Who is on the Public Records Board? Privately taking this Gov thing private | WisCommunity

Who is on the Public Records Board? Privately taking this Gov thing private

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? Well, we don't know, really, because the State of Wisconsin Public Records Board apparently did a lousy job keeping records on itself.

Minutes of the board's August 24 meeting are without detail or an accounting of votes on an motion -- illegally ignored in the board's public meeting notice -- that effectively limits access to selected public documents by citizens, journalists and others.

Just as important as what they were thinking: WHO ARE THEY? That we know more about, and what we know suggests the board's move -- widely seen by open records experts nationally as anti-open government if not outright illegal -- was pre-ordained. Read on to learn the backgrounds of faceless appointees who are enabling more government secrecy.

First, the board's members were all appointed by Gov. Scott Walker, other Republicans or Walker administration managers. Newspapers already have noted that the board's essentially secret decision at that August meeting allowed and might continue to allow these same politicians to effectively censor certain state records, like emails or visitor logs, in a way that benefits Walker directly.

In fact, exactly one day after the board's vote, the Walker administration denied a records request from the Wisconsin State Journal seeking certain administration text messages. The administration said it had no such records, or rather that it once had them but discarded them because they were "transitory" and that the state's Open Records Law allowed their deletion -- thanks to the Public Records Board and its interpretation the previous day.

Here's the deal, guys: Everything in the universe is "transitory." The issue is how long it transits. In this case, the "transitory" period for public records supposedly available to the, well, um, the public was measured in instants, days or maybe weeks, depending upon how long the Walker administration could stall the request until figuring out a quasi-legal way to subvert it. A radioactive half-life that left little chance anyone would notice the documents were even missing.

"Transitory," in fact, rather smacks of that Nixon administration line that certain embarrassing statements made earlier, before their significance became clear to Watergate investigators, were now  "inoperative."

You almost had to smirk today when Walker said changes to the Public Record Board's membership may be in order. Hey, Gov, reality check: Just as you controlled appointments to the failing Wisconsin Economic Development Authority and many other key agency appointments, you controlled THESE appointments. But moreover, as we shall see in a moment, you probably also controlled the outcome you now pretend to question -- after that outcome got you out of a political jam.

And now, barring a sudden attack of conscience among Republicans or lawsuits by aggrieved government watchdogs, Wisconsin's elected, highly political and self-serving state government will be free to delete anything "transitory" by the Public Records Board definition that might prove embarrassing to said government. Or maybe not, since they got caught once again tinkering with the plumbing, or maybe that's plumbing the depths.

Of course, to hear Walkeristas talk about it, you'd think this was all just a matter of very tidy housekeeping. Almost fastidiously tidy, like one of those "cleaners" who obliterates evidence at a crime scene.

The startling "transitory" excuse from Walker staffers backfired when it encouraged newspapers to pry into the actual, legal justification for the deletion of state government records that are supposed to be available to the public. And that led to the obscure Public Records Board.

Earlier this year, Republican legislators attempted to weaken the Open Records laws after actually weakening the state's Open Meetings law, so it would almost never apply if ever apply to them. Public furor over that forced the GOP lawmakers to pull back. Evidently, they then moved to make some of the changes through a secret back door -- the records board.

And that little-known board appears to have overstepped its authority, possibly violating state law in the process. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association: "We're really bothered by and concerned about what was done. We believe it was an overreach of their authority," Bennett said. "I don't believe that this board can take records that are currently available under the state records law and make them exempt. There's case law that says it's public record."

Defenders of the board say it was merely tweaking the rules for administering the Open Records law, but critics say the board's decision in fact cannot be made by anyone other than the Wisconsin Legislature.

Of course, the latter course is perhaps exactly what happened here, only camouflaged. As I said, the board's action would seem to have been pre-ordained. The way things work in the Walker administration is that everyone reports to Moscow for orders, Moscow being the governor's office, or when those folks are too busy running for president, the Department of Administration, or DOA for short (ominous foreshadowing, huh?).

DOA is a sort of a big, superimposed uber-gubernatorial staff with lots of power to order up and mess around with the internal workings of state agencies, boards and commissions -- often not only organizing agency meetings and filling  agendas but even sometimes helpfully staffing those meetings, meaning the uber-agency moves proceedings toward a predestined, favored outcome.

In the business world, this is known as a "wired" process. The deal's already been arranged; the meeting is just a formality, sometimes. Almost nothing of substance in state government happens without DOA's imprimatur.

Whatever the intelligence and experience and expertise of the Public Records Board members, know two things: 1.) They serve at the pleasure of the ruling party and 2.) They lead other, full-time careers and are likely pliant regarding actions helpfully suggested by the administration.

So who are these shadowy public records Masters of the Universe?

The board chair is Matthew Blessing, designated to serve on the board by the director of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Blessing is administrator of the society's Division of Library-Archives. That's ironic, in that the mission of the Historical Society in another venue is to preserve documents of historical value, not eliminate them.

Blessing told reporters the change was simply intended "to provide greater clarity to the definition of a transitory record." Someone ought to file an Open Records request for any documents on this subject that evince clarity.

From the latest Journal Sentinel dispatch:

The new definition expands on the description of transitory records to include "emails to schedule or confirm meetings or events, committee agendas and minutes received by members on a distribution list, interim files, tracking and control files, recordings used for training purposes and ad hoc reports for individual use."


Board member Paul Ferguson was the designee of Attorney General Brad Schimel. A Republican, Schimel on numerous occasions has sung the virtues of transparency and open government. Moreover,  Ferguson, an assistant attorney general, runs the attorney general's open records office. A month ago, Schimel, aka Mr. Open Government, sought to block the release -- under the Open Records Law -- of training videos he appears in, despite a state appeals court ruling that he make them public.

Board member Bryan Naab was the designee of the state auditor. Naab is the deputy auditor. Two  Wisconsin GOP lawmakers have suggested abolishing the Legislative Audit Bureau, since -- as in the case of the widely publicized John Doe investigation focusing on the governor's re-election campaign -- the nonpartisan Audit Bureau has produced a number of reports that amount to bad news for Republican policies, especially Walker's troubled Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

Melissa Schmidt, designee of the Legislative Council director, is a senior staff attorney with that council, a nonpartisan office whose staff among other tasks provides legal advice and guidance to standing committees of the legislature and serves as the statutory rules clearinghouse by preparing reports on all proposed administrative rules and advising standing committees in their oversight of the administrative rulemaking process. Was the Public Records Board action in keeping with all this oversight? God only knows. That is, God and Team Walker.

Sandra Broady-Rudd, a designee of the governor, is an "operational risk consultant" at Wells Fargo Bank. You want to spot risky behavior, she could be your go-to. Filling out the board is Carl Buesing, the local-government designee of the governor, who is the Sheboygan County corporation counsel; and Peter Sorce, also designated by the governor, a Washington County Board supervisor from Germantown.

So, yes, lots of high-powered political, legal, and public administration expertise there on that Public Records Board. Except it does stuff in secret, and stuff that seems to recklessly skirt up against the limits of state law, or past them. But don't be too quick to blame the board. Do you think those high-powered members really have the time to do their own analysis and set their own agendas? Heck, that's why we've got a governor and the DOA, to, uh, help them out.

Public records Dead On Arrival, and it was just luck that anyone figured out how it happened.


December 11, 2015 - 3:11pm