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Village Board action violated open meetings laws

October 27, 2010 | 10:41 AM
In early August, we warned specific municipalities about their inadequate and possibly illegal agendas.

Last week, one of those communities, Williams Bay, was at it again. I believe officials once again violated the state's open meetings requirements.

There was no agenda item on the Oct. 18 Williams Bay Village Board meeting indicating discussion or action on the Gage Marine proposal to create a restaurant and banquet facility on their current Liechty Drive property. However, the board approved that item and two others which also weren't listed on the agenda.

The Oct. 18 agenda had a list of 11 items, including the approval of minutes from the last meeting, approval of payment of bills, president's remarks, ordinances and resolutions, committee reports and public comments. The item we have the most concern about is what happened under the heading of Plan Commission, which on the agenda states nothing other than "Oct. 12, 2010 (attached)."

This attachment was never posted at the Village Hall, Post Office or on the village's website. We later discovered the attachment was the agenda and minutes from the Oct. 12 Plan Commission meeting. With no mention of Gage Marine on the agenda itself, Williams Bay officials clearly did not detail what action or discussion was to be expected at last Monday's board meeting.

I believe that intent is a clear violation of the open meetings laws. Williams Bay officials work for the residents and they must realize the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government. The Oct. 18 agenda meets none of that criteria.

According to the Wisconsin Attorney General's 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 guide advises 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.

The law also 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.

The neighbors of this Gage Marine proposal had no idea the issue was going to be voted upon. Because of that, they were not given the opportunity to voice their positions to the Village Board regarding this significant change to their neighborhood. Last Monday's approval also came just one week after the Plan Commission held a public hearing and unanimously approved the conditional use with little to no discussion.

But, the agenda is only half the problem with this situation.

On Friday, Oct. 15, just days before the approval, Village President Don Weyhrauch told a Regional News reporter the Gage Marine conditional use permit request was "probably not" going to be on the agenda. Because the Regional News was told that and after a close look later at the agenda items, a reporter did not attend the meeting.

It turned out, Weyhrauch was right. The issue wasn't on the agenda. But, apparently not being listed on the agenda doesn't stop the Williams Bay Village Board from voting.

After finding out the conditional use was approved that night, the Regional News went to Village Hall on Oct. 22 to listen to the audio recording of the meeting.

Based on the recording, following the approval of three Plan Commission items that were not listed on the village's agenda, Weyhrauch made a disturbing comment.

"That was the Plan Commission," Weyhrauch said during the meeting. "I don't have anything to say because it didn't get on the agenda and the Regional News is watching us like a hawk."

That comment validates my belief that the village officials know exactly how its agendas are supposed to be published. But, for some reason, they aren't following state statutes. They haven't followed these open meetings laws for quite some time.

The question we may never have answered is why. Did the village not want neighbors who oppose the Gage Marine project to show up and speak at the meeting? Do officials not want residents to know what's going on in the village?

Apparently only a select few know the real answers.

Seiser is the editor of the Regional News.

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