MADISON (AP) — The firestorm of debate ignited by Gov. Scott Walker's changes to collective bargaining rules last year also triggered an explosion of requests for public information from his office.
The office received 214 written requests during 2011, some three times more than the previous governor saw just a few years earlier, Gannett Wisconsin Media found while checking public records activity as part of a Sunshine Week open-government initiative.
The analysis, involving more than 700 pages of documents, also showed that about 1 in 5 requesters got records within a month. Others waited as long as 120 days or more.
The volume of requests last year "probably has a lot to do with a lot of the budget reforms," said Cullen Werwie, a spokesman for Walker.
Central to those changes were the elimination of nearly all collective bargaining powers for most public workers in Wisconsin, including teachers, and the requirement that they contribute more to their health care insurance and pensions, resulting in a sizable cut to their paychecks.
The changes, used to help close a $3.6 billion deficit in the two-year budget, drew tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol, spawned rigorous debate in communities throughout the state, and sparked recall elections for state lawmakers and Walker himself.
"We have been the center of attention for a lot of things the governor has done in the last year to improve our state's fiscal health and make sure that we are improving our state," Werwie said. "Given that, and the fact that we are now butting up against a recall election, a large number of open records requests are from individuals who are tied to looking for campaign material, in addition to news outlets and the average citizen asking, `Hey, what's going on here, I want to see it."'
Most of the people making requests for information from Walker's office last year got what they wanted. But some were in for a long wait. About 42 percent of requesters received responses to their requests within two weeks, and 19 percent got records within a month, the analysis showed.
Another 29 percent of requesters waited between 30 and 90 days for their records, and 8 percent waited between 90 and 120 days. Nine requesters waited more than 120 days to receive all of their records.
In comparison, the last year Gannett Wisconsin Media checked Gov. Jim Doyle's public records performance, for 2008, his office had responded to about two-thirds of requests within two weeks. And, more than 90 percent of Doyle's requesters that year received their records within a month.
But Doyle's staff faced a much smaller volume of requests, about 65.
Even so, "The length of (Walker's) response times is concerning. Generally speaking, any request taking longer than a month would be highly suspect," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a group of news media organizations, educators and others that advocates for government transparency.
Werwie defended the performance of the governor's office, describing the job of responding to requests as "massive."
One full-time staff member is dedicated to requests, but the work typically spills over to others, Werwie said.
"(Compliance with the Public Records Law) is definitely a regular routine for every single person in the office, including the governor," he said. "(Walker) sits at his computer himself to go through the requests that are made of him."
The office spent $79,683.23 fulfilling public records request, including about $58,000 in staff time and $21,600 for nearly 88,000 pieces of paper, and received $5,573.74 in reimbursements from requesters, Werwie said.
Lueders said it's important that people remember the spirit of the law when considering the issue of cost.
"Answering open records requests is not a frill, not an option or something public officials can do out of the kindness of their heart when they get around to it," Lueders said. "It's a bedrock responsibility as established in our state statutes."
People asked for varied types of information.
After Walker was pranked by a caller pretending to be billionaire David Koch, news reporters from two outlets made a request related to the prankster proposing "planting some troublemakers" among the Capitol protesters. The requests yielded no records.
Other requests sought copies of Walker's flight records, emails his office exchanged with Fox News employees, donors to a "Wine and Wickets" croquet tournament Walker and his wife held, and records related to a John Doe investigation of Walker's administration when he was serving as Milwaukee County executive.
The most common request was for records Walker's office released after being sued by The Associated Press and Isthmus, a Madison newspaper. After Walker said publicly on March 17 that he received 8,000 emails from residents, mostly in favor of his budget repair plan, the news organizations wanted copies of those emails. They sued Walker's office after being denied the records, and the office later agreed to a settlement and released the records. In addition to news media, 33 residents also got copies of the emails.
Requests to Walker's office also came in different forms. Some were drafted on formal letterhead; others were sent by email or scrawled on paper with pen.
One person began her emailed request, "Dear Scotty." She wanted a copy of a letter and gift card Walker said he received from a Fox Valley family grateful for property tax savings. The requester, who signed her email "Susan B.," received her records in 24 days.
Tom Hallquist, an Oshkosh dentist, asked for records related to communication between Walker's office and various chambers of commerce as well as the Club for Growth, a politically conservative group with a political action committee.
In his request, Hallquist said the group "ran an ad that attacked my good moderate Republican friends."
Hallquist received records, but he hasn't fully reviewed them. Still, he said the Public Records Law is important.
"You want as much transparency in government as you can," he said. "If they are going to spy on us, we need to see more of what they are doing."
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Did you like this article? Vote it up or down! And don't forget to add your comments below!