OPEN MEETINGS POLICY
Source: Office of the Vice Chancellor, Administrative Affairs
Policy of the Open Meetings Law
The State of Wisconsin recognized the importance of having a public informed about governmental affairs. The state's open meeting law declares that:
- 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 capable with the conduct of governmental business.
- Section 19.81(1), Wisconsin Statutes
- The open meeting law creates a presumption that meetings of governmental bodies must be held in open sessions...
- The open meetings law explicitly provides that all of its provisions be liberally construed to achieve its purposes. This rule of liberal construction applies in all situations, except enforcement actions in which forfeitures are sought.
- Section 19.84(1), Wisconsin Statutes
- Public officials must be ever mindful of the policy of openness and the rule of liberal construction in order to ensure compliance with both the letter and spirit of the law.
When Does the Open Meetings Law Apply?
The open meetings law applies to every "meeting" of a "governmental body". Section 19.83, Wisconsin Statutes. The terms "meeting" and "governmental body" are defined in section 19.82(1) and (2) of the Wisconsin Statutes.
- "Governmental Body"
- The definition of "governmental body" includes a "state or local agency, board, commission, committee, council, department or public body corporate and politic created by constitution statute, ordinance, rule or order. Section 19.82(1), Wisconsin Statutes, this provision focuses on the manner in which a body was created, rather than on the type of authority the body possesses. Thus, even if a body is advisory only, if it was created by constitutional statutes, ordinance, rule or order, it is subject to the open meeting law. State or local bodies created by "rule or order" are also included in the definition. The term "rule or order" has been liberally construed to include any directive, formal or informal, creating a body and assigning it duties. This includes directives from governmental bodies, presiding officers of governmental bodies, or certain governmental officials such as county executives, mayors or leaders of a state or local agency, department or division.
Application of the Law at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
The following definitions and examples were prepared by System Legal Counsel.
Open meetings requirements apply to a "governmental body". Whether or not a group is a governmental body depends on the source of its creation. If a group has been created by constitution, statute, ordinance, rule or order, the body is a governmental body. A formally constituted subunit of a governmental body is also a governmental body. For example, the Board of Regents has been created by statute, it is therefore a governmental body. Its committees (subunits of the Board) are also governmental bodies because they have been created by a parent governmental body. In some instances, a body created by an individual is also a governmental body. When the head of a governmental body performs functions delegated to him or her by the governmental body itself and he or she appoints a committee, it has been held that such a committee is also a governmental body.
In the UW System, departments have been created by rule (see section UWS 1.03, Wisconsin Administrative Code). Therefore, they are governmental bodies. Subunits of a department are also governmental bodies. Thus, if a department study committee or a department ad hoc committee is created by the department, each is a governmental body.
The academic structures of our universities have also been approved by the Board of Regents. Therefore, for example, college-level committees comprised of department representatives are governmental bodies.
The Faculty Senate and an Academic Staff Assembly are governmental bodies because they are created as a result of authority from the statutes. Their meetings ard the meetings of committees created by the Senate or Assembly, whether they are "standing committees" or "ad hoc committees" are subject to the open meetings law.
When a student government association is meeting to exercise its authority under section 36.09(5), Wisconsin Statutes, concerning the formulation of policies on student life, services, and interest, and the disposition of segregated fees, it is subject to the requirements of the open meetings law.
There also are instances where a committee created by an individual has been deemed a governmental body; for example, the Strategic Planning and Budget Committee (SPBC). In this example, the Chancellor has been delegated by the Board of Regents, all necessary authority for the administration of the University within the policies and guidelines established by the Board. It is arguable that his authority to create the committee is derived from the authority granted by the Board, a "governmental body". As a result, it is prudent to treat committees such as SPBC as a governmental body.
Definition of Meeting
- A "meeting" is defined as:
- The convening of members of a governmental body for the purpose of exercising the responsibilities, authority, power or duties delegated to or vested in the body. If over half or more of the members of a governmental body are present, the meeting is rebuttably presumed to be for the purpose of exercising the responsibilities, authority, power or duties delegated to or vested in the body. The term does not include any social or chance gathering or conference which is not intended to avoid this sub-chapter.
- Based on this definition, people often assume that the open meetings law applies only to gatherings of one-half or more of the members of a governmental body. This is not the case. The courts have held that the open meetings law applies whenever a gathering of members of a governmental body satisfies two requirements:
- there is a purpose to engage in governmental business and
- the number of members present is sufficient to determine the governmental body's course of action.
Example: A 10 member body requires a 2/3's majority to pass an action. Four members of that body, who oppose the action, assemble to develop their position. This assembly would require notice because the group of 4 could defeat the action.
What is Required if the Open Meetings Law Applies
The two most basic requirements of the open meetings law are that a governmental body:
- give advance public notice of each of its meetings and
- conduct all of its business in open session, unless an exception to the open session requirement applies.
The chief presiding officer of a governmental body, or the officer designee, must give notice of each meeting of the body to:
- the public
- any member of the news media who has submitted a written request for notices
- a news medium likely to give notice in the area of interest.
The Chancellor has designated the Director of Marketing and Media Relations as the designee to give notice of each meeting. As a general rule, the Attorney General has advised posting notices at three different locations within the jurisdiction that the governmental body services.
The three designated locations for posting the notices at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater are:
- Andersen Library Building (hallway outside iCIT)
- University Center (in news & publications display case near restrooms)
- Goodhue Hall (across from the elevator door in the entry lobby vestibule)
Time and Content of Notice
Except for meetings of a department or its subunits, a notice of a meeting of a governmental body must include the time, date, place and subject matter of the meeting, including the subject that may be considered in closed session, or such form as is reasonably likely to apprise members of the public and the news media thereof.
The control of notices of a meeting of a department or its subunits may be less detailed. Such a meeting notice must be reasonably likely to apprise interested persons, and news media who have filed written requests for such notice.
Every public notice of a meeting must be given at least twenty-four hours in advance of the meeting, unless "for good cause" such notices is "impossible or impractical". If "good cause" exists, the notice should be given as soon as possible and must be given at least two hours in advance of the meeting.
Marketing and Media Relations must receive notice from a governmental body, no less than 48 hours in advance of the scheduled meeting time. The notice should include the following information: Name of group (department, governing body, etc.), location, date and time, expected duration, and a brief description of items to be discussed. Also include name of contact, campus phone number, and office. Please send this via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The information will then be sent out for positing.
The Director of Marketing and Media Relations is responsible to post and publish the meeting notice to meet the 24 hour posting requirement, if received by the 48 hour deadline. If received after the 48 hour deadline and if the 24 hour requirement is not met, the governmental body is responsible for failure to meet posting requirements.
Source of information for policy is the Wisconsin Department of Justice "Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, A compliance Guide 1993". If there are questions of interpretation, contact the Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs.
As amended 8 August 2011
Last Reviewed: October 2015