Madison – Kicking up a storm between two groups that lobby lawmakers, the state’s largest police union sued the Wisconsin Counties Association on Wednesday alleging the group has violated the open records law.
The counties association contends it is not subject to the open records law.
If the Wisconsin Professional Police Association prevails, the lawsuit would make available a whole set of records that have never been seen by the public. The police union is seeking audits, financial records and a host of other data from the counties association.
The union sought the records as it fights efforts by counties to reclassify their jailers as general employees rather than protective service employees – a move that has the effect of greatly limiting their collective bargaining powers.
The police union and its executive director, Jim Palmer, filed the lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court against the counties association and its executive director, Mark O’Connell.
The suit alleges the counties association and O’Connell violated the open records law by withholding its records and “have thus frustrated the public interest in withholding information relative to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars.”
The union is seeking an order declaring that the counties association is subject to – and has violated – the public records law. It also wants an order forcing the counties association to provide the records and pay the union’s legal fees.
“We believe this organization has a duty to the public to open its books and financial records for review and give some assurance that our money is being spent responsibly and in the public’s interest,” Palmer said of the counties association in a written statement. “It’s appalling that the WCA, as a tax-exempt organization, has fought our efforts to provide some clarity on how it spends taxpayer dollars.”
O’Connell could not immediately be reached Wednesday.
Palmer filed an open records request with O’Connell and the association’s general counsel, Andrew Phillips, on Feb. 13. He sought contracting agreements, audits, financial statements, payroll summaries, legal invoices and O’Connell’s expense reports.
Palmer did not receive any documents and filed a second records request on March 4, this time seeking correspondence from the counties association to lawmakers and correspondence between O’Connell and members of the Lafayette County Board.
O’Connell responded to the second request that same day with an email that said, “Wisconsin’s open records law does not apply to the Wisconsin Counties Association,” according to a copy of the email included in Wednesday’s court filing.
At the heart of the case is whether the Wisconsin Counties Association is a quasi-governmental agency, which would make it subject to the open records law.
A 2008 state Supreme Court decision on the open records law said a host of factors go into determining whether a group is a quasi-governmental agency, including how much public money it receives, the extent of its public functions, whether it appears in public presentations to be a government entity, the extent to which it is subject to government control and how much access government bodies have to its records.
Wednesday’s suit says the counties association has filed as a quasi-governmental agency with the Internal Revenue Service, participates in the state pension system, receives taxpayer money in membership dues from individual counties and has a board of directors comprised entirely of elected county officials. Also, the counties association in 2006 told the state Court of Appeals it was created by state lawmakers in 1935 for the purpose of protecting counties’ interests and promoting better local government.
The lawsuit has its roots in the fight over the union powers of public workers for the last two years. Specifically, the police union is trying to ensure jailers are treated like sheriff’s deputies for collective bargaining purposes.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reported this week that at least 10 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties in recent months have designated that their jailers are not protective service employees. Doing so diminishes their union powers because of the 2010 law known as Act 10 that sharply curtailed collective bargaining for most public workers.
Police officers and some other public safety workers are exempt from Act 10. Counties have the power to decide whether their jailers are public safety workers, and the Wisconsin Professional Police Association suspects the counties association has been urging counties to take away jailers’ union powers as a means to save money.
Source By Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel