I have posted often on this blog - - here's one from May, 2008 - - about a citizens group in Waukesha and Washington Counties that has been trying to stop the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, WisDOT, from pursuing the expensive, land-grabbing and environmentally-damaging expansion of State Highway J/164.
David has been winning of late, but Goliath - in our name and with our money - - isn't taking it lightly.
The Highway J Citizens Coalition, (HJCG), had won a significant victory in federal court, but despite the ruling and direction it gave to WisDOT legal project construction and planning, WisDOT is picking a further fight with the coalition by charging it more than $10,000 in advance for public records as the case continues.
The coalition says in a major filing Monday with Madison prosecutors that WisDOT is withholding the records in part because it doesn't like how highway critics have portrayed WisDOT:
WisDOT has denied our fee waiver request and thrown up multiple roadblocks to prevent us from obtaining these public records because it claims that both the HJCG and WEAL [Wisconsin Environmental Action League] “are known to distribute misleading information regarding this project to the media outlets, on their websites and at WisDOT’s public meetings.”This from a Walker cabinet agency - - though Walker has claimed he is guided by transparency - - but to be fair about it, WisDOT was trying to manage the coalition's ability to distribute information as far back as 2009, too.
The coalition, by the way, says that Federal highway officials have been far more forthcoming with documents, thus making WisDOT look more like an outlier than an agency with transparency as part of its mission.
The records and fees ploy smells like payback by the often tone-deaf, arrogant agency - - and an offense against Wisconsin's Open Records statute, to boot.
The coalition on Monday filed a 150+ page Writ of Mandamus document with the Dane County District Attorney designed to pry the records loose.
Here is an excerpt (if I can access the file in one link, I will supply that):
10. On February 27,2014, WisDOT Assistant General Counsel Smith sent a letter to Attorney Greene stating that: a) Our public interest fee waiver request was denied, b) Our original February 7, 2014 public records request was denied, c) Processing of our February 11, 2014 public records request will take several months to complete, d) Before any paper copies of records would be provided to us with respect to our February 11, 2014 request, WisDOT demanded an upfront cash payment of $7,820, and e) This cost estimate did not cover any electronic records (such cost estimate would be provided at a later date). See Exhibit 5 attached to this letter.
11. In a March 18, 2014 letter, WisDOT Assistant General Counsel Smith demanded an additional $2,500 upfront cash payment for any requested records that are in electronic format and that it would take several months for WisDOT to provide these records after prepayment is received for them. Together with the February 27, 2014 prepayment demand, WisDOT now wants a total of $10,320 for these requested records which, according to them, will take several months to provide, and this amount may not even cover the alleged total cost of these records. See Exhibit 6 attached to this letter.
12. On March 18, 2014, FOIA Liaison William Stark from the FHWA’s Wisconsin Division Office sent Attorney Greene a letter fully granting both our February 7, 2014 public records request and fee waiver for these records.1With that letter, the FHWA gave us the first package of requested records and then stated that we would be receiving several additional packages of records as they are processed. See Exhibit 8 attached to this letter.
13. On March 19, 2014, FOIA Liaison Stark sent us another letter which included a second package of documents from the FHWA related to our February 7, 2014 public records request under FOIA. See Exhibit 9 attached to this letter.
14. As of this date,we still have not received any of the requested public records from WisDOT, and we further believe that: a) WisDOT’s prepayment demand of $10,320 is unreasonable, excessive and apparently intended to prevent us from obtaining these records, b) WisDOT’s claim that processing our public records request (even with full prepayment) will take several months is tantamount to a denial of this request, and
c) WisDOT has denied our fee waiver request and thrown up multiple roadblocks to prevent us from obtaining these public records because it claims that both the HJCG and WEAL [Wisconsin Environmental Action League] “are known to distribute misleading information regarding this project to the media outlets, on their websites and at WisDOT’s public meetings.” (2)