When state Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) recently asked the state Elections Board for a list of active voters in her district, she got quite a surprise. The charge for this information was estimated at $503.
'We will proceed with processing your request when payment has been received,' her office was told. Berceau aide Tom Powell responded indignantly to this 'outlandishly high cost.'
Under the 'old, inefficient system,' Powell noted, Berceau could get voter data from various clerks offices for about $75. But 'under our new $28.4 million statewide voter database [as estimated by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign], Rep. Berceau has to pay $503 for the same information ' a 670% increase in the cost!'
Berceau, who uses the list for campaigning and to target newsletter mailings, says the additional cost is 'no big deal' for her and other incumbents. But 'if somebody is trying to run for office, that's a big whopping amount of money they have to put out immediately.'
The new price structure ' a base fee of $25 plus $5 for each 1,000 address records ' was set by the Elections Board in August. It was one of three options presented by staff, which surveyed municipalities across the state. (The other options would have charged requesters either twice as much or half as much per 1,000 records.) The new fee structure will be reviewed next August.
Ironically, given Berceau's umbrage, the new fees are largely the Legislature's fault. A state law passed in 2005 directed the board to establish a fee 'to cover the cost of reproduction and the cost of maintaining the list.' This created a specific exception to the state's open records law, which says custodians may charge only for the 'actually, necessary and direct cost' of making copies.
'We're trying to recoup some of our costs,' says Kyle Richmond, an Elections Board spokesman. He notes that most of the new system's price tag ' which the Elections Board places at a mere $27 million, including maintenance, through 2010 ' was 'one-time federal funding,' and that the level of state legislative support remains unclear.
But Powell is still perturbed: 'They're not pricing it for what it costs, they're pricing it for what they want to get out of it.' Indeed, for a brief time prior to the new policy, the board charged a flat $100 fee for all requests, even its entire state list, which now goes for $12,500.
Voter data is still collected at the local level but gets entered into the state's system. Richmond says clerks can retrieve data for their municipalities, sell it to requesters under the new fee structure, and keep the money. (Madison City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl seems unaware of this, saying requesters seeking voter data beyond 2005 must get it from the state.)
Richmond allows that this data may now cost more, especially since some clerks once gave it out for free. But 'some people are paying less,' and the reliability of the data is 'considerably better.' Some requesters, he notes, are private outfits that resell this data for profit. And even for public officials like himself ' Richmond serves on the Dane County Board ' the price, in his opinion, is right.
'I don't find it expensive at all,' he says. 'It's the most important tool you can have to run for office.'
In the end, Berceau's office will pony up for the voter data. 'That's the beauty of a monopoly,' says Powell. 'You have to buy it from one place, and they can price it however they want.'
Coming back for more
With 19 Dane County circuit court judges each serving six-year terms, usually several seats are on the April ballot. But this year, there's only one: Branch 5, where Diane Nicks is running unopposed. (The only real contest is for Branch 7, where the guv is picking a replacement for Moria Krueger, who's retiring.)
Nicks, formerly an assistant attorney general and the only woman ever elected Dane County district attorney, is seeking a second term. She was appointed to the bench in 2000 by Gov. Tommy Thompson, and elected the next year.
'I work hard, I love my job,' says Nicks, who is slated to move into the civil/family rotation after stints handling mainly juvenile and criminal cases. 'I feel tremendously fortunate.'
Nicks thinks the District Attorney's and Public Defenders' offices are both short-staffed. And she 'would love to see the indigency standard [for getting a public defender] made more realistic.' Indeed, one of her current challenges is creating an 'even playing field' for people representing themselves, because they can't afford lawyers.
All in the family
As Isthmus reported last week, J.B. Van Hollen wants to withdraw from a defamation lawsuit he filed this fall, but one of the defendants ' the Greater Wisconsin Political Fund ' is insisting that he pay its statutory costs. The suit is over ads charging that Van Hollen ' then district attorney of Bayfield County, now state attorney general ' was remiss in not seeking bail revocation for a sexual predator named Stanley Newago, who went on to rape and kill a 16-year-old girl.
The update: A telephone conference to resolve the statutory-cost issue is set for this Friday, Jan. 5. The backdate: Court records show that J.B's spouse, Lynne Van Hollen, was Newago's defense attorney in an earlier double felony case, for battery and second-degree sexual assault. She managed to get the Bayfield District Attorney's Office to dismiss the charges, although this was a full year before her husband was appointed to head it.
The buzz is that Capital Newspapers Inc. plans to launch a new weekly publication, despite the failure of its last such venture, CoreWeekly. The free paper, it's said, will draw content from the 'Post' page of the company's Web site, Madison.com.
This 'Post' page is a compilation of mostly unimpressive blogs by area writers. The paper product may also include choice posts from Madison.com's discussion forums. One local writer was purportedly approached to contribute to the site and promised a nominal fee for content used in the new paper.
Whatever is up, the good folks at Cap News don't want to talk about it. Web guru Todd Lekan and Wisconsin State Journal publisher Bill Johnston both rebuffed repeated requests for information.
How could he resist?
The weekly poll question on Paul Soglin's blog, waxingamerica.com, asked whether respondents were 'comfortable with at least one of the three' major candidates for Madison mayor ' Dave Cieslewicz, Ray Allen and Peter Munoz ' or whether 'the race needs another candidate, a new fresh face.' As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, which also happened to be the candidate filing deadline, the breakdown was 55%-45% in favor of the comfort option, with 56 votes cast.