MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Government entities would be allowed to charge record requestors for time spent deleting confidential information under a bill a Republican lawmaker released Friday that would effectively negate a state Supreme Court ruling barring the practice.
Open record advocates blasted the proposal, saying it would have a chilling effect on the public's access to information. The bill's author, Rep. Gary Bies, countered that advocates want the government to "give it all to me free. I don't care who has to pay for it. ... When you get requests for broad information where municipalities have to go through a lot of extra work you end up with the taxpayers footing the bill for somebody's research or investigation."
Bies' proposal comes after the state Supreme Court last year prohibited record custodians from charging requestors for redaction expenses. The decision came out of a dispute between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper and the Milwaukee Police Department.
The newspaper sued after the department demanded $4,000 to cover time spent redacting hundreds of incident reports reporters asked for as part of an investigation into how the agency classifies crime data.
A Milwaukee County judge sided with the city, authorizing it to charge the newspaper for all costs related to complying with the requests, including redactions. The Supreme Court last June reversed that ruling, concluding Wisconsin's open records law allows custodians to charge only for reproducing, photographing, locating and mailing records.
The court's four-justice conservative majority, however, implored lawmakers to address the issue, saying they should decide whether taxpayers should bear the full brunt of redaction expenses.
Bies said local government officials in his district asked him to look at redaction costs. The bill he released Friday is simple; it amends the open records law to allow custodians to charge for redaction as well.
Messages left at the Milwaukee city attorney's office and for a Milwaukee Police Department spokesman seeking comment on the bill weren't immediately returned.
Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities said the bill is one of the organization's priorities and just makes sense.
"It'll take staff time and resources to go through (a large request) and make sure all the confidential information is blacked out," Witnyski said. "We thought it was logical to add this as one of the costs authorities can get reimbursed for."
Open records advocates vowed to defeat the bill. They argued the public already pays the government to compile and maintain records and charging for redactions equates to double taxation.
"We knew this was coming," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. "We're optimistic that this legislation can be successfully resisted. ... The public is not going to be supportive of the idea of taxing people."
The Journal Sentinel's managing editor, George Stanley, said in an email to The Associated Press the bill would gut the state's open records law by making records too pricey to acquire.
"(The bill) will allow bureaucrats and politicians to seal off records they don't want the public - their bosses - to see," Stanley said.
The bill's prospects are unclear. Bies' fellow Republicans control both the state Assembly and Senate and have Republican Scott Walker in the governor's office, but Bies just began soliciting co-sponsors on Friday and said he hadn't spoken to GOP leaders about the measure.
Justin Cleveland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said Vos' office was reviewing the bill.
"We want to keep the government as free and open as possible," he said, "but do need to deal with all the costs incurred by the state and thus would consider any common sense approach."
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