How long does an authority need to keep its records?
Answer: Records retention is a subject that is generally related to, but different from, the access requirements imposed by the public records law. The public records law only addresses how long an authority must keep its records once an authority receives a public records request. When a requester submits a public records request, the authority is obligated to preserve the requested records until after the request is granted or until at least 60 days after the request is denied (90 days if the requester is a committed or incarcerated person).
If the authority receives written notice that a requester has commenced a mandamus action (an action to enforce the public records law) regarding records, the authority may not destroy the records until after the court order relating to those records is issued and the deadline to appeal that order has passed. If the court order in a mandamus action is appealed, the authority may not destroy the records until a court order resolving the appeal is issued. If the court orders production of any record and the order is not appealed, the record may not be destroyed until after the request for inspection or copying has been granted. An authority does not violate this provision of the public records law by destroying an identical copy of an otherwise available record.
Other than this, the public records law does not address how long an authority must keep its records, and the public records law cannot be used to address an authority’s alleged failure to retain records required to be kept under other laws. Record retention is governed by other statutes. Wisconsin Stat. § 16.61 addresses the retention of records for state agencies, and Wis. Stat. § 19.21 deals with record retention for local government entities. Most often, record retention schedules, created in accordance with these statutes, govern how long an authority must keep its records and what it must do with them after the retention period ends. For example, after the retention period has ended, a retention schedule may authorize the authority to destroy a record or transfer it to the Wisconsin Historical Society. These schedules apply to groups or categories of records called records series. The Wisconsin Public Records Board’s website has additional information on record retention.