What classifies an Open Meeting in Wisconsin

by Kelsie Hoitomt

The discussion over what exactly an “open meeting” is in the state of Wisconsin and in the governmental bodies of towns, villages and cities seems to be a hot item lately, but there are rules and state statutes set in place to put questions and concerns to rest.

The Law Itself

From the Department of Justice, the State of Wisconsin declares that the open meetings law is as follows:

“In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state 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.”

With that being said, the open meetings law requires that “all meetings of all state and local governmental bodies shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public and shall be open to all citizens at all times unless otherwise expressly provided by law.”

There is thus a presumption that meetings of governmental bodies must be held in open session.

Although there are some exemptions allowing closed sessions in specified circumstances, they are to be invoked sparingly and only where necessary to protect the public interest.

The policy of the open meetings law dictates that governmental bodies convene in closed session only where holding an open session would be incompatible with the conduct of government affairs.

Reasons to proceed into closed session according to the Wisconsin Legislative Documents are as followed;

When “deliberating concerning a case which was the subject of any judicial or quasi-judicial trial or hearing before that governmental body.”

When “considering dismissal, demotion, licensing or discipline of any public employee or person licensed by a board or commission or the investigation of charges against such person, or considering the grant or denial of tenure for a university faculty member, and the taking of formal action on any such matter; provided that the faculty member or other public employee or person licensed is given actual notice of any evidentiary hearing, which may be held prior to final action being taken and of any meeting at which final action may be taken…..”

When “considering employment, promotion, compensation or performance evaluation data of any public employee over which the governmental body has jurisdiction or exercises responsibility.”

When “considering specific applications of probation, extended supervision or parole or considering strategy for crime detection or prevention-under certain limitation.”

*When “deliberating or negotiating the purchasing of public properties, the investing of public funds or conducting other specified public business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session.”

When “deliberating by the council on unemployment insurance in a meeting at which all employer members of the council or all employee members of the council are excluded.”

When “deliberating by the council on worker’s compensation in a meeting at which all employer members of the council or all employee members of the council are excluded.”

When under certain statues “deliberating if the location of a burial site is a subject of the deliberation and if discussing the location in public would be likely to result in disturbance of the burial site.”

When “considering financial, medical, social or personal histories or disciplinary data of specific persons, preliminary consideration of specific personnel problems or the investigation of charges against specific persons except where the second item listed applies, which if discussed in public, would be likely to have a substantial adverse effect upon the reputation of any person referred to in such histories or data or involved in such problems or investigations.”

*When “conferring with legal counsel for the governmental body who is rendering oral or written advice concerning strategy to be adopted by the body with respect to litigation in which it is or is likely to become involved.”

When “consideration of requests for confidential written advice from the government accountability board under certain statute or from any county or municipal ethics board under statute.”

Public Comment

According to the Department of Justice, the two most basic requirements of the open meetings law are that a governmental body (1) give advance public notice of each of its meetings and (2) conduct all of its business in open session, unless an exemption to the open session requirement applies.

The Wisconsin Legislative Documents states that “the public notice for a meeting of a governmental body may provide for a period of public comment, during which the body may receive information from members of the public

The open meetings law grants citizens the right to attend and observe open session meetings of governmental bodies, but does not require a governmental body to allow members of the public to speak or actively participate in the body’s meeting. 

There are some other state statutes that require governmental bodies to hold public hearings on specified matters; for example requiring public hearing before adoption of a municipal budget or creation of a tax incremental finance district. Unless such a statue specifically applies, however, a governmental body is free to determine for itself whether and to what extent it will allow citizen participation at its meetings.

Although it is not required, the open meetings law does permit a governmental body to set aside a portion of an open meeting as a public comment period.

Such a period must be included on the meeting notice. During such a period, the body may receive information from the public and may discuss any matter raised by the public. If a member of the public raises a subject that does not appear on the meeting notice, however, it is advisable to limit the discussion of that subject and to defer any extensive deliberation to a later meeting for which more specific notice can be given.

In addition, the body may not take formal action on a subject raised in the public comment period, unless the subject is also identified in the meeting notice.

Copies of the Wisconsin Open Meeting Law can be found online through the Wisconsin Department of Justice.