Editorial: Open Public records: Check before saying noLate last month, the Herald was told that names, ages and addresses of those involved in accidents and other law-enforcement incidents would no longer be made public.
Late last month, the Herald was told that names, ages and addresses of those involved in accidents and other law-enforcement incidents would no longer be made public.
The edict came from Pierce County Sheriff Nancy Hove. This position was affirmed by Pierce County Corporation Counsel Brad Lawrence. It was taken in response to a new state law about disclosures by public officials.
The Pierce County position was then briefly carried out following a weekend motorcycle crash between River Falls and Ellsworth. The driver was thrown, but no identifying information was provided to the press.
State Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen was contacted about the situation by an attorney representing the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.
Fortunately, Van Hollen’s office wasted no time giving an opinion. The gist of it is:
Act 283 was intended to protect victims and witnesses from inappropriate and unauthorized use of their personal identifiers for purposes unrelated to the proper execution of official public duties, such as the “sexting” of crime victims by former Calumet County District Attorney Kenneth Kratz.
The new statutory provisions created by Act 283 do not prohibit law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, or other public agencies from disclosing all personal identifiers of crime victims and witnesses in response to public records requests.
Because of the quick legal response, the public records stalemate over the motorcycle crash ended quickly. We are grateful to the attorney general, but disappointed that Pierce County was so quick to shut off the public records spigot.
According to Wisconsin statutes, those public records are presumed to be open: All persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government. Providing such information is an essential function of government officers and employees. The law shall be construed in every instance with the presumption of complete public access. Only in exceptional cases can access be denied.
At the very least, the Pierce County sheriff and corporation counsel should have sought an informed legal opinion — as this newspaper did — before deciding to become trailblazers and go against the “presumption of complete public access.”
Closing off a portion of open records is serious business. Rushing to do so is not something we expect our local public officials to do.