Closed Sessions in an Open Society

Consider a review of three grocery lists, labeled A, B, and C, respectively:

List A:
(1) One gallon, skim milk
(2) One dozen navel oranges
(3) One loaf of whole wheat bread

List B:
(1) fruit and/or (2) something made of flour

List C:
(1) something to eat

They’re all lists; they’re not otherwise equal. From A to B to C, the descriptions become more ambiguous.

This is like what happens in poorly-organized communities that creep ever farther from Wisconsin’s laws that require a public body to describe meetings that go into closed session.

There’s sometimes a happy synchronicity to events, and this is one of those times. After all, only two weeks ago Whitewater’s Common Council heard a presentation on Wisconsin’s Open Meetings and Public Records Laws. In that presentation, one heard mention of the Wisconsin Attorney General’s compliance guides for open meetings and public records access.

Those guides are useful to residents across Wisconsin as sound, well-researched summaries and recommendations on some of Wisconsin’s open-government requirements. The guides are not themselves law, but instead summarize and offer policy recommendations for compliance with Wisconsin’s statutes and relevant, binding court decisions (commonly called ‘case law’ in distinction to statutory law.)

I’ve no doubt that many people in the city have for years wisely reviewed and used these compliance guides.

I’ve just one question, today, in particular for the leaders of the Tech Park Board and the Community Development Authority:

When the residents to whom you are obligated by law read the agendas that you publish, do those agendas meet the legal requirements for how a closed session must be described?

My question isn’t about how one might like to describe meetings, or what one might believe the law to require, but rather what the law, itself, actually requires for a description of a closed-session agenda item.

In particular, one might consider the same Open Meetings Compliance Guide, at pages 17 to 23, that was a fortnight ago recommended to Common Council.

Reading that section – and better still, reading the actual statutes and court rulings that the section summarizes – one will find that boilerplate repeated on an agenda isn’t sufficient to describe, let alone justify, a closed session.

A few insiders may find discussing this boring. Worse, they may respond to the discussion with an adversarial dare: Stop me from doing whatever I’d please, if you can…

People who truly believe in limited, responsible government would never think this way. Even people who were indifferent, yet prudent, might reflect and thereafter refrain from tempting the Fates.

And yet, and yet….not everyone so believes, and not everyone is prudent.

It’s neither sound belief nor prudence to doubt that every right requires for its defense a remedy.

No one, though, can fairly say that our state has not offered officials and residents sound guidance to fulfill Wisconsin’s promise of their right to open and responsible government.

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