Village of Black Earth charges resident $74 to see documents about her own property

Joe Block

A Black Earth resident is facing a $74.50 charge for copies of public records concerning her property. The Village said the request will require 1.5 hours of work. Municipalities can charge for such requests, but can provide copies free or at a reduced cost as well.

Around Dec. 13 Mary Scott submitted a written records request to the Village. The request was for any complaints concerning ordinance violations for her property. On Dec. 17 Scott received a letter from Deputy Clerk Gena Levenhagen. The letter provided the costs for the request--$74.50 for 1.5 hours of work--to search and locate the documents.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, in the 2019 Public Records Compliance Guide, writes of Wisconsin State Statute 19.31, which establishes the law, “This is one of the strongest declarations of policy found in the Wisconsin statutes,” and “Wisconsin legislative policy favors the broadest practical access to government.”

The statute treads, in part: “[I]t is declared to be the public policy of this state 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. Further, providing persons with such information is declared to be 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.”

The Village may charge “actual, necessary and direct cost[s]” for copying and locating the records. It may provide the documents free or at a reduced cost if the Village determines it is in the public interest.

Scott subsequently went to the Village office on Dec. 20 and spoke with Levenhagen. When Scott asked about the costs, Levenhagen replied “”I do what I’m told.” When asked about the law, she said “I don’t know.”

Scott then submitted another request in writing while at the Village Hall. She has received no response. Statute says the response must be provided “as soon as practicable and without delay.” The Wisconsin Department of Justice policy is that 10 working days is generally is a reasonable time for responding to a simple request. As of press time, it has been 10 days.

Open record requests are a statewide concern. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article from Sept. 12, 2019 reported that Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) charged a $100.41 fee for location charges for a records request. Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders made a similar request. He was quoted a search fee of $344.66.

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