Dane Co. judge backs transparency in MMSD’s spokesperson’s attempt to suppress records

A Dane County judge ruled a complaint made against Madison Metropolitan School District’s head of communications will be made public.
Published: May. 25, 2023 at 5:18 PM CDT|Updated: May. 25, 2023 at 6:46 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A Dane County judge ruled a complaint made against Madison Metropolitan School District’s head of communications will be made public.

Back in March, MMSD’s Head of Communications Tim LeMonds sued the district after MMSD’s legal staff deemed records requested by NBC15 Investigates were public records that needed to be handed over to our news station.

LeMonds was in court, sitting next to his attorney, Randall Gold. Gold argued what is in those emails would lead to “unwarranted, unfair and irreversible public ridicule and gossip, negative public perception, and jeopardize his ability to credibly perform his duties (with MMSD).”

The court documents show LeMonds was trying to block the release of a cover page email and a 14-page complaint filled with personal grievances and accusations against LeMonds by several current and former MMSD employees. In the lawsuit, LeMonds repeatedly described some of the former employees as “disgruntled.” Their complaint was investigated by MMSD’s legal and human resources departments and included 11 separate interviews and a review of documents and recordings before it was dismissed by the district in December 2022 as being without merit, according to LeMonds’ court filing. Court documents show MMSD disagreeing with the claim that the entire complaint was without merit.

When it comes to whether the law requires MMSD to release the documents, the district’s legal team already determined the public records law requires the release of the requested records. Their reasoning was based on the fact the district’s lawyers found those documents to be part of an open records request filed by the NBC15 News’ Investigative Team. After ongoing issues with the district’s lack of transparency and extreme open records delays, I filed an open records request for staff emails containing my name and NBC15. The request was filed on Dec. 19, 2022, and covered the previous year.

On March 3, MMSD’s records department responded with an email confirming they had documents responsive to the request, and, after a certain amount of time, they would release the records “without delay.” It was after that email that LeMonds decided to sue the district to try to stop them from releasing the complaint against him. LeMonds filed a preliminary injunction motion against MMSD, urging a Dane County judge to conduct an expedited review of the documents in question, two emails he does not want the public to see.

In April, Judge Rhonda Lanford ruled our station, NBC15, would have a voice in the case as intervenors. Our lawyers argued we should be able to join the case as a third party and fight for the records since we requested them.

LeMonds’ arguments

In a legal brief submitted to the court, LeMonds’ lawyers say this open records case is not about “actual” MMSD public school issues or matters of public interest. “It is hard to imagine how these e-mails are of any real interest to the public, as opposed to Ms. Wadas’s personal interest or that of her employer, WMTV.”

LeMonds’ lawyers then go on to accuse WMTV’s reporting unfair and sensationalizing “this entire matter,” and that LeMonds “believes he is the subject of a personal vendetta for reasons he cannot explain.”

“Public disclosure will almost certainly negatively affect his (LeMonds’) ability to effectively, and credibly, interact with the public and no award of money damages would likely be adequate. Surely, disclosing these documents and causing unnecessary reputational damage to a well-regarded public employee is not in the public’s interest,” claims Mr. LeMonds’ lawyer.

MMSD’s arguments

MMSD’s legal brief doubled down that their records custodian determined these records are responsive to NBC15′s open records request and the records at issue in the case are not immune from disclosure by public records law.

“MMSD performed its duty in this case by making the initial determination under the so-called “balancing test” that the records at issue should be disclosed,” claims MMSD’s legal team.

The brief goes on to say potential for embarrassment is not a sufficient reason to withhold a document under the law. They cite multiple court cases, including Milwaukee Journal Sentinel v. DOA, 2009 WI 79, ¶ 62.

The brief closes with MMSD saying the identity of the requestor, in this case, NBC15 Investigates Elizabeth Wadas, and the reason for the request are not factors, by law, that weigh into the balancing test of public interest.

NBC15′s arguments

NBC15′s legal brief starts by reminding the judge there is only one issue at hand, whether we are entitled to the public records at the heart of the case.

“While Mr. LeMonds spills much ink on irrelevant facts that have little bearing on whether these public records should be released, the Court should come to the same conclusion as MMSD and direct that unredacted versions of the records be released to Intervenors in accordance with the Open Records Law,” the brief stated.

The brief points out the open records request in question asked for emails from “any MMSD employee containing certain key words,” showing the request does not single out LeMonds.

It goes on to say the balancing test adopted nearly 60 years ago recognizes the public’s interest not only in alleged misconduct by public employees, but also the interest in overseeing those who oversee public employees.

“Likewise, the public cannot determine whether Mr. LeMonds acted appropriately or whether MMSD handled the allegations of misconduct against Mr. LeMonds fairly without the release of the withheld records.”

The judge’s ruling

Judge Rhonda Lanford ultimately ruled in favor of MMSD and NBC15 as Intervenors, that the school district, by law, has to release the records in full to NBC15.

During the court proceedings, LeMonds’ lawyer played two clips of previous NBC15 coverage of the story, claiming the reporting suggested it was wrong of LeMonds to sue the district.

“But that doesn’t really tell me much about weighing the public interest of disclosure vs. Mr. LeMonds’ concerns. In fact, I understand why you wanted to show me the clips, but generally speaking, the purpose a party is seeking records isn’t even relevant to the inquiry,” said Judge Lanford after the videos were played.

When it came to LeMonds’ lawyer arguing the release of the records would hurt his reputation and make it difficult for him to perform his duties as head of MMSD communications, the judge asked this question.

“But doesn’t the public have a right to information on how the public school officer conducts himself, if in fact that’s what the allegation is?” questioned Judge Lanford.

“Wisconsin open records law provides a presumption of access. Attorney Lenz is correct in stating that this is not a balancing test where the scales are equal, it’s a balancing test in which given that these strong concern about public access to records, Mr. LeMonds has to overcome that by showing the public interest in not disclosing the records outweighs the public’s right to know,” said Lanford.

The records will be released to NBC15 once an order is filed and signed by Judge Lanford. She denied relief and upheld the District’s initial decision to release the records under the open records law.

“Open records do not just apply to publicly elected officials or public employees, they do apply to people like Mr. LeMonds who is in, as he has indicated, a high-profile public job as the public face of the Madison School District,” said Judge Lanford.

“I have to agree with the Intervenors and the District that there is a significant public interest in the release of documents pertaining to investigations and public employees. It’s critical that the public oversee the public body and evaluate the matter in which it fulfills its responsibilities. I do not think Mr. LeMonds has come close to showing that the public interest of protecting his reputation outweighs the public’s right to know, especially in a case involving the public schools.”

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