Open Meetings Law Provides Pitfalls for City Officials

Walking in parades, sharing emails, and appearing even by accident together in places can all lead to infractions of the state's open meetings law, so better be safe than sorry, says city's attorney.

It's a staple of the yearly Muskego Community Festival parade: most if not all of the city's aldermen and its mayor walking the route, armed with candy to throw out.

Harmless, right?

Not exactly, said City Attorney Eric Larson, who gave an overview of the state's open meetings laws and how all Muskego officials can do better to avoid trouble. The potential that their being together in any place can be a meeting is reason enough to post it on the city's website, even if no business is discussed.

Even though the definition of "meeting" should not include chance meetings or social gatherings, things happen. Like the constituent who wants to talk about an issue at such places like the festival.

"A good rule of thumb is that if you give the public notice that you'll be there, then they can't complain later," Larson said. "You can post a notice, but indicate 'no action taken.'"

The gravity of the law is intensified in a small town, where people are more likely to congregate in similar areas. The aldermen were told that if a constituent should start to "talk shop," to make sure no other aldermen were a part of the conversation, or request to talk about the matter privately.

Larson also advised the city to reconsider how meeting agenda are worded, stating that "more specifics, information of topics are always better. The greater the public interest may be on a topic, the greater specificity you should give."

Emails are also riddled with pitfalls. Let's say one alderman sends an inquiry to another alderman about an issue, and that officials forwards the email to others to weigh in. That is a "walking quorum," according to state statute, and can "get people fired" according to Larson.

Closed sessions should also be used with discretion, Larson said.

"Be careful on how you use them because it appears to the public that you're trying to hide something, which in fact you are." However, Larson said, "there haven't been any session you've taken that I wouldn't have approved."

In addition, the public can learn a few things through the statute. Often questions are asked during a public input session, but residents walk away frustrated when the governing body doesn't answer. In reality, they can't because of the open meetings law.


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