Our state has a very powerful Open Meetings Law, which permits reporters to attend and report on all meetings of governmental bodies, boards, and commissions, and it allows reporters to record and photograph a meeting held in open session as long as you don’t interfere with the conduct of the meeting or the rights of the participants.
The law applies to any governmental body, state or local agency, board, commission, committee, council, department, or public body created by our state’s constitution, or by statute, ordinance, or order.
That means often a small board or committee, which is part of a larger body, is in fact a “governmental body”. Be aware as a reporter that these entities, particularly those charged with economic development or real estate issues, have sometimes tried to keep their proceedings secret. You may well have a right to know what they’re doing – even though they may not want you to.
The law defines a “meeting” as the convening of the members of a governmental body to exercise its powers, authority, responsibilities, or duties. If half or more of the members of a governmental body are present, the law presumes the meeting to be for the exercising of its powers, authority, responsibilities, or duties. Even a telephone conference or e-mail discussion among the members may be a meeting subject to the open meetings law.
There is an active and thoroughly professional organization which serves as a watchdog of Wisconsin’s Open Records and Open Meetings Laws, called the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. It operates an extremely detailed and useful website where you can very quickly access the text of the laws about open meetings and get answers to frequently asked questions about Wisconsin’s open meetings law and even download a printable wallet-size summary of the laws.
Another great reporter’s resource is the Legal Services section of the State Justice Department’s website, where you can quickly download pdf’s with a summary of the state’s open meetings and records law. You can find the quick links to the information at this page.
Not sure if a telephone or e-mail discussion of a body you are covering was a meeting subject to the law? You can probably find the answer very quickly at the FOIC website where you’ll find a detailed answer to the question “what constitutes a meeting?”. You can also get easily-downloadable information at the State Justice Department’s website.
It’s important as a reporter to know that a chance or social gathering or conference of members of a board or commission is not necessarily a “meeting” under the law – as long as it’s not intended to avoid the law. If all or most of the members of your local school board happen to be at a school play, party, sports event, graduation ceremony, or something similar- it’s not a “meeting”, unless they discuss public business.
There are 12 specific and legitimate reasons for a governmental body to close a meeting, and it’s important to familiarize yourself with those reasons. You’ll find another complete section of the WBA Newsroom site devoted to that topic in the navigation pane on the right column of this page.