MADISON, Wis. The state Supreme Court strengthened the open-meetings law this week, ordering government bodies to be more specific in notifying the public about the subject matter of upcoming meetings.
The court said government agencies at all levels should be “reasonably specific” in meeting notices about the topics they will discuss and most specific when matters of great public interest are on the agenda.
It made the ruling in Buswell v. Tomah Area School District, a case in which a school board failed to specifically note that it would be considering a controversial new union contract.
The open meetings law, which has been in force more than 30 years, requires governmental bodies to notify the public in advance of the time, date, place and subject matter of meetings. The law says the public is entitled to “the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government.”
The decision reflects the law’s original spirit and fixes a flawed appeals court ruling that allowed governments to get by with just listing the general topics to be discussed, said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
In that 1999 decision, the appeals court said it was enough for a city council to say only that it was going to address “licenses” when it actually planned to consider whether to allow a liquor license for a grocery store.
“This decision should send a message loud and clear that public bodies must provide notice detailed enough that the public knows what issues they intend to deliberate,” Lueders said.
The court said June 13 that the Tomah Area School District violated the law in 2004 when it issued a notice saying the board would consider “employment/negotiations with District personnel.”
In reality, the board tentatively approved a contract in closed session that gave union members preference over other candidates for coaching jobs, a provision that had been protested by members of the public. The board then planned to adopt the contract in open session two weeks later.
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said the notice did not satisfy the court’s new standard, which calls for governments to weigh factors such as public interest, the unusualness of the topic and the difficulty of providing detailed notice in considering how specific to be.
“The notice was vague and misleading” in this case, she wrote. “Under the circumstances, it was not sufficiently specific to be ‘reasonably likely to apprise members of the public’ that the meeting concerned the ... contract.”
But Bradley said the district did not have to specifically list the coaching provision on the notices for its June 1 and June 15 meetings. The June 15 meeting notice that listed approval of the contract on the agenda was enough, she wrote.
“The burden of specifying particular provisions in a multifaceted contract would be too great,” she wrote.
The court said its new standard will apply only to future actions since government agencies had been operating for years under the assumption of a looser standard set by the appeals court. Applying the standard retroactively, as is typical, “could jeopardize the legitimacy of past actions taken at all levels of government,” Bradley wrote.
The court said Brian Buswell, a parent who brought the suit, should be awarded attorneys’ fees from the district.