/ Articles / Four months later, Oneida County still has not released Conlon emails

Four months later, Oneida County still has not released Conlon emails

Walker: Public has a right to know what health director was doing during lockdown

September 22, 2020 by Richard Moore

As Oneida County officials continue to argue about the required scope of records requests and that all their correspondence with county attorneys is privileged, the county passed a milestone this past week, with four months passing by without any release of the county’s public health officer’s emails.

On May 18, Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker requested three months of public health director Linda Conlon’s public-health-related emails between Feb. 17 and May 17 — at the height of the pandemic and Gov. Evers’ historic lockdown of the state.

Sept. 18 marked four months since the request was sent.

The records have not been denied, and the county did acknowledge the request in a July 21 letter to Walker from county board chairman Dave Hintz. In that letter, Hintz claimed the large volume of emails within that timeframe was slowing the process.

“The request for emails from Linda Conlon is also being processed,” Hintz wrote. “As you have previously been informed, your request has generated approximately 23,000 emails. The emails that are responsive to your request (as well as the other requests) are being reviewed and/or redacted for attorney/client privilege information, personal health information, non-releasable employee information and any other information that is not releasable pursuant to law.”

Hintz said his letter was not intended to deny the records.

“However, the cumulative effect of your requests has added significant work requirements to the county’s elected officials and staff,” he wrote. “The county will continue to work towards providing the records you have requested as soon as practicable and without delay.”

Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker said this week the county is using the review as an excuse to drag out the process and thwart a timely and legal release of records.

“We have asked the same request of a state representative, a town board chairman, and another county chairperson, and all fulfilled the requests within days, and some within hours,” Walker said. “Among our requests, only Oneida County takes months to review records. Only Oneida County can’t get the job done in timely fashion. And when they do release records, they end up being heavily and improperly redacted.”

Walker said the tactic of delay-and-redact amounts to a de facto denial, and taxpayers should ask why.

Similar battle with Evers

While the clock ticks on in the request for Conlon’s records, the public arguments the county is making over the requests for emails from other officials echo those made by Gov. Tony Evers, who is being sued over a denial of requests for his emails by FOX6-TV reporter Amanda St. Hilaire.

The Wisconsin Transparency Project (WTP) sued the governor last December on behalf of FOX6 over Evers’ office’s refusal to turn over even a day of emails.

First, the governor is arguing requests for all emails within specific time frames is causing an inordinate amount of burdensome work, just as Hintz claimed in his July 21 letter. 

Second, Evers is arguing the email requests to him were too broad and did not give a specific subject matter, which the governor’s office says is required by law. Oneida County has not used that argument to deny records yet, but Hintz mentioned it as a concern in his letter releasing heavily redacted emails of his own, and Oneida County corporation counsel Brian Desmond repeated it on the county board floor last week.

“The law states that it has to have a time period and a subject matter,” Desmond said at last Tuesday’s board meeting. “Again, each request has to be looked at as a fact-specific kind of endeavor.”

In fact, the law states: (A) request for a record without a reasonable limitation as to subject matter or length of time represented by the record does not constitute a sufficient request.”

More specifically, according to the WTP, the governor is requesting the scope of the requests be narrowed to include not just a timeframe, but specific search terms within that timeframe.

In fact, FOX 6 had narrowed its timeframe considerably since St. Hilaire’s original request for four weeks of the governor’s and his chief of staff’s emails. Four weeks was narrowed to one week and then to one day, all of which were denied for the lack of a subject matter, though the governor released a day of emails after the lawsuit was filed, the WTP reported.

Even then, the governor insisted he was simply releasing the emails voluntarily, and he could legally deny a similar request in the future.

But Tom Kamenick, the founder and president of the WTP, argues searching through thousands of emails to locate specific search terms would actually cause more work than releasing blocks of emails within a specific time range.

Kamenick also argues requesting all emails within certain time frames allows journalists to “spot check” the work of government officials by seeing who they have been communicating with and what they have been discussing.

“Governor Evers’ denial is unlawful,” Kamenick said in a statement. “State law requires requesters to provide a limitation on either time frame or subject matter, not both. And even if they do need both, the subject matter of this request was emails to and from two identified people. That’s more than specific enough to satisfy the law.”

Walker said he believes Oneida County is deliberately delaying the release of Conlon’s emails under the guise of review, the same as Evers, but has added a new wrinkle by redacting all emails from government attorneys.

“Not only is the county obstructing the records law, but its delay could endanger public safety,” he said. “Our request to Conlon was intended to see exactly what the health director was considering and planning and who she was engaged in talks with during the lockdown and right before the declared state of emergency. Given the broad legal authority given to health officials during a public-health emergency, the public has a right to know exactly what actions were being taken or considered. Due process delayed is due process denied, and four months late is due process denied. Period.”

Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.

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