The Wisconsin Open Records Law (S. 19.31 – S.19.39) begins with a declaration of public policy “that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.” It underscores that declaration by specifically noting that providing such information is “an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees whose responsibility it is to provide such information.” And finally, to make sure that there be no misunderstanding of the extent to which the Legislature meant such openness to apply, the declaration makes it clear that the Open Records Law “shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”
The Legislature has recognized also that there are instances when access to government records must be balanced against other personal, business and good government interests. And so while there is a general presumption of openness in all cases of access to government records, records custodians are asked to balance the presumption of openness against any harm that might be caused from providing access.
The guidance that the Legislature has given public records custodians in this regard is the policy statement of “presumption of complete public access” along with a list of 10 areas in which government records are either totally or partially exempt from disclosure and the final direction that when a record contains some information that IS subject to disclosure and some that IS NOT subject to disclosure, the record custodian must provide the record with the exempt material deleted.
You can read the statutory section that lists the 10 areas that have total or partial exemptions from disclosure at S.19.36, but we list the exemptions/limitations here in brief form:
- Records specifically exempted by State and/or Federal Law are not subject to disclosure, such as pupil or health care records.
- Law enforcement investigative information required by State or Federal Law to be withheld from public access are not subject to disclosure.
- Certain portions of government contractor’s records that contain personally identifiable information of the contractor’s employees are not subject to disclosure.
- Computer programs themselves are not subject to disclosure, BUT the data or material input and produced ARE subject to disclosure.
- Trade Secrets are not subject to disclosure.
- Identity of all applicants for state positions or for local public offices is not subject to disclosure BUT, finalists for any appointment to any state position, except in the classified service, or to any local office ARE subject to disclosure; generally the 5 most qualified candidates; where less than 5 in the selection pool, then ALL of the candidates; where candidate list was not reduced to 5 most qualified and contains more than 5, then ALL of them.
- Identity of Law Enforcement Informants is not subject to disclosure.
- Plans or specification for State buildings are not subject to disclosure.
- Home addresses, e-mail addresses, social security numbers of State and Local Public employees are not subject to disclosure, except the exemption does not apply when permission for release has been given by the employee; and the home address of an elected official or someone who, as a condition of employment, must reside in a certain location IS subject to disclosure.
- Certain public employee records are not subject to disclosure:
- Information from a current investigation of a criminal offense or misconduct connected to employment by an employee before the disposition of the investigation.
- Certain information related to employment examinations.
- Performance evaluations and other staff management planning information concerning public employees are not public. However, performance evaluations of higher-ranking state and public officials are subject to disclosure upon notice to the official.