Staffing challenges increase backlog of public records requests at many agencies statewide

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, some government agencies’ staffing challenges are making it increasingly difficult for people to obtain public information they are guaranteed access to by Wisconsin law. The delays are largely due to budgetary constraints, request complexity, and staffing shortages.

Wisconsin’s open records law dictates that records custodians must fulfill requests or give a reason for denying them “as soon as practicable and without delay”; for some agencies, however, that has meant taking over a year to fulfill some requests.

Public records advocates have filed several lawsuits against local agencies in an attempt to speed up the process. Last Wednesday, freelance journalist and Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders filed a lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court which sought to compel the Madison Police Department’s fulfillment of a request for officer investigations and discipline after he was told it could take 14 months. The Madison Police Department has struggled to hire enough staff to keep up with a growing records request backlog; in 2022, it fulfilled more than 32,000 public records requests — one request every 16 minutes.

Statewide, police departments have had trouble keeping up with requests for body and dashboard camera footage.