Department of Natural Resources Open Records Complaint
— Complaint demonstrates how the state agency violated state open records laws by unreasonably delaying DNR responses to MEA open records requests and brings to light an emerging pattern of delayed open records response to interested citizens, non-profit groups, and the media.
Midwest Environmental Advocates reached a settlement agreement on March 29, 2016 with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to resolve our open records law complaint.
For more on how this settlement will add transparency to the DNR’s open records processes and give much-needed guidance to members of the public who frequently contact us with open records questions read our reaction to the settlement.
Our action brought MEA, DNR and Department of Justice attorneys to the table for an overdue and effective discussion about how DNR responds to public records requests. Most importantly, discussions helped to speed up the finalizing and publicizing of the new DNR public records policy. There is measurable progress, but also room for improvement as we watch these policies implemented in the coming months.
In July of 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Justice announced that it would begin publishing requests for records online. Pending requests are available online.
On January 25, 2016, Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a complaint in Dane County Circuit Court against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for violating state open records laws by unreasonably delaying DNR responses to MEA open records requests. The law center based its complaint on three separate, outstanding open records requests: one related to air, the second to a group of wetlands permits, and the third regarding concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Wisconsin’s open records laws give the public the right to obtain records from government authorities, with limited exceptions. These laws make employees at state agencies such as the DNR custodians of the agencies’ records for public access. As custodians of public records, the law implies a relationship of trust between Wisconsinites and the DNR, and a responsibility to serve the public by providing documentation of our government’s activities. Without this trust, the law does not function as intended and citizens start to lose access to a transparent, responsive government.
Open records laws also require agencies like the DNR to provide records within a reasonable amount of time, or to promptly and clearly explain a decision not to release requested records. The DNR has delayed for over six months in providing records in response to certain requests at issue in the complaint. Midwest Environmental Advocates decided that legal action was necessary to resolve not only this case but to bring to light an emerging pattern of delayed open records response to interested citizens, non-profit groups, and the media. It is not legal or efficient to withhold records from the public when the law entitles the public to requested information.
Consistent inaction and delays on the part of the DNR prevent MEA’s meaningful review of agency action and decision-making. This type of review is crucial to Midwest Environmental Advocates’ work for citizens and families working throughout the state on issues relating to healthy water, air, land and government.