St. Croix Court Orders Somerset School District to Respond to Record Request
District refuses to provide records related to COVID-19, other record requests
St. Croix County, WI resident Jessica Klatt has some questions for the School District of Somerset. Somerset parents have organized and have been attending school board meetings and advocating for medical freedom for their children for months. Each meeting, the parents are met with push-back from board members, some whom have ties to people in high places within St. Croix County. Board member Patti Jo Forsberg, for example, is the daughter of St. Croix County’s Medical Examiner and former Senator, Patti Schachtner. Actions that took place during school board meetings prompted questions regarding who was influencing Somerset officials.
To answer those questions, Jessica made a simple record request to the District – electronic communications to and from Board President Lori Baillargeon over 10 days containing any of 9 keywords. Such requests are routine all around the state and can be fulfilled by a simple search. Instead of fulfilling the request, District Superintendent Mark Bezek told Jessica “there will be a significant charge”. When she asked why it would cost so much to do a keyword search and asked how much it would actually cost, Bezek would not explain further.
Wondering what they were hiding, Jessica made two more record requests: one seeking similar emails over a different 2-week period for both Bezek and Baillargeon and one seeking other record requests Bezek had received. Jessica received the same non-response from Bezek. He again told her there would be a “significant cost” but refused to elaborate.
The District’s response to Jessica’s requests are blatant violations of the Open Records Law. Record custodians cannot just tell requesters that it will be expensive and then ignore them. They must either provide the records or give an estimate for how much it will cost and a breakdown of how that cost was calculated.
On Jessica’s behalf, the Wisconsin Transparency Project wrote a letter to the District on July 7 objecting to the District’s illegal response.
The letter also explained that electronic searches can be performed in minutes, if not seconds, and the District could not charge Jessica anything for time spent by the District’s attorney or staff reviewing the records for confidential information.
The District ignored the Transparency Project’s letter, and the Project, on Jessica’s behalf, sued the District in St. Croix County Circuit Court.
The suit alleges six violations of the Open Records Law: four counts of unlawful delay, one count of failure to appoint a deputy custodian, and one count of attempting to charge unlawful fees. Judge Edward F. Vlack has now ordered Somerset to turn over the records or appear in court and show cause why they should not be compelled to do so.
“We gave the District the chance to fix its mistakes,” said Attorney Tom Kamenick, President and Founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project. “They ignored our letter and continued to brush Jessica off. They need to be held responsible for their repeated and blatant violations of the Open Records Law.”
“The Government is in servitude to the People. However, when they act as though they are not, it’s the responsibility of the People to demand that servitude through accountability.” – Jessica Klatt
The court can order the District to turn over the records, limit the fees the District can charge, and award Jessica her court costs, reasonable attorney fees, statutory damages, and potentially punitive damages.