public officials should spend some of their time being held accountable to the public. It's part of their job.
In the Journal Sentinel case, the newspaper found that police had misreported thousands of violent crimes, failed to correct the problems and failed to disclose them. Those findings were later confirmed by a consultant hired by the city, but only after the newspaper released its findings.
Examinations and scrutiny of public documents is a crucial part of democracy's system of checks and balances. Government serves its citizens best when it is done in the open, for all to see. Openness and access is for all citizens, not just journalists.
Our concern - and something all Wisconsin citizens should be concerned about - is that the change in law would make it convenient for custodians to throw an outrageous redaction fee as a roadblock to release public records. It would be far too easy under the law change for public officials who don't want records released to say that a highly paid attorney must review the records for redactions - even if they're not required - and quote a ridiculous charge, hoping that the requestor will simply go away.
Sadly, it's not uncommon that our requests for public documents are ignored, delayed or challenged under existing law. This redaction change would only add another layer of unnecessary obstruction.
We - that's all of the taxpayers in Wisconsin - already have paid for that document because we paid the salaries and the benefits of the person who created it. Changing the law as proposed would be a high price to pay for our right to know and certainly not the spirit of openness our state is known for.