If you’re the “wrong” person requesting the “wrong” city public records from the “wrong” officials, you can have a very tough time indeed. You might even endure a years-long legal struggle.
Of course, by “wrong” in all these instances, I really mean: Some public agencies or officials will go to great lengths to conceal information that could be unflattering.
A former alderwoman for the city of Racine, WI experienced this level of near-persecution in response to her 2017 records request.
Although open records laws intend to empower requesters and hold officials accountable, governments have many legal options to keep whistleblowers under fire – until they’re redeemed in court.
The WI situation arose when the alderwoman was running for mayor several years ago.
The city attorney at the time called a meeting of council members to show a PowerPoint presentation of her emails, publicly calling her ethics into question.
When she requested the PowerPoint presentation as a public record, it was denied.
The city’s justification? They said the PowerPoint was protected by attorney-client privilege.
On top of the denial, the city reacted in several ways to sequester the incident, including:
- Convincing a judge to dismiss the alderwoman’s petitions
- Sealing the case, which keeps it out of public court records
- Holding the alderwomen in contempt of court when a newspaper reported on the sealed case in 2018
However, an appeals court recently ruled that attorney-client privilege disappeared as soon as the PowerPoint was shown at a public meeting.
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council filed a suit in support of her case. She was actually named Whistleblower of the Year in 2019.
The former alderwoman is still pursuing the case to have her attorney’s fees covered.
Of course, taxpayer dollars will pay those attorney’s fees, if granted. And the cost of the city’s efforts to keep records out of the public eye? Paid by taxpayers.
I represent news media, bloggers, publishers, and citizens interested in government access, and others who operate under the First Amendment—public records; public meetings; newsgathering; avoiding defamation lawsuits; suing Anti-SLAPP violators. My job is to help you get the records and access you need, help you get the story, help you get the story without getting arrested, help get the story published without defaming anyone, and then defend the story after publication.
If you need help with any of these areas and don’t have an attorney already, contact me: [email protected]. This post is not intended to be legal advice and does not form the basis of a lawyer-client relationship.