Midwest Environmental Advocates this week filed a complaint in Dane County Circuit Court against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for allegedly violating state open records laws by delaying DNR responses to MEA open records requests.
The group based its complaint on three outstanding open records requests: one related to air, the second to a group of wetlands permits and the third regarding concentrated animal feeding operations, also known as CAFOs.
Wisconsin’s open records laws — MEA referred to Wis. Stat. § 19.31 et seq. — give the public the right to obtain records from government authorities, with limited exceptions. The laws make employees at state agencies such as the DNR custodians of the agencies’ records for public access. The law, MEA said in a news release, implies a relationship of trust between Wisconsinites and the DNR, and a responsibility to serve the public by providing documentation of our government’s activities.
“We’ve experienced too many instances where records requests have been unreasonably delayed,” said Tressie Kamp of MEA. “Now we and many of our partners in communities across Wisconsin feel that the trust that is inherent in the open records laws is misplaced. Without this trust, the law does not function as intended and citizens lose access to a transparent, responsive government. It was time to ask the courts for help.”
Open records laws require agencies like the DNR to provide records within a reasonable amount of time or to promptly and clearly explain a decision not to release requested records.
MEA said the DNR has delayed for more than six months in providing records in response to certain requests at issue in the complaint.
“Midwest Environmental Advocates decided that legal action was necessary to resolve not only this case but to bring to light an emerging pattern of delayed open records response to interested citizens, non-profit groups, and the media,” said Kamp. “To be clear, it is illegal and inefficient for all parties involved to withhold records from the public when the law entitles the public to requested information.”