(The Center Square) – Wisconsin Senators want to take away a strategy that some local governments have used to keep public information under wraps.
The State Senate on Wednesday approved SB 117, also known as The Open Government Protection Act, with a simple voice vote. The legislation would force local governments to pay the legal fees of people who sue over open records requests, even if the local government doesn’t technically lose the case.
“The Wisconsin Supreme Court decided in 2022 that a requester prevails in whole or in substantial part only if the requester obtains a judicially sanctioned change in the parties' legal relationship,” the Legislative Reference Bureau explained in the legislation. “Under the supreme court's decision, a requester generally is not entitled to attorney fees and costs if the authority voluntarily or unilaterally without a court order provides contested records after the requester files an action in court.”
The legislation essentially mirrors the federal rules for freedom of information requests.
The original case started with a 2017 lawsuit from the Friends of Frame Park in Waukesha. The group sued, alleging the city had wrongfully withheld a draft lease agreement between the city and a baseball group.
Waukesha held on to that contract until just after a city council meeting. The Friends and Frame Park then pushed the case through the courts.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty cheered Wednesday’s vote.
“The ability to request public records is vital to ensuring transparent and accountable government,” WILL’s Lucas Vebber said in a statement. “This legislation will continue ensuring that government actors produce public records in a timely manner.”
A number of groups, including the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Wisconsin Newspapers Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Wisconsin Transparency Project, Americans for Prosperity, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Wisconsin Realtors Association, and the ACLU of Wisconsin all support the legislation.
The plan now heads for a vote in the State Assembly.
Gov. Evers has not yet said if he plans to sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.