FILE - Government transparency open records law sunshine

For nearly two decades, Sandy Weidner has represented the residents of the sixth district in Racine, Wisconsin, on the city council. It’s a safe bet that she’s never encountered a situation like the one she currently faces. In fact, no one in the city has.

Weidner is facing an unprecedented series of court cases as she fights to retrieve what she believes are public records and fights for her right to discuss the case.

On Oct. 3, Weidner underwent a contempt of court hearing in the court of Racine County Circuit Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz. Weidner was initially cited with contempt for speaking about an open records request that she was involved in. The case (Case # 2017CV001644) surrounding that request was subsequently sealed by Gasiorkiewicz.

The judge has said that he sealed the case “…because of the nature of the action. It's one that shouldn't be open. I made a public policy determination." What that means though, he won’t say as any questions are deflected with a statement that they can’t be answered because the case is sealed. He has said that he used a “rubric” with which to make his determination.

The contempt hearing was initially set to be a closed-door affair, but under pressure from numerous media outlets, Judge Gasiorkiewicz allowed the public access. Weidner was found in contempt and ordered to pay the attorney’s fees for the contempt proceedings. The city had requested she pay a fine of $15,000 initially.

While the case was a civil one, during the proceedings, Weidner frequently invoked her 5th Amendment rights. She was represented in the case by attorney Terry Rose, who argued that since no material information had been disclosed, she did not violate the judge’s directive regarding the seal on the case. Gasiorkiewicz had a differing opinion.

Weidner was warned against any further discussion and told that the fine would increase to $1,000 per day should she continue to discuss the case. The initial case regarding Weidner’s records request is now being reviewed by the appellate court.

“This whole case has been extraordinary in the level of secrecy embraced by public authorities in the city and county of Racine,” stated Bill Leuders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

“It’s intensely questionable that the judge would seal the case in this way,” Leuders said before adding, “it’s indicative of something very troubling in the city of Racine.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by columnist David Zweifel in an October 15 story in The Capital Times where he wrote, “Someone ought to give the powers-that-be in Racine's city attorney's office and the county's courthouse a copy of Wisconsin's open records law. It's obvious that too many believe that since they're in office they don't have to answer to anyone but themselves.”

Leuders did have some hope that what he saw as a wrong would be righted.

“We do believe this is an anomaly and I’m optimistic that the appellate court will reject the secrecy practiced and approved of by this judge,” he said.

While the case has received some attention across the state, the question remains as to if people are, and should be, outraged by it.

“I don’t think that people who aren’t in Racine are necessarily up in arms over this,” Leuders said “but people in Racine should be up in arms. They are the ones paying for this foolishness.”

In saying that he referenced that the Racine City Attorney, Scott Letteney, has retained outside council, attorney Michael Cohen, to represent the city in this matter.

“There is a coalition of organizations, including The Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, USA Today Network, and Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council who have intervened to make sure the contempt hearing was opened and who are now petitioning the appellate court to have the seal on this case removed,” Lueders said.

Other media outlets have taken up the general arguments made by Leuders and others. The Wisconsin State Journal weighed in with an Oct. 9 editorial decrying the situation, saying “A state appeals court, where the dispute is now pending, should reject Gasiorkiewicz’s excessive secrecy.”

“Even the judge’s decision [for sealing the case initially] was filed under seal – the parties involved couldn’t talk about it, the public couldn’t know,” Leuders said and then added with exasperation: “That’s just crazy.”