The open files lodge a complaint against the county, the court rules in its favor


By Heather Graves

BROWN COUNTY – As of July 2020, the Brown County Corporation’s attorney’s office has dealt with an open complaint filed by the Green Bay Press-Gazette and reporter Doug Schneider.

“It is difficult to estimate the number of hours that I and other county staff had to spend responding to Gannett’s request for public documents and defending the lawsuit because we do not keep track of our time in fractions of hours as private lawyers do for billing. purposes, ”said company lawyer David Hemery. “But, I can say that the time needed was important and put a strain on my office and that of other county offices, including the Brown County Public Health Department, which could have better served the community by devoting this time to COVID-19 prevention and remediation efforts. “

Hemery said that until the end of August, the county had spent $ 54,266 to defend the lawsuit.

He said he expects an additional bill for additional fees and expenses for September to arrive in mid-October.

The lawsuit stems from an open file request that Schneider and the Press-Gazette made in June 2020 for the names of Brown County businesses being investigated for COVID-19 outbreaks.

Hemery provided Schneider with the requested reports, but redacted the names of the companies.

“I only wrote down the names of the companies, but left the categories,” Hemery said. “(They understood) all the different categories, like nursing homes. And that would allow the applicant, the Presse-Gazette, to say “Retirement homes, here are the figures of retirement homes”, without saying this one house which has only five people, well two of them are positive. So I authorized the major categories. I’m trying to give you what I can here, but I can’t report every business that has someone with COVID positive. “

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, a COVID-19 outbreak is defined as two or more workplace-related COVID-19 cases in the same building, with start dates within 14 days one of the other.

If two or more laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 are identified at the facility with onset dates within 14 days of each other, and the public health investigation identifies a link between the diseases and the building , the epidemic is then a COVID- confirmed. 19 epidemic associated with the company.

Chad Weininger, director of the county administration, said the state’s way of identifying outbreaks only takes partial facts into account.

“I could have walked into (a business) for 2 minutes and when the tracker called me I would have been like ‘Oh yeah, I was in there,'” Weininger said. “The data (the Press-Gazette) they allegedly used really would not have represented the truth or the facts of the case.”

Hemery said he didn’t want to single out companies for things that might be out of their control.

“A business that does everything right – engages in social distancing, uses personal protective equipment, disinfects regularly, uses plexiglass barriers, and follows other local, state and federal guidelines and recommendations regarding the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 – could see its operations negatively affected. by such release, through no fault of his own, until closure, loss of jobs and other associated negative effects on the local community / public, ”Hemery said in response to Schneider’s request.

The plaintiffs (Schneider and Press-Gazette) argued that “neither state nor federal law prohibits the disclosure of the redacted names of companies in the document,” according to Judge Timothy Hinkfuss’ Sept. 21 ruling dismissing their petition. .

They further argue that “the public policy balancing test promotes the disclosure of company names.”

The county argued otherwise, saying “the public policy balancing test favors non-disclosure.”

The report also states that “the county argues that section 146.82 of the Wisconsin statutes prohibits the disclosure of business names and that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Liability Act prohibits the disclosure of business names. trade names ”.

Hinkfuss agreed with the county.

In his ruling, he said the county’s reasoning behind removing business names was justified because of its possible effect on the economy.

“Due to the links, the company in question may not have the outbreak,” Hinkfuss said. “Yes, the county could come up with a disclaimer. But the word “inquiry” itself evokes negative thoughts. “

The plaintiff’s attorney, April Barker of Schott, Bublitz and Engel, a Waukesha law firm, issued the following statement.

“The plaintiffs obviously disagree with the outcome, but appreciate the time and consideration the court has invested in the process,” Barker said. “My clients are considering appealing, but haven’t made a decision yet. ”

The Presse-Gazette has 90 days to appeal the decision.

Press Times editor-in-chief Ben Rodgers contributed to this article.

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