Wisconsin Public Records Law – A Recent Victory for the Public

A case brought before the Wisconsin Supreme Court was recently released in June 2012, concerning interpretation of the Wisconsin Public Records Law — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Ben Poston and Gina Marie Barton v. City of Milwaukee, City of Milwaukee Police Department and Edward A. Flynn, Case No. 11-AP-1112.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court found that the record authority may not impose a fee to a requester of a public record for the actual, necessary and direct costs incurred by the authority, including staff time for deleting nondisclosable information included in the responsive records. In this case, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was seeking significant records relative to an ongoing investigation as it related to the Milwaukee Police Department not reporting violent crime. In an effort to thwart the investigation and to, hopefully, cause the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to essentially walk away, the Milwaukee Police Department stated it had to redact a significant amount of information from the records being requested, and informed the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that costs of over $2,000 would be necessary in advance to obtain the records, plus an additional cost for deleting the records.

The Court very clearly found that a record custodian may charge for the actual, necessary and direct costs of locating a record, but not for deleting information from a responsive request. The Public Records Law indicates that the law imposes four tasks on a record custodian — reproduction and transcription of a record, photographing and photographic processing, locating a record and mailing or shipping. There is no statutory authority for imposing the cost of deleting information from the record — this is a cost that would have to be absorbed by the record authority, as redaction is not within the statute.

This is a major victory for individuals seeking open records from authorities who often attempt to thwart the requests by citing exorbitant fees. It is clear that this will not be permissible under this recent decision.

Bucher Law Group, LLC, is ready to assist you with any Open Records or Open Meetings issues you may be experiencing with governmental bodies. We have extensive experience in dealing with issues concerning the Public Records Law. We will gladly assist you with this issue.