Under Wisconsin’s open government laws, any governmental body has to meet in public and announce what they will discuss in their meetings so folks can decide if they want to attend. Government can meet in closed session in a limited number of circumstances, such as when it is conducting judicial hearings, discussing employment and licensing matters, negotiating the purchase of public properties, or reviewing ongoing litigation.
Now, a Wisconsin attorney from Port Washington wants to help people get a handle on open records laws.
Tom Kamenick started the Wisconsin Transparency Project out of his home. He’s aiming to help people understand when their right to open records has been violated. Kamenick says record laws in Wisconsin are more expansive than those in many other states.
“Every single record, every document, every electronic file, every photograph, every map, the words in the statute are ‘are created or maintained or kept by a government authority’ is presumptively open to the public for both inspection and copying,” Kamenick says. “The default is if there is a document in the hands of some government official or government office, you get to see it if you want to see it.”
Kamenick has a background in pro bono, or uncharged, work with the advocacy group Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, commonly called WILL. He also worked with the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
“I came to realize that there was a lot more need for a dedicated open government practice that I could provide at WILL, so I decided to break off on my own and see what I could do to meet that need that is out there,” he shares.
Kamenick says he’s not the only lawyer working on open records cases, but most of the cases other lawyers focus on are for larger media companies—with larger budgets. But on a contingency basis, Kamenick will help everyday citizens struggling to get access to information under Wisconsin’s open records.
Someone might be looking for public records if you are concerned about the actions of their elected officials.
Kamenick says government officials might use a variety of excuses to deflect records requests. For example, they might say that they don’t want to release personnel records. Or they might ask you to identify yourself and why you want to the records OR, they might require you to pay a steep fee. Kamenick says these are all violations.
But Kamenick says the most common violation is a failure to provide timely records. Wisconsin law says that they must respond “as soon as practicable and without delay.”
“Still we often see cases where the city office or the government office will delay it for no reason. It won’t be a priority of theirs, they will put it off,” Kamenick notes. “If you requested records, and either been denied, or just have had a very long delay, if it’s been more than 3 or 4 weeks, you should really think about what your legal rights are in that situation.”
If you are interested in your rights to open records, Kamenick recommends that you refer to the resources provided by Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council on their website.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the payment model of Mr. Kamenick’s law firm.