Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

Section 8 housing holds blueprints for reform

[Originally in the January 17th 2010 issue of the Badger Herald. Comments are off here]

Section 8 discrimination is one of the most frustrating challenges to ensuring housing security for all members of our community. Section 8 assistance, or more accurately, the Housing Choice Voucher Program, is a federal program that helps low-income people pay their rent. Though it is illegal to discriminate against a potential tenant because they receive Section 8 assistance in Dane County, right-wing pundits call for landlords to avoid renting to Section 8 recipients. Accordingly, many landlords find a way to do so, occasionally bragging about it. This undermines the program and wastes taxpayer dollars by making it more difficult for those who receive assistance to actually use it. Education, enforcement and a commitment to immediately rebut the fear mongers who equate Section 8 recipients with criminals will, over time, vanquish Section 8 discrimination. However, there is action we can take now to hasten the end to that discrimination.

One of the ways to help end the discrimination is to make Section 8 invisible, that is, hide the fact a tenant is receiving assistance. While it is hard to understand why some landlords would reject a no-hassle, government guaranteed payment for the entire lease term merely because of the program’s name, it remains some do. Just changing the name of the program is not sufficient, because landlords and knuckle-dragging AM radio commentators would quickly adapt. What is needed is a way to make Section 8 renters look like all other renters.

The two naive approaches are both non-starters. Simply making cash payments to tenants directly would never fly, and placing all renters in the Section 8 program is equally ridiculous. Similarly, allowing people to buy into the Section 8 program, for those of us who would stand in solidarity with Section 8 renters, would probably not create a large enough group to justify the hassle on the government side. Thankfully, there is a way to align the market with the interests of both the renters and the landlords to reshape the leasing process.

When you think about it, not only is it crazy for landlords to reject the guaranteed rent of the Section 8 program, but it is also crazy for landlords to not want all of their tenants to come with some sort of rental guarantee. In fact, they should be charging tenants who don’t come with such a guarantee, to reflect the risk they’re taking of ultimately not being paid. Landlords already do this to an extent — many leases come with an early payment discount. Though it’s true that with a lease they can always go to court and demand payment, that’s time-consuming, expensive and ultimately there is no certainty they will see their money. If there were a visible program where a trusted third party guaranteed the rent, the norm would quickly become that tenants would have to pay more to not have the guarantee.

There is benefit to the renters, too, for having the landlords deal with a third party. During the application process, prospective tenants must provide the landlords with detailed financial information for credit checks and verification. If the landlord is careless — or worse, malicious — this is identity theft waiting to happen. Most of us would prefer our landlords not know this much about us, especially before we sign a lease. Likewise, the credit check process is a hassle and cost for the landlord. This is especially an issue when renting to college students, who may be signing a lease with five, six or more people on the same lease.

It would be far easier for landlords, and safer for tenants, if credit checks were instead handled as a “pre-approval” for a certain level of rent. If the tenants have such a guarantee, the landlord knows when renters sign the lease they no longer have to worry about being paid. This guarantee might come from the government, but it could come from anywhere. Banks, and especially credit unions, have some obligation to provide useful services to their members. Between customer demand and some governmental prodding, banks and credit unions should offer these guarantees as a normal product. (As a UW Credit Union member, I’d rather see the UWCU doing more good in the community than building more fancy brick buildings). Section 8 recipients, as lower-income people, are more likely than higher-income people to not have a relationship with a bank. This is to everyone’s detriment. Incorporating Section 8 vouchers as part of a larger banking program could help squeeze out predatory pay-day loan and check cashing “services”. Depending on how the program is structured, it could also serve as a useful tool to help boost credit scores. This would be a real boon to college students, who have limited opportunity to build their credit.

Just as is the case with home mortgages, the biggest cost that needs to be addressed is handling renters who default. We could potentially cover these losses through the security deposit financing described earlier, but the more plausible option would be to charge the renters a premium for the guarantee. There are obvious benefits to the system, which should encourage its use even with the premium. However, a mandatory but very moderate tax (and entirely avoidable) on those who chose not to carry such a guarantee, designed to raise the rent just slightly above what it would cost to rent with a third party guarantee, could be enough to bootstrap a rental guarantee program into widespread use, and would help with financing.

It’s possible the savings from the landlord’s hassle of repeated credit checks alone would be enough to justify a program of rental guarantees. When you add to that the cost of personal information exposure by renters, it certainly becomes viable. This is an easy example that could start tomorrow, and aligns with the market to solve a social justice problem.

(Thanks to the People’s Housing Vision working group for their feedback and suggestions.)

My ASM goals for the spring semester: overview

The new semester starts in a few days. This past fall, some members have privately grumbled that they didn’t like that I showed up with ideas out of nowhere, and that they wished they I had let more people know ahead of time what I was thinking. Fair enough.

During meetings, I’ve made repeated mention of my ASM to-do list. Rather than just picking things off it each meeting and showing up with them, I’ll lay out what’s left on my list for the spring.

Over break, every ASM chair had to create a similar list of committee goals for the spring semester. Hopefully those lists/reports will all be made public soon. It’d be nice if the other ASM council members put something together as well, and got it out to the public. I don’t care how they do it – starting or using their own blog, a ton of Twitter updates, a Facebook note, a letter to the editor in either Herald or Cardinal, or just get Ken to post it on the ASM blog, whatever. Whatever you do, just don’t send it as an email only to the rest of ASM. That doesn’t help anyone.

So, here’s what I want to do this semester. It’s not super-ambitious; graduation is more of a priority for me than ASM. My goal is to finish things before 17th session takes over, or leave things with such a neatly-wrapped bow that 17th session doesn’t have much of an excuse for not doing something.

Of course, if something comes up, I reserve the right to add to this list during the semester. I apologize for the all of the jargon, but these are all outlines of what I want to do, not final descriptions of specific proposals.

To make it readable, I’ve broken it up into five different posts.

Funding issues – Tenant Services RFP, Creative Works fund, Centers funding stream, Print Media funding stream

Action items – Housing Fair, Graduate Student Town Halls

ASM jobs – ASM Foundation, Webmaster job, Chief of Staff, eliminate ASM Secretary

Bylaws and Constitutional Changes – United Council amendment, Term start date amendment, Stipend acceptance bylaw, First Meeting agenda bylaws, Vacant seat bylaws, overall scrubbing of bylaws

ASM Organizational efficiency – Integration of Shared Gov appointees, Consent Agenda, Data and Documents availability, Streaming broadcast of Council meetings, delegation meetings with Deans, and inviting the Chancellor to council meetings.

ASM Goals: Organizational Efficiency

[This is part of my series of ASM goals for Spring Semester. Read them all here]

We need to think a little bit harder about how to integrate the Shared Gov appointees with the rest of ASM and campus. This does not mean we use Shared Gov appointees as policy tools by trying to tell them how to vote – instead, they should be resources. We need to keep in mind that the Shared Gov appointees work for campus and their committees, not for ASM, and putting too many burdens on the appointees isn’t likely to get us anywhere. I don’t have any great ideas here, it’s just something that could be better. (Off the top of my head, have a shared gov meeting where all the appointees break up into their clusters, then get Council/Leg Affairs/AcAffairs/Diversity to all attend that afternoon and just meet the appointees?)

It’s not a super-high priority for me, and I may not actually do anything with it this semester, but I would love to sign on with someone else bringing something forward.

I’d like to operate meetings under a “consent agenda”, to save time. This is real simple – in one quick vote, we get all the non-controversial stuff out of the way with no discussion and no waste of time. It could cut an hour or more off of council meetings, which god knows everyone would appreciate.

We need to do a better job of getting documents and data out and available. It’s embarrassing that none of our minutes are posted. The archives of the student council email list server, and the coordinating council list server should be easily online. ASM should stop using “the server”, and instead access more data through the ASM website. There’s no better way to ensure the public has full transparent access than to insist ASM uses the same process to access documents as everyone else – to eat our own dogfood, as the saying goes.

We should stream our meetings online. Even if it’s crappy, it’s better than nothing. $99 buys us Adobe Connect. We stick a couple of microphones around the table, and it’s probably not too bad. (Even better would be talking WSUM into steaming the meeting for us, since they’re on the other side of the wall)

We should insist that all delegations meet with their Deans at least once a semester. This just seems like a no-brainer.

We should also get the Chancellor and Dean of Students to come to a meeting or two a semester, as a regular event, just to give us an update and to give council members  a chance to ask them questions.

ASM Goals: Bylaws and Constitutional Changes

[This is part of my series of ASM goals for Spring Semester. Read them all here]

Move the United Council (UC) relationship out of the ASM constitution and into the ASM bylaws. Let me be clear right off the bat: I’m not proposing changing anything with UC. Everything, from a day-to-day standpoint, will be exactly the same. We would mirror the constitutional language right in the bylaws. Changing the constitution requires an item on the spring ballot.

Right now, ASM council members are required to attend a UC event per semester. That’s fine by me. I’m indifferent to United Council. It’s got some good people, but I don’t think it’s a very useful ally in anything ASM wants to get done.

I have serious doubts about the future of United Council, and at some point after I’m long since done with ASM, the inflexibility of having the UC requirement be constitutionally defined could be a problem. For example:

a)    UW Madison could pull out of United Council. With no organized opposition, and a campaign for it, UC barely won a Yes vote with only 53% to 47% 51.8% to 48.2% the last time around. I hope they don’t do this, but since conservatives on this campus hate UC, never get a real victory on campus or have any real ideas, and seem content to be the Party of No, it does seem like a well-organized conservative effort to defeat UC in 2011 would succeed. That would be a problem for ASM, which by its constitution has to participate in United Council. If the relationship were in the bylaws, if Madison pulled out, ASM could amend its bylaws quickly to reflect the new relationship.

b)   The bigger problem is what happens if UC folds or changes into something else? Most of the other 4-year schools have pulled out, leaving most of the two-years and UW-Madison and a handful of other 4-years (UWEC, Stevens Point, and Parkside). If they lose a few more schools they’re going to have a real problem keeping everything going. If UC folds, then the ASM Constitution says “ASM most participate in an organization that doesn’t exist.”

The time to fix your roof is on a sunny day. I think UC and ASM is going to be a problem down the road, so let’s fix that problem now before it rains. And again, from a practical standpoint, everything continues to work the same way as before.

Fixing the bigger problems with UC is not a high priority for me, but I support other people working on it and would obviously like to see it work better. Some UC thoughts:

A)   ASM needs to figure out what it wants from UC, and clearly explain that to campus, if we want to spend any time with UC. This is complicated by the fact that UC doesn’t report to ASM, instead UC is responsible to UW-Madison students directly.

B)   ASM needs to figure out how to disagree with UC without pissing everyone off. The geographical regent representation bill was a terrible bill and it’s good that it was vetoed, but it was a priority for UC. ASM just sort of threw up its arms and let UC go for it anyway.

C)   UC needs to raise its fee. It’s been $2 for far too long (7 years?), and $2 doesn’t go as far as it used to. What they really should do is get permission from the Regents to increase it at 50% of base tuition percentage increases per year automatically.

D)   The maximum time between referenda should be extended, to at least 3 years, but 4 would be better. Right now, campuses have to revote every at least every two years on if they should stay UC member campuses, which means UC staff is spending a lot of time on the road assisting “Vote Yes” campaigns. That’s a total waste of time that could be better spent working on actual student issues. Every 4 years is plenty good, and if a campus got all hot and bothered it could call an early referendum at any time, just like they can now.

E)   Long term, what is the relationship between UC and Student Reps, which is the organization of UW Student Government presidents? This is an uncomfortable question.

F)    This is probably an incredible non-starter, but if too many schools pull out of UC and UC is in danger of folding, ASM should look for ways to directly assist UC – in particular, use some of our staff to help organize UC, or incorporate UC staff into ASM. (Some would probably call this ASM taking over UC, and that’s probably not that far off from the truth. It’s got some advantages – UC money is MRF money – Mandatory Refundable Fee money, which can do some things that seg fees can’t.)

Pass an amendment simplifying the student council term language in the ASM constitution. When we worked on fixing Freshman representation in August, we had a huge fight – not because people didn’t want to fix the Freshman eligibility problem, but because people wanted to fix more than just Freshmen. For example, it probably makes sense for most of the professional schools to elect their representatives in the fall, and to give transfer students the opportunity to run and vote in the fall as well. However, we’re stuck with the current language in the constitution, which says everything is elected in the spring, except the Freshmen.

The debate we had in August was very passionate, and a lot of people swore that we’d return to the issue and do something for transfer students and new graduate and professional students, but so far nothing has happened. I’m not sure why this is.

I don’t know what the right election process should be. We struggled with it on the ASM constitution committee last year, and in the end didn’t come up with anything better, and decided just to punt to the future, and fix it in the bylaws. However, with the current ASM constitution, we can’t fix it in bylaws.

So, I think the right approach is to punt again, but to give the 17th session the flexibility to come up with a better fix. What I want the 16th session to do is to ask the student body to approve an amendment, to make the constitution read:

“Student Council representatives shall serve for one year. No person may serve more than two full terms as a SC representative. Terms for representatives elected on a spring ballot shall start May 1. Terms for representatives elected on a fall ballot shall start November 1.

The student council may, with three/fourths vote, shift the election of a seat to a spring or fall ballot. In such a case the term may expire before one year has passed, but in no case shall a term be extended past one year”

That’s it. We’ll also immediately put the current setup (everyone starts in the spring except the freshmen, who start in the fall) into the bylaws. Then, once the amendment takes effect, next year the council can twiddle with moving more seats to the fall. However, anything the move to the next election will have to be immediately reelected – for example, if you move the law seat from the spring into the fall, no one’s term runs for 18 months while they wait for the next election. All that could happen is a term could be shortened. It takes a 3/4ths majority to move a seat around, because it has to be a damn good idea to move a seat, and it shouldn’t be used as a way to get rid of a representative the council doesn’t like.

There should be an explicit bylaw that allows a position to decline some or all of a stipend. Right now, effectively no grad student can serve in a paid position because it will force them to give up their RA/TA/PAship. The combination of the ASM job and their assistantship would push them over a 75% time appointment, which the University won’t allow. This isn’t a question of can a grad student find the time to put in the hours – some can, some can’t. The problem is that they can’t do them all on the UW’s dime.

We need to fix the bylaws the explicitly set the agenda for the first meeting. For two years in a row, ASM has had trouble electing a chair at the first meeting, so the bylaws should be fixed to deal with this possibility – the Vice Chair, if elected, should be able to take over the meeting.

We need to clarify, in the bylaws, how to declare a seat vacant. This may seem obvious, but it’s not. That’s why we still haven’t filled the special student ASM seat – the SEC should have declared a winner for that seat but never did. We need protection from a small majority being able to declare an opponent’s seat vacant, probably with some way for council to override the chair.  I don’t think it’s that complicated of a bylaw change to get right.

We should give a good scrubbing to the bylaws, and delete crap we don’t use, like the Foundation Hiring Committee, and fix the numbering and awkward language. This is a big pain of a project and it’s probably not going to get done, but it’s needed.

ASM Goals: ASM Jobs

[This is part of my series of ASM goals for Spring Semester. Read them all here]

We need to figure out the ASM Foundation, and what the heck is going on with it. We haven’t appointed anyone to it because we don’t know what the ASM Foundation wants to do, so we don’t know what we should be looking for in an appointee.

The ASM Webmaster job is a disaster. For the spring, we need to increase the hours and pay rate. We may have money in the budget that we didn’t spend on the press office in the fall, or we may want to eliminate one of the open press office seats and split the money between the remaining press office position and the webmaster.

While the next webmaster has a lot of fires to put out that the Brett just didn’t have time to resolve, the main goal for the webmaster this semester should be to prepare for the next webmaster in the fall – which we’ve put a lot of money aside for, with the idea that it will almost be a PA. What the webmaster should do this spring is inventory our data and how to start training the rest of ASM in getting information out on to the web.

It’d be nice to make the webmaster in the fall an actual PA – I’m trying to find out who told us we can’t have a PA on ASM funds. UW System never intended F-50 to mean that you can’t hire a PA because their contract includes tuition remission. If that’s ASM Staff’s interpretation, they’re wrong. If that’s the Vice Chancellor office’s interpretation, well, they’re wrong too, but that’s a harder fight. In that case, the easier approach would be to work out a deal with ODOS, where ODOS hires the webmaster PA and ASM takes over something else. It’s doable. I’ve written about what the position should before.

We need to define the “Chief of Staff” role, starting with a new name. (Chief of Staff is a punchline.) We desperately need more help at the Chair/Vice Chair level – someone who can work at that same level of authority, but that doesn’t have a specific area to worry about, like the current committee chairs. I know some people are convinced that this is some secret plot to backdoor in an ASM president, but the problem isn’t that we don’t have a President, it’s that there’s too much to do for two people, if they’re the Chair and Vice-Chair or President and Vice-President. We need to add a third.

I’d like to eliminate the ASM secretary position, and shift its duties to a combination of the professional staff, the webmaster, the chief of staff, and some ASM hourly staff. It’s crazy that we burn a representative on this job.

ASM Goals: Action Items

[This is part of my series of ASM goals for Spring Semester. Read them all here]

Have a workable plan for the Housing Fair finished. It sounds like there’s some interest in the rest of council on for this, which should mean we can get a lot of it worked out this spring, and passed on to the 17th session.

Host a Grad Student Townhall or two. They may be general-purpose, or maybe we’ll hold some townhalls on specific issues.

We’ve got the RA Unionization issue still out there. Nothing happened in the fall because the State is still writing the rules, but those will be done in the next month or two. This is going to be a bigger issue next year, when any RA organizing committees get started, but that part won’t involve ASM. What ASM can and should do this spring is to help to get facts out about the process, and to help shape those processes.

What’s happening right now with RA unionization is the State, through the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, is drafting rules for how the process of union recognition will work.  State law laid out the broad outline of how it will work, ie it will be “card-check”, but WERC is now responsible for putting together the exact details of things like “when can authorization cards start being collected”, “what does an organization have to do to be recognized as a group collecting cards”, etc. WERC will have a first draft of those rules done in late February, and then will hold public hearings on the draft. WERC is at least open to the possibility of holding hearings on campus, and organizing that is something ASM could do. Alternatively, ASM could collect feedback and pass it on to WERC through a general townhall.

Another topic that we may want to have a grad student town hall to talk about the grad school reorg, especially after the Faculty Senate/University Committee weighs in with their report. I didn’t push for ASM to do anything with the grad school reorg this past fall, and in fact counseled against it, because I thought there was too much hysteria around the whole thing. It was obvious that it wasn’t well-defined and needed more work, and the process was going to slow down. I thought the Faculty Senate resolution was unnecessary and hurt more than it helped. Similarly, I thought the best thing ASM could do last semester was to stay out of it.

That doesn’t mean that ASM shouldn’t keep track of what’s going on, and to be sure we need to watch carefully in the next few weeks. The report commissioned by the University Committee is expected by February 1st. After that’s out, I expect to see a firmer plan from the administration and cooler heads, and that’s a better time for ASM to get involved.

ASM Spring goals: funding

[This is part of my series of ASM goals for Spring Semester. Read them all here]

Finish the Housing/Tenant Services RFP. I’ve written about this a lot already, so I won’t go into it in much detail. My goal is to have it out to the Dept of Administration before the end of April. It’s going to take a ton of bureaucracy navigation with the UW to get it happen.

Finish the guidelines for the Creative Works fund and get them approved with the Finance Committee. My plan is to write a first draft, and then kick it to Finance and let them polish.

ASM should continue to diversify its funding streams. This is something Alex Gallagher wrote about last spring in a post that everyone should read twice. In particular, I want to bring his “Centers funding stream” to life. Here’s what he wrote:

“Centers: CWC, LGBTCC (when it was a group), Wunk Sheek, MEChA, and WCSU look similar in that they provide safe space and programming around issues of underrepresented minorities.  I think that you could capitalize on this similarity and create a stream which could provide funding for their unique needs.  Rather than pretending that they look like GUTS or ALPS, this will allow them to be treated like centers.  You can use the exact same budgets as you do for GSSF groups, if you want, but you can change the criteria to fit these particular types of services.”

We’d create it this funding stream this spring, with applications starting in Fall of 2010, for funding to start in July of 2011. It will actually probably save money, because right now in order to be a GSSF group you actually have to provide services. With a centers fund, groups wouldn’t have to screw around with that and could focus on their center aspect, which means they can ask for less money. To keep the growth from going crazy, maybe we cap the total fund, but that’s tricky to do in a viewpoint-neutral fashion.

I don’t know that we’ll get this done this year

In another funding stream, it’s time to think about the future of newspapers. UW System policy allows for seg fees to pay for newspapers, but currently the GSSF explicitly disallows publications as a service.

Now, both the Daily Cardinal and the Badger Herald swear up and down that they’d never take a dime of money from ASM, but I’d rather design a system when they don’t need the money, so if the day comes that they do really need the money they can decide how important it really is to not take ASM money. Broadly, here’s what I’m thinking:

– ASM won’t fund the entire costs. We’d fund maybe 50%, with a cap of say $200,000, and a minimum of $25,000 (which means that a paper has to be able to raise at least $25000 before we’ll take them serious).

– You have to be a real paper. Published at least once a week during the semester, some print minimum (5000 copies?). I’d like to put some minimum, like 25% news coverage, but that’s probably too tricky to get right.

– You have to print. Online only is the wave of the future and all that, and we should eventually think about how to fund online only, but for now an online-only org could get started for much cheaper than a print version – probably cheap enough that it doesn’t need any assistance.

– We need to protect editorial control. Student papers risk enough criticizing the administration, which controls their grades. It’d be even harder to serve as the watchdog for student government knowing that the student government also controls your funding. I think a newspaper would still probably apply to the SSFC, but there would also be a review by a committee of outsiders, from the journalism world (hopefully we could draft some faculty from the J-School, and the local press) to review any denials of funding, looking to ensure it wasn’t because the paper criticized the student government.

– The students and university should get something out of the deal, too. If you take ASM money, the UW should get a perpetual, non-exclusive, worldwide license to all of the content of the paper that allows them to store the archives and display it in any form for any and all comers.  (Maybe only what’s published while under the deal, but it’d be nice to have the complete archives of the papers that go back for decades.)

In full disclosure, it’s no secret that I write for the Badger Herald, though it is not a paid gig.  I hope to graduate before this funding became available, but even so we’d put in some language that said anyone who votes for the creation of this funding stream can’t be a regular contributor to a publication receiving funding.

The newspaper fund isn’t likely to get done this year, but I wanted to at least ask the SSFC to think about it.

ASM and Open Meetings law (Muckrakers post)

[This is cross-posted to Muckrakers. Comments are off here]

Wisconsin has a strong open meetings law that aims to ensure public participation. It’s always been unclear if the law covers student governments, so a recent Attorney General opinion was welcome news. The AG’s opinion was that so long as the student government was carrying out its duties under state law, they should follow the open meetings law.

This is somewhat moot at UW-Madison for ASM. Under the ASM bylaws, which were written long before the AG’s opinion was issued, ASM has to follow the state open meetings law. Unfortunately, ASM has been a bit sloppy.

One of the great things about the WI Open Meetings law is that anyone can ask for clarification. Two situations in ASM bothered me enough to take the AG up on that option, and so in November I wrote asking for clarification. I got back a written response the other day. You can see my questions here, and read a PDF of the AG’s written response here. I’ll summarize briefly my two questions and the answer.

The first question was over timing of agenda notifications. The agenda needs to be posted no later than 24 hours before a meeting. On November 10th, I stopped by the ASM offices at exactly 6:30, saw the agenda, and noted something important had been left off. A corrected agenda was posted at 6:45. At the meeting on the 11th, there was a conscious effort to foot-drag to make sure the meeting did not start until 6:45. (To be fair, at that point in the semester, people were harried, and it’s possible the meeting would not have started until 6:45 anyway).

My question to the AG was: is this legal? The AG laid out a pretty clear guideline: it depends on what the effect it would have on members of the public. If it only caused people to arrive for the meeting 15 minutes early, then there wasn’t really any harm done. However, and the situation that I was concerned with, was what if it caused people NOT to attend a meeting. Here’s how it could happen.

The agenda needs to provide people with a reasonable idea of what will and will not be discussed and acted on at a meeting. The ASM agenda evolves over time – if you ask the ASM chair 3 days before a meeting what will be discussed he or she will have a pretty good idea, but things come up that add or remove agenda items. If you look at an agenda on Sunday, it may be different than the agenda on Monday. The 24 hours rule gives a clear safe harbor for checking the agenda: if it is not on the agenda on 6:30pm on Tuesday, then it will not be discussed on Wednesday night at the meeting. There is no need to check any earlier or later (though, it never hurts to look early). It is possible that by changing the agenda after 6:30pm, someone looked at the agenda as it was posted at 6:30, saw that their issue wasn’t on the agenda, and decided not to come to the meeting, even it was later added to the agenda.

Now, at the November 11th meeting, am I worried that this was an issue? No, not really. First, the actual agenda item was pretty inconsequential – to be honest I don’t even remember what it was (I think it was some internal appointments to a committee that had no objections.) Second, no one comes and looks at our agendas, and even if they do, the window of vulnerability was only 15 minutes in this instance. (Though, ASM has gone longer delaying the start of a meeting – at the July meeting, the meeting didn’t start until about an hour after the scheduled start, because there wasn’t quorum.) The true value of this incident, and the AG’s opinion, is the clear emphasis on the consideration of “reasonable burden” that ASM can expect to place on a member of the public when providing notice of a meeting and the meeting’s content. It is not likely that ASM placed an unreasonable burden on anyone by delaying the meeting on November 11th.

That idea of reasonableness went right into my next question. ASM, like most governmental bodies, considers the meeting officially noticed when physical copies of the agenda are placed in a designated spot. Government bodies generally post them electronically as well, but the canonical document is the physical version, so you don’t have to own or be able to use a computer to access the notice. (For every hypothetical you can come up with on why an electronic version is better, I can come up with a problem why electronic versions are more dangerous, so let’s not have that argument today. We should do both, but the official notice should be the physical copy.) When ASM physically posts an agenda, it places the whole packet on a shelf outside the ASM office. The top page or two is the agenda, and the next 15 to 20 (or more) pages are supporting material.

What has been long-standing tradition in ASM is to get the agenda and packet posted a couple of hours, if not days, before the 24-hour deadline. The ASM Chair, Vice-Chair, or Secretary are the only ones who usually print the agenda. However, it’s fairly routine that should have been on the agenda don’t make it, either because of a mistake or just not getting it done as fast as it was needed. In this case, the practice has been for the council member or committee chair to just put all of the materials under the stack, but not reprint the agenda. (This is all done before the 24-hour deadline has arrived.) At the actual meeting, a motion is made to just amend the agenda to add the item. ASM has considered the item “noticed” because it was present in the stack of paper that is provided for the public. The assumption has been that any member of the public who wants to know what will be in the meeting will read the entire packet, not just the agenda on the top of the stack.

I have objected to this at every meeting it has been attempted, and have usually prevailed. I never felt that it is reasonable to ask the public to read through the entire stack, and hope that they can figure out the ASM jargon in the supporting material and figure out what will actually happen at the meeting. I’m pleased that the AG’s office agrees with me, and I hope this convinces the rest of the council that getting agenda material on time is important.

I think everyone in ASM recognizes that that there is work to be done on keeping the public informed. Unfortunately, most of that thinking is on reporting afterwards, and not informing ahead of time. Putting a piece of paper on a shelf may be the legal minimum, but no one could, with a straight face, justify it as doing enough to actually notify the public.

Background: Open Meetings and ASM – Letter to the AG’s office

[This was only ever an email, but it my next post makes no sense without it. I got an answer back today, I’ll get that up next.]

From: Erik Paulson <epaulson at unit1127.com>
Date: Wed, Nov 18, 2009 at 3:59 PM
Subject: Wisconsin Open Meetings law – request for clarification
To: potterkc at doj.state.wi.us
Cc: nlynch at vc.wisc.edu

Hello Kevin –

First, this message might be aimed too far up the organizational chain at the DOJ. It wasn’t clear to me from the SPAR webpage (http://www.doj.state.wi.us/dls/spar.asp ) who the best contact person would be, and you were the only person listed.

I’m CCing Nancy Lynch, senior University Legal Counsel at UW-Madison. I haven’t discussed this with her and it’s the first she’s hearing of it. I don’t expect this message to be a big deal, but just in case I wanted her to have a heads-up.

I’m a member of the UW Madison Student Government. I understand that there’s some ambiguity as to whether or not the Open Meetings and Open Records laws apply to us, and that there’s currently a request, from the UW-Milwaukee student newspapers, for an advisory opinion in the AG’s office as to that very question. Additionally, there’s proposed legislation from Rep. Gottlieb that would explicitly require student governments to comply with open meetings and records law.

At Madison, this is all somewhat moot – our bylaws explicitly state that we will comply with the state’s open meetings law, and as much as possible we have directly incorporated those requirements into our bylaws.

I have two specific situations where I would like your office’s opinion. One I believe is a clearcut question, and the other is more a question of what is “reasonable”.

The first question has to do with the definition of “24 hours” and meeting start time as listed in the public notice. If a meeting is scheduled, and announced, to start at 6:30pm on Wednesday, but a substitute agenda is posted at say 6:45pm on Tuesday, still listing the start time as 6:30pm on Wednesday, has the “24 hours” requirement been met if the meeting is not actually called to order until 6:45pm on Wednesday? The public, of course, had no way of knowing that the meeting would be delayed 15 minutes or however long we needed to get back to the 24-hours safe harbor. More importantly, the public would also have no idea that the agenda could be changed after the T-minus-24 hours time of 6:30pm on Tuesday. This seems to me to be a clear case of insufficient notice.

The second question I think is more difficult, and perhaps too specific to our arrangement. Our “public notice” consists of placing written copies of the agenda and supporting material on a shelf in a public space outside of our offices. The agenda is placed on top, the supporting material is placed below. The agenda itself is typically one or two pages long, the supporting material may be another 15 to 20 pages. (Typically, each item on our agenda has one to three pages of supporting material.) The agenda is typically posted 48 hours in advance. However, occasionally new material arrives after the agenda is posted. If that material, including the wording of the exact motion that will be made, is inserted into the stack of supporting material for a meeting, but the “agenda” document on top is not changed, has the public been “reasonably apprised”, so long as it occurs more than 24 hours before the scheduled start of a meeting? I note the following passage from the Compliance Guide issued by your office in 2007 ( http://www.doj.state.wi.us/AWP/2007OMCG PRO/2007_OML_Compliance_Guide.pdf )

“Whether a meeting notice reasonably apprises the public of the meeting’s subject matter may also depend in part on the surrounding circumstances. A notice that might be adequate, standing alone, may nonetheless fail to provide reasonable notice if it is accompanied by other statements or actions that expressly contradict it, or if the notice is misleading when considered in the light of long standing policies of the governmental body. (Linde Correspondence, May 4, 2007;) (Koss Correspondence, May 30, 2007.)”

Note that it is a long-standing practice in the UW-Madison student government that so long as the material was in the pile 24 hours before the start of a meeting, even if it did not appear on the agenda,  it would be proper to amend the agenda at the start of the meeting and add the new topic for discussion.

I realize that you probably have better things to do than answer procedural questions for student governments, and this question may be made more difficult by student government’s special circumstances as a part of the University. I’d ask that you simplify your research, and answer as though we were a typical Wisconsin governmental body. Even if it is legal for the UW-Madison student government to provide notice as described above, it is helpful to know if our notices would not be legal if we were any other governmental body.

Thank you in advance for your time.

Erik Paulson
Graduate Student, UW-Madison