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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: -1.0° F  Fair
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A net loss for property-info seekers?

Mark Hanson chalks it up to "my own selfish interest." After telling Isthmus last week he "wouldn't have any objection" to proposed state legislation that would reduce access to public information, Madison's city assessor registered at a hearing in opposition.

Hanson changed his view after talking to other local officials about AB-349, which would prohibit online listings of property assessment records that the public can search by owners' names.

Sponsored by Rep. Joe Parisi (D-Madison), the bill's laudable goal is to protect victims of stalking and domestic violence. But at a hearing this Tuesday, opponents (including the author of this item, on behalf of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council) outnumbered proponents. Many suggested that an opt-out provision made more sense than a ban.

For years, the assessor's website has allowed searches by name, address or address range. The office will remove names from the Internet when there's a public safety concern, as with law enforcement officers and victims of domestic violence, but not for other reasons. Names can still be obtained by coming into or calling the office.

"So far it's worked pretty well," says Hanson, who reckons his office gets name-removal requests "maybe once a week."

Dane County's property-info portal, Access Dane, generally includes names but provides an easy opt-out for anyone who asks. Troy Everson, the county's land records coordinator, says less than 5% of property owners exercise this option. The county does not give out property owners' names over the phone.

"These are all public records," says Everson. "You can come down and get whatever you want."

The city assessor's website got 101,312 page views for property details in July 2009 alone. The impact of AB-349 on local governments has been deemed "indeterminate" but includes "the cost of responding to the public to access paper records."

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