County committee wants open records law clarified
When a citizen group demanded to see all of Rock County's election ballots, it cost Lori Stottler more than two days of work during a busy election season.
The cost to the group requesting the ballots?
The Walworth County Board Executive Committee on Monday passed a resolution asking the state Legislature to amend the Wisconsin Open Records Laws so that local governments can better recoup their costs.
The resolution will now go to the county board. If the board approves it, the request will be forwarded to the Legislature.
The issue came up after the June recall election, when groups filed open records requests with county clerks throughout Wisconsin, asking to count or inspect ballots.
State statutes allow authorities to impose a fee for locating records that does not exceed the "actual, necessary and direct cost of location, if the cost is $50 or more."
But what, exactly, does "location cost" mean? The time it takes to remove the ballot bags from the vault and unseal them? Or does it mean the time the county clerk takes to supervise the viewing of ballots?
To protect against tampering, the clerk—or another official—must oversee the work.
In Walworth County, Clerk Kim Bushey told the group requesting the ballots that she would charge for the staff time involved in locating the ballots and supervising the viewing.
She made that decision after consulting with Walworth County Deputy Corporation Counsel Michael Cotter.
The group later withdrew its request.
"I think we're going to see more and more contentious elections," Walworth County Administrator David Bretl told the committee.
Rock County's Stottler agreed.
When the citizens group requested a review of the ballots, Stottler spent about two hours with them, explaining how her office prepared for the election and how ballots were protected.
"They didn't want to know it," Stottler said. "You don't just get to come in here and think there are shenanigans going on."
In addition, Stottler oversaw the ballot-counting.
"When they said to me, 'Your numbers are off,' I made them recount," Stottler said. "I'm insuring the integrity of my staff."
Her numbers were right; the group had miscounted.
Stottler has no plans to forward a resolution to the Rock County Board asking for legislative change.
"At this point, I don't know if legislation will be effective," Stottler said. "I think this starts the discussion."