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

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