Open Meetings

What is the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law?

The Wisconsin Open Meetings Law provides that all meetings of governmental bodies shall be preceded by public notice and shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to all. At any meeting of a governmental body, all discussion shall be held and all action of any kind, formal or informal, shall be initiated, deliberated upon and acted upon only in open session, unless a closed session is specifically authorized by the statute. The law is to be liberally construed to afford the public the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with conduct of governmental business.

Is my committee subject to the Open Meetings Law?

Generally, all campus committees that are created by statute, rule or official act, and subunits thereof, must be considered “governmental bodies” to which the Open Meetings Law applies. In order to determine whether a university committee is a governmental body, one must look at the origin of that committee. If the committee was created by state statute or university rule or order, it is governed by the Open Meetings Law. On the other hand, if the committee is not formally constituted by an official act and was created to assist with an administrative function, it is likely not a governmental body and is not required to comply with the Open Meetings Law.

Examples of governmental bodies on this campus include, but are not limited to: the Faculty Senate; the Academic Staff Assembly; committees created (including search and screen committees) by Faculty Policies and Procedures and Academic Staff Policies and Procedures; academic departments and executive committees; and departmental, college or campus-wide committees (ad hoc or standing) created by resolution or order of the Regents, the faculty or the academic staff.

Committees required by federal statute or rule, such as human subjects committees and animal care and use committees, must also be considered to be governmental bodies to which the law applies. Examples of administrative committees that do not meet the definition of governmental bodies and are not, therefore, governed by the Open Meetings Law include, but are not limited to: ad hoc or standing committees created by university officials to advise them as administrators; graduate examination committees; post-tenure review committees; and departmental committees that are not created by legislation or formal action.

Is every gathering of a committee considered a "meeting"?

The Open Meetings Law defines a meeting as “the 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.” That is, whenever the members of a governmental body convene for the purpose of carrying out official business, the Open Meetings Law applies and such business, unless specifically exempted in the law, must be transacted in open session. If one-half or more of the members of the body are present, the meeting is presumed to be for the purpose of carrying out official business, a presumption that can be rebutted. However, social or chance gatherings and conferences, which are not intended to avoid the requirements of the law, are specifically excepted from the open meetings requirements.

No member of a governmental body may be excluded from any meeting of such body, nor may the member be excluded from any meeting of a subunit of such body unless the rules of the body specifically so provide.

What does it mean to conduct a meeting in an "open session"?

An open session as required by the law is a meeting which is held in a place reasonably accessible to members of the public and open to all citizens at all times. An open session provides members of the public with the opportunity to observe, but not to participate in, the business of the governmental body. The right to observe an open session includes the right to record the meeting by any means, provided that the manner of recording does not interfere with the conduct of the meeting or the rights of the participants. Although the right of the public to participate in an open session is not required, the public notice of a meeting may provide for a period of public comment, during which the governmental body may receive information from members of the public.

A meeting that is subject to the Open Meetings Law may be held by telephone conference call as long as a conference telephone speaker is reasonably accessible to the public and the proper notice has been given. However, electronic mail may not be used as a substitute for a meeting. A presiding officer may not send a proposal out to the members of a governmental body electronically and ask for comments or voting thereon by e-mail. It is acceptable to use e-mail to distribute information to members of a governmental body, but not to transact official business that normally would be required to be done in open session.

What notice is required?

University governmental bodies, other than departments and their subunits, are subject to specific requirements for giving public notice of all meetings. Every public notice of a meeting of such a governmental body must set forth the time, date, place and subject matter of the meeting in a form that is reasonably likely to inform members of the public and news media. Any such public notice must also set forth the subject matter of any contemplated closed session.

Public notice must originate from the chief presiding officer of the governmental body or his/her designee. The notice must be communicated to the general public and to any news media who have filed a written request for such notice. Notice to a media requestor may be given by telephone or in writing. It is recommended that notice of the meetings of campus-wide governmental bodies be published in Wisconsin Week whenever possible.

The Open Meetings Law requires that public notice of a meeting of a governmental body be given at least 24 hours prior to the commencement of such meeting, unless such notice is impossible or impractical. Under no circumstances may the notice be provided less than 2 hours in advance of the meeting. Separate notice of each meeting must also be given. It is not sufficient to provide notice of the dates and times of all planned meetings at the beginning of each year or semester.

University of Wisconsin departments and their subunits are subject to less stringent public notice requirements. Such governmental bodies must provide notice in the same form as stated above, but it need only be communicated to interested persons and members of the news media who have filed written requests. It is generally sufficient for university departments and their subunits to post public notice of meetings on conspicuous departmental bulletin boards to which students, staff and faculty have regular access.

When can we meet in a closed session?

Some meetings of governmental bodies may be held in closed session. The permissible grounds and statutory references for such closed sessions generally applicable at the university are:

  • Section 19.85(1)(a). Deliberating concerning a case which was the subject of any judicial or quasi-judicial trial or hearing before that governmental body. Example: deliberations by CFRR, ASAC or a student disciplinary hearing panel;
  • Section 19.85(1)(b). Considering dismissal, demotion, licensing or discipline of any public employee, the investigation of charges against any such person or the grant or denial of tenure for a university faculty member. Note that the person who is the subject of any such meeting has the right to demand that any such meeting be held in open session;
  • Section 19.85(1)(c). Considering employment, promotion, compensation or performance data of any public employee over whom the governmental body has jurisdiction or exercises responsibility. Example: Consideration by a departmental executive committee of job applicants, performance reviews, teaching evaluations or merit increases;
  • Section 19.85(1)(e). Deliberating or negotiating the purchasing of public properties, the investing of public funds, or conducting other specified public business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session;
  • Section 19.85(1)(f). Considering financial, medical, social or personal histories or disciplinary data of specific persons, preliminary consideration of specific personnel problems or the investigation of charges against specific persons which, if discussed in public, would be likely to have a substantial adverse effect upon the reputation of any person referred to in such histories or data or involved in such problems or investigations;
  • Section 19.85(1)(g). Conferring with legal counsel for the governmental body who is rendering oral or written advice concerning strategy in litigation in which the governmental body is or is likely to become involved.

What are the procedures for holding a closed session?

The following steps must precede every closed session:

  • The governmental body must first give appropriate notice and convene in open session;
  • A motion must be made that the body convene in closed session. The motion should state the nature of the business to be considered in closed session;
  • The presiding officer of the body must (1) announce that if the motion passes, the body will convene in closed session, (2) state the nature of the business to be considered in closed session, and (3) cite the relevant legal provision authorizing the closed session;
  • The contents of the announcement must be recorded in the minutes of the meeting; and
  • The motion must be passed by a majority vote of the members present. The vote of each member must be ascertained and recorded in the minutes. Only business relating to the matters stated in the presiding officer's announcement may be taken up during the closed session. A governmental body may not convene an open meeting, go into closed session and then reconvene in open session, unless the notice of the meeting specifically so provides.

How do we record our votes?

No secret ballots may be used to determine any election or other decision of the governmental body, except the election of officers of the body. If paper ballots are used, they will be considered “secret,” unless they identify the person voting. Any member of the body may require that votes at any meeting be taken so that the vote of each member is ascertained and recorded (i.e. roll call vote). Motions and roll call votes must be recorded, preserved and be open to public inspection to the extent that is allowed under the state public records law.

What is the consequence of violating the Open Meetings Law?

The Open Meetings Law may be enforced through legal action initiated by the Attorney General, District Attorney or any member of the public. Any member of a governmental body who knowingly attends a meeting of such body in violation of the Open Meetings Law may be required to forfeit no less than $25 nor more than $300 for each such violation. In addition, the Attorney General or District Attorney may seek to obtain other legal or equitable relief, including injunction or declaratory judgment. Any action taken by a governmental body in violation of the Open Meetings Law may be declared void if it is determined that enforcement of the Open Meetings Law outweighs any public interest which there may be in sustaining the validity of the action taken.