Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of open government and the First Amendment, was heralded by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with a March 8 proclamation and executive order designed to make state agencies share more information with the public.
Walker, a Republican, ordered agencies to report how many record requests they receive and put frequently requested records online. It follows up on Walker’s executive order last year that goes beyond the law by requiring agencies to keep track of record requests, according to Walker’s office.
“Governor Walker believes in open government. He believes in government accountability,” said Tom Evenson, Walker’s deputy communications director.
In Minnesota, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton proclaimed last Sunday “Soccer in Minnesota Day.”
Sunshine Week ended Saturday without proclamation from Room 130 in the State Capitol.
That’s not surprising, given what Dayton said during an interview last month: “I’m trying to think in six years, whether I’ve had anybody in the public or especially in the press who’s complained to me about the lack of access to data from our office.”
Maybe Minnesotans accept that there’s little to learn by requesting data from the governor’s office, after three administrations that delete e-mails at will, and a law that provides many ways to say no.
Sunshine Week may be hokey, but it does say something about the politics of the issue on either side of the St. Croix River.
In the summer of 2015, word leaked out that Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin’s capital were considering a last-minute bill that would make virtually all of their records secret, including communications with constituents.
The resulting outrage was bipartisan. Walker and legislative leaders dropped the proposal and said they were “steadfastly committed to open and accountable government.”
Minnesota lawmakers have never been covered by their own public records law. And constituent communications aren’t public.
Since the 2015 brouhaha, Walker has presented himself as a champion of transparency. His office has released 6 million pages of records as data requests jumped 230 percent over his predecessor, Gov. Jim Doyle, Evenson said.
His executive order last year directed agencies to accelerate and track their responses to data requests. This year’s order went further, by requiring agencies to show the public how well they’re doing on transparency, as well as putting popular records online.
“It’s a step forward and we appreciate it,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. He noted that Walker’s office was still among the slowest of state agencies in handing over records. “I don’t want to jump up and down and say everything is great.”
“He’s a smart enough politician to know this is an area you can buff up your reputation on,” he said.
The Dayton administration leaves it up to each agency to figure this stuff out. Some do it well. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has a tracking system, so that division can show details for the 6,680 requests it received in 2015.
The Minnesota Department of Education, on the other hand, cannot say how many data requests it receives.
The city of Minneapolis last week announced that it was beefing up its records management staff and making it easier for people to request data on the city website.
But for most of Minnesota, including the governor’s office, Sunshine Week was cloudy with scattered yawns.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.