Curmudgeon's Corner

cur-mud-geon: anyone who hates hypocrisy and pretense and has the temerity to say so; anyone with the habit of pointing out unpleasant facts in an engaging and humorous manner

Village Buzz - January 27th...

Germantown, Political, Village Board, Village Buzz

Open Meetings Law...

I wrote about a meeting held in the Village Hall in the Village Buzz of January 21st.  That meeting involved the Village Administrator, Dave Schornack, the Village President, Tom Kempinski and Trustees Wolter, Vanderheiden and Ewert.  In addition the deputy chiefs of the fire department were present.  The discussion was with concern to the fire that occurred on Christmas day.

Trustee Wolter wrote an e-mail to me basically advising that this wasn't an illegal meeting and inviting me to "stop the witch hunt" since I was "searching for something that is not there".

I have had an e-mail from Schornack and a telephone call from Vanderheiden.  Schornack indicated that the meeting began innocently enough and that trustees simply dropped in as the meeting moved on.  Vanderheiden explained that Schornack had advised that since this was an "informational meeting" he didn't think there was any problem with the fact that a notice had not been given.  Vanderheiden also stated that, in retrospect, he could see that the meeting shouldn't have been held.

The Attorney General for Wisconsin published a Wisconsin Open Meetings Law "compliance guide" in 2007 and I'll quote from that publication:

"the open meetings law requires that 'all meetings of all state and local governmental bodies shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public and shall be open to all citizens at all times unless otherwise expressly provided by law.'"  The publication continues, "The open meeting law explicitly provides that all of its provisions must be liberally construed to achieve its purposes".  "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".

Meetings are defined as: "[T]he 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 one-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 Wisconsin Supreme Court in the decision on the "Showers" case went further as follows:  "Showers stressed that 'governmental business' refers to any formal or informal action, including discussion, decision or information gathering, on matters within the governmental body's realm of authority."

I will accept that this meeting was not intended to violate the Open Meetings law.  I do believe, however, that since a quorum of the Public Safety Committee was ultimately in attendance, even if by simply dropping in without having been invited, this meeting should've been ended or one or more of the trustees who dropped in should've realized that they were placing themselves and others in potential violation of the law.  Even if none of them saw this problem, I believe that someone who was present certainly would've had knowledge of this law and would've been sensitive to the appearance that was ultimately being created.

Now, all of that having been said, I do not intend to file a complaint with the Washington County District Attorney.  I do, however, think that someone in that room should've either told some trustees to leave or should've said the meeting should end and be re-convened only after proper notice had been issued.

This is, in my opinion, not something that should be treated in what appears to me to be a cavalier manner.  The law seems quite clear, and the Attorney General's publication's statement that it should be liberally interpreted so as to be sure there is no violation of letter or spirit seems quite clear.

I believe that the ultimate group that was present, no matter how they came to be present, should've waved a red flag for someone in that room; actually for all but the deputy chiefs since they are or should be well aware of the law.

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