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Some local municipalities, districts need to improve meeting agendas

August 04, 2010 | 07:38 AM
One of the only ways a taxpayer knows what will be discussed or decided upon at an upcoming meeting is by reading the agenda. But, what happens when those agendas aren't specific enough to have an understanding of what action may be taken?

Almost every day, we receive meeting agendas from the municipalities and school districts we cover.

We receive them either by fax, e-mail or regular mail. Each agenda is set up quite differently depending on the person configuring them for whichever village, town, school district or city.

While it is OK agendas are organized and printed up uniquely, there is one aspect that should be relatively similar. Agenda items listed should be detailed and clear as to the discussion and action expected to occur at that meeting. If not, the village, town, school district or city could be in violation of Wisconsin's Open Meetings laws.

According to a 2010 comment by Wisconsin League of Municipalities legal counsel Claire Silverman, the legislature has declared 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."

The law requires that all meetings of governmental bodies be preceded by public notice, be held in places reasonably accessible to the public and be open to all citizens except as specifically provided.

Although there doesn't seem to be an issue with any of the local municipalities or school districts posting the agendas and making people aware of the meetings, the problem lies with the lack of detail referencing individual agenda items.

Whether intentional or not, an item listed on the July 12 Geneva Town Board meeting agenda failed to describe in any detail whatsoever important items the board voted on that night. Looking at the agenda item — which stated "Resolution for authorization to borrow funds" — only a mindreader could have known that actually two resolutions would be considered dealing with a possible borrowing of a total of $2.5 million for a new Town Hall and a fire/EMS substation.

Ultimately, the board denied the resolution to borrow up to $500,000 for a substation and approved the concept of looking into borrowing $2 million for a new Town Hall. But, that's not the point. Based on the agenda, no one from the public, or even this newspaper, had any idea based on the agenda what the board was considering doing.

That isn't the only possible violation we have witnessed recently.

According to the Wisconsin Attorney General's Office 2009 Open Meetings Compliance Guide, "purely generic subject matter designations such as 'old business,' 'new business,' 'miscellaneous business,' 'agenda revisions,' or 'such other matters as are authorized by law' are insufficient because, standing alone, they identify no particular subjects at all."

The village of Williams Bay comes to mind as a municipality that has long used these agenda items and takes various action under them. But, Williams Bay certainly is not the only municipality that does this.

The Attorney General also has advised against the use of designations such as "president's comments," or "staff comments" for the purpose of communicating information on matters within the government's scope. He wrote the uses of those agenda items "is, at best, at the outer edge of lawful practice and may well cross the line to become unlawful."

Local school districts, villages and towns have and continue to use those designations as agenda items.

Recently, the Walworth School Board discussed and held a "straw poll" under the agenda item of "president's report."

If all these agenda items don't officially break open meetings laws, in my eyes, they certainly violate the spirit and intent of the law.

Everyone in elected public office must remember that even though lacking some details in these agendas may be just a mistake, an oversight or lack of knowledge regarding open meetings laws, the perception can be from the public and the media that the governmental body is hiding something.

I believe most of the elected officials throughout our coverage area want and do what's best for their municipality or school district. But, the public and media can only keep watch on that when access to the government is open and transparent.

Local elected officials can do that by understanding and following Wisconsin's Open Meetings laws.

Seiser is the editor of the Regional News.

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