Green Bay attorney: ‘We are really far behind’ on record requests

State law does not set a timeframe for when requests must be filled
Published: May. 16, 2023 at 4:16 PM CDT|Updated: May. 17, 2023 at 5:44 AM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - The city of Green Bay’s law department says it’s significantly behind on processing open records requests this year.

City Attorney Joanne Bungert says the law department has already received 116 open record requests this year and they are only about a quarter of the way through them. In comparison, the department processed a total of 202 open record requests last year.

At a personnel committee meeting on April 25, Green Bay city attorney Joanne Bungert laid out the numbers. “I feel like a broken record, but we are super busy, particularly on records front.”

She said a recently completed request averaged 10 hours of work -- searching, redacting, and using an old system to search emails. “It searches keywords and gives a dump of 10,000-15,000 emails. That’s one person literally going through 10,000-15,000 emails to see if they’re responsive,” Bungert said.

She doesn’t see the requests slowing down. Bungert said after the election in April, two people made 10 open record requests.

Wisconsin’s open records law guarantees the public has access to records kept by government agencies at all levels, including voting and financial records, as well as written communications involving officials. But the law does not require an agency to respond, fill or deny a request within a certain timeframe. Instead, the Department of Justice says authorities should make a good-faith effort to respond to requests without undue delay.

“We don’t want to look like we are delaying. That’s communication coming from constituent or alder, we want to get it out as soon as possible, otherwise the information gets stale and we want to keep up and we are not,” Bungert said.

Now to catch up, Bungert asked the city council to let her increase the hours of two staff members to help process the requests. It’s a change that wasn’t supposed to happen until July. Back in January, during the 2023 budget process, she asked the city to make two positions full-time.

City Council President Jesse Brunette said, “I think the big issue we had last budget year was that there were a number of council members that did not like the massive tax increases, and we were looking at ways to kind of chip away at that and we thought it was a reasonable idea to just delay making the positions full-time until July.”

But hearing about the delay, along with some salary savings in the law department, city council members agreed to move up the timeline, putting about 10 more hours a week toward clerical needs in the law department.

“It’s just with the open records requests that have been accumulating we need to be much more quick in turning those around for the sake of public transparency. So, this will help. It’s a modest change, but it will certainly speed up the process,” said Brunette.

The city of Green Bay’s law department says it’s significantly behind on processing open records requests this year.