Elmbrook Settles Records Case, Releases Applications
Decision made after Court of Appeals ruled against district
In May 2020, Brookfield resident Cheri Mastel made a simple request to the Elmbrook School District: the applications it had recently received for an open school board seat. But the district refused to turn over 3 of the 8 applications it received and redacted information from the 5 applications it did provide.
Mastel sued to obtain the records, and the district argued (1) it didn’t have to turn over the applications of “non-final” applicants, and (2) statutory exceptions for personal contact information of government officials also applied to professional contact information and people who weren’t government officials. While the Waukesha Circuit Court agreed with the district and dismissed the case, the Court of Appeals unanimously reversed that decision. The Court of Appeals concluded that if the facts Mastel had alleged were true, the district violated the Open Records Law.
After the Court of Appeals ruling, the district agreed to settle the case. The district turned over the records Cheri had requested – unredacted – and paid her attorney fees, court costs, and statutory damages in the amount of $19,000.
“There are two important lessons for requesters and custodians from this case,” explained Tom Kamenick, President and Founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project and Mastel’s attorney. “First, the exception for non-final applications applies only if the applicants made a written request for anonymity. Second, statutes that provide exceptions in specific situations cannot be expanded beyond those situations.”
Mastel had this to say about her victory: "I am grateful for Attorney Kamenick's time, effort, and expertise in explaining the law, holding the district accountable for non-compliance, and advocating for truth and transparency. These undertakings are crucial to our system of checks-and-balances, and absent them, our government would cease to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. "