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College students learn records may be open, courtesy not a given

Sandy Ellis1 / 2
Andris Straumanis2 / 2

The goal of the experiment was to determine if local public records are truly accessible to ordinary citizens.

Thirty-eight UW-River Falls students who took part in an open records aud3it learned the answer is nearly always yes. But that doesn't mean all area officials give up the information graciously.

"The hardest part was having to deal with authority figures," said Assistant Professor Andris Straumanis, one of two UW-RF instructors who teach the Journalism 201 course on information gathering. He said many students worry about making face-to-face requests for information such as contracts, criminal court files and police records.

"In addition to learning that public records should be available but are not always easy to access, these students got a little practice in questioning authority," said Prof. Sandy Ellis. "That's something they are not accustomed to doing after 12 years in public schools and two or three in college."

Audit participants were told not to identify themselves as journalism students or as students at all because the intent of the exercise is to judge how easy or difficult it is for an average citizen to get public information.

The instructors held "dress rehearsals" with each pair of students and advised them to be polite and persistent but not belligerent.

Goals of the exercise, said Straumanis, are to familiarize the students with open records laws, to teach them another method of information gathering and to help educate public officials.

Getting a small amount of information from the Pierce County Sheriff's Department proved a harrowing experience for Samantha Thielen and Cristy Brusoe.

They said their request for the incident report log for Nov. 21 resulted in being sent down to the Sheriff's Department window, upstairs to the jail and communications center, and then back down to the first station where the woman on duty told them they'd have to talk to the sheriff who was in a meeting.

The clerk said she didn't know how long the meeting would last, and Thielen said the woman appeared angry when the students said they'd wait and settled into hallway chairs.

About 10 minutes later, Sheriff Nancy Hove came out, ushered Thielen and Brusoe into her office and retrieved the information they wanted: A basic log that gives date, time of call, responding officer and a short description of the type of call.

Their experience was much more pleasant, reported Nick Kantola, Elwood Brehmer and Adam Lee, who sought the same information from St. Croix County.

At the Sheriff's Department window they were told the information is kept by the Emergency Communications Center and were sent to Communications Director Casey Swetlik.

He said he could get the incident report log for that whole day, but suggested it would be quite a bit of data. So the students asked to see the calls for a one-hour period the evening of Nov. 21.

That information was provided shortly.

"It was really easy. (Swetlik) was really friendly," said one of the students.

Jerry Clark and Whitney Mayfield said a personnel manager asked why they wanted the information and had them submit their request in writing when they asked for an outside income report for a UW-RF professor.

They were told it would take days to produce the document, but it wasn't ready when Mayfield stopped back several days after the request was made.

While the students may have thought they were getting a run-around, there was another explanation, said Ellis. The report they wanted was hers, and she hadn't sent it in.

Once the human resources department contacted her and she filled out the form, it was turned over to Clark -- just before his 8 a.m. class.

The task for Renae Bergh and Katie Herr was to review the 2008-2009 contract for the Ellsworth High School football coach. They went to the high school first and were sent to the school district office.

The assistant there first said Bergh and Herr would have to wait for the superintendent but then said her concern was that the coach's Social Security number and home address were on the document. She offered to cover that up and copy the document. The students agreed.

When Joseph Peo and Alexis Simmons asked to see the current contract for the River Falls High School football coach, Principal Elaine Bauman said the information was in the office of the assistant principal, who was out for the week.

They were told to come back later.

They described Bauman as polite and friendly and were confident they could have gotten the document if they had returned.

"When I went it was way easier than I expected," said Marwa Mohamed, whose task was to get the minutes of the latest UW-RF Student Senate minutes. She said the woman in the office gave her a copy in "like two minutes."

"She was either really familiar with the open records law, or she was just really friendly," said Mohamed.

Brandon Abley and Natalie Conrad's quest for an inventory of livestock at UW-RF lab farms was as cordial if more time-consuming.

Since they didn't know where to begin, they started at the office of the dean of the College of Agriculture. They were told they should talk to Farm Director Bill Connolly, who just happened to be in the office picking up his mail.

Connolly invited the two to his office, where they spent the next hour learning about manure, said Abley. Connolly said there was no prepared inventory of livestock, but offered to get a list for the students.

A day later they received the list by e-mail, said Abley. The inventory included 111 beef cattle, a bull, 148 dairy cows, 76 sheep, three rams, 507 swine, two boars, 29 chickens and 77 horses.

Katie Malott and Jaime Babb said a deputy in the St. Croix County clerk of courts office told them they had to fill out a form to read the file they wanted. When they declined to give their names, a clerk said she had a right to ask why they wanted to see the file.

Babb replied that she wanted to see the file because the law says it's her right. She and her partner finished reading the document and returned it without getting copies because the charge was $1.25 a page.

"Some (students) were treated with cheerful politeness," said Ellis. "Others described the people they spoke to as 'snippy' or 'condescending.' A few even appeared angry.

"Some students had no problem getting the requested record. Others were asked their names, purpose, and in several cases 'Who sent you?'"

When a person asks to read a public document, the clerk can ask for name, but requestors don't have to identify themselves or say why they want to see the document, said Straumanis.