Officials discuss open meeting laws
By Joe Bachman
STEVENS POINT — City officials discussed the potential hurdles of open meeting laws on Monday, May 13.
Open meeting laws exist so that members of a governmental body cannot discuss municipality matters when not in an official government session. However, open meeting laws can create difficulty for officials to attend public gatherings and information meetings in that if too many attend, quorum would be met without public notice.
This practice would violate open meeting laws, unless there is notice of a quorum at least 24 hours beforehand.
In a memo penned by District 1 Alderperson Tori Jennings, she outlines her thoughts regarding open meeting laws, and whether or not these are broken if multiple city officials attend non-governmental meetings. At Monday’s Public Protection meeting, Jennings referenced the small number of alderpersons that attended public forums this year, likely as a result of quorum laws.
“I am embarrassed that only two or three alder-people showed up,” said Jennings. “We were told that we can’t be there as a quorum. The public is there probably wondering ‘well where is my alder?’
I think we’re doing a bad job as a city when there is this over-extension and over-interpretation of open meetings law in a way that is twisting it in to be something other than what it’s meant to be.”
City Attorney Logan Beveridge spoke at length regarding the legalities of the open meetings laws. According to Beveridge, the challenge is providing communication to the city clerk ahead of time of all meetings with the potential of quorum.
“The law is clear, the courts have been pretty clear: if you’re gathered together to get information about things within your purview it constitutes transaction of business and that does result in a meeting,” said Beveridge. “Going forward, what we might want to do is just look at what format we’re using for these meetings.”
Beveridge stated that the practice becomes tricky, as the number needed to constitute a meeting is different from what constitutes quorum (two-thirds of the members).
“It sounds like we already have a solution here that’s just going to take more coordination,” said District 2 Alder David Shorr. “We just need to take attendance in advance, or figure out who wants to go to which meetings.”
Mayor Mike Wiza made remarks regarding the discussion of open meetings laws, ultimately in agreement with the city attorney.
“Having a couple alders get together to talk about what they want at the next agenda, or how they want to do things at Kuby’s or Two Harp’s is one thing, but these meetings are much bigger, and I agree, I would love to have all of the alders at these meetings, but our city attorney defends the city,” said Wiza. “He doesn’t defend the individual alders; you have your free will, you choose to do what you want, but he is there to advise you — but ultimately his responsibility is to defend the city should something occur.”
District 9 Alder Polly Dalton summed up her thoughts as the meeting wound down.
“We are responsible for governing our conduct,” said Dalton. “So when we’re at these [public] meetings, obviously, it’s our responsibility to not be discussing things and being aware of what’s going on. So it seems very simple and very standard to be noticing whether or not we are going to a meeting to the city clerk.”
As this was a discussion item, no action was taken.