Wisconsin prides itself on open government and as journalists we work hard to help maintain that right for the general public who may never step foot into a city council, school board or county board meeting room. It doesn’t happen often, but we do find the need to occasionally challenge a governmental body’s questionable action. We make attempts to hold officials accountable, we sit through long and sometimes boring meetings and have parked ourselves outside many a closed door session to follow-up afterwards on any action. We’ve submitted open records requests and we try to be good stewards of our profession and work diligently to maintain your right to know.
We shudder to think what could – would – happen if laws were not in place to protect our freedoms; laws designed to help minimize secrecy, dishonesty and corruption. Do you really think an unattended governmental body, no matter its size, would be as forthcoming if the press did not serve as watchdogs?
Let the light shine in!
March 13-19 is Sunshine Week – a national initiative designed to call attention to what Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen refers to as “the transparency and citizen oversight so essential to our democratic system of government. Compliance with our state Open Meetings Law and Public Records Law,” he notes in a guest column, “is an essential duty of all Wisconsin government agencies, officials and employees.”
During this past difficult month in Wisconsin many believe a cloud has blocked those rays of sunshine.
Of particular question was the timeframe and noticing of a vote Wednesday night inside our Capitol in Madison.
The Wisconsin Newspaper Association (WNA) asked for a legal analysis of the notice procedures for that meeting from Attorney Bob Dreps, who advises newspapers on such issues. He says: “Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law, which applies to the legislature and every other governmental body in the state, requires 24 hours notice before a meeting is convened, ‘unless for good cause such notice is impossible or impractical, in which case shorter notice may be given, but in no case may the notice be provided less than 2 hours in advance of the meeting.’ The joint conference committee … did not state any ‘cause’ for its failure to give 24 notice of its meeting, nor even claim that 24 hours’ notice would be ‘impossible or impractical.’”
But, according to Senate Chief Clerk Rob Marchant, “In special session, under Senate Rule 93, no advance notice is required other than posting on the legislative bulletin board. Despite this rule, it was decided to provide a two-hour notice by posting on the bulletin board. My staff, as a courtesy, emailed a copy of the notice to all legislative offices at 4:10, which gave the impression that the notice may have been slightly less than two hours. Either way, the notice appears to have satisfied the requirements of the rules and statutes.”
Dreps, however, continues: “The legislature's reliance on special rules, rather than the explicit notice standards it has imposed on every other governmental body, even if strictly lawful, violates the spirit of the Open Meetings Law and the legislature's own expressed policy ‘that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business.’ Political expediency does not provide good cause to violate this official state policy.”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, agrees: “We believe the meeting was hastily convened without adequate public notice because the people convening it felt they needed an element of surprise to prevail – making it precisely the sort of action the state's Open Meetings Law was intended to preclude.”
While some will argue political expediency was necessary and laws were not broken, last week’s action is certainly a poor example of open government
“… Discussions over the legality of how the meeting was noticed side-step the fundamental discussion of the importance of open government,” stresses Beth Bennett, WNA executive director. “The State of Wisconsin has a deeply rooted tradition of open government … (this) controversy should not be the benchmark for defining open government in Wisconsin going forward.”
Look for a link to the Wisconsin’s Open Records
Compliance Guide in our Related Links section,
lower right hand corner of our Internet Edition at