By Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. — Open-government advocates are questioning whether a Department of Natural Resources board violated the state’s open-meetings law by having an unannounced closed-door gathering.
The board was scheduled to meet at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at the DNR’s Madison headquarters. That meeting’s agenda was publicly announced.
Before the meeting began, though, all the board members entered an adjoining room and closed the door, remaining there for several minutes. The members then returned to the board room and went into open session. George Althoff, a DNR spokesman, said the board had been discussing security matters.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the gathering most likely violated the state’s open-meetings law. He noted that the Department of Justice has interpreted Wisconsin’s open-meetings law to mean the subject matter of closed meetings must be announced and the government entity must cite the exemption that allows the session.
“In my opinion, yes, this was an illegal meeting,” Lueders said. “The law is very clear that when a public body meets, it is assumed to be meeting to perform an official government function and expected to do so in open session. If the entity feels the need to go into closed session, it is supposed to notice this ahead of time and state what exemption it believes allows this.”
DNR attorney Quinn Williams said the gathering didn’t qualify as a meeting because no government business occurred and it was simply a briefing on how to evacuate the building in an emergency. Asked why such a briefing doesn’t constitute government business, Williams said the meeting didn’t require the board to make any decisions.
Lueders said he wasn’t aware of any part of the open-meetings law that states closed meetings are acceptable as long as no decisions are reached. He also questioned why it was necessary to go behind closed doors to talk about evacuations.
A DOJ open-meetings compliance guide states that a government meeting is defined as a gathering in which at least half of a governmental body’s members are present. If a meeting meets that requirement, it is presumed to be intended for exercising the body’s powers. Under a 1987 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, a governmental body is engaged in government business when its members gather to hear information on a matter within the body’s realm of authority.
Williams said internal DNR security isn’t within the board’s authority. For that reason, he said, the gathering technically wasn’t a meeting. However, he said in an email to The Associated Press later Wednesday that the agency will announce any future security briefings on its agendas.
Lueders said that under that interpretation, the board could meet in closed session whenever it wants as long as it doesn’t discuss government business. Regardless, he said, “it’s good they’ve promised not to do this again.”