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Closed meeting legal if officials believe it so

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    NMU         WISCONSIN         Freedom of Information         May 25, 2001    

Closed meeting legal if officials believe it so

  • A Wisconsin appellate judge determined that members of a school board did not violate the law because they thought their meeting was lawful.

According to a Wisconsin Court of Appeals judge in Madison, public officials in that state will not be held accountable for violating the open meetings law if they do not intend to violate that law.

The court on May 22 affirmed a decision by a trial court which had ruled that an exemption to the open meetings law for discussions of personnel matters allowed six members of a school board and a principal to conduct a closed meeting.

However, the appellate judge did not rule on the exemption. Instead Judge Michael Hoover ruled that because school board members believed that they had lawfully closed the meeting, the trial court did not even have to determine whether the closure was lawful.

Six members of the Gilman School Board met in closed session in February 2000 with elementary and junior high school principal James Schley to discuss the possibility of laying off or reducing the hours of some teachers.

Before they met in the closed session, board president Peggy Podolak personally consulted with two attorneys, one of whom was an attorney for the School Boards Association, and also with a school board administrator who obtained the opinion of another attorney that the meeting would fall within an exemption to the Wisconsin open meeting act for considering employment or performance of any public employee.

However the state sued the school board members saying that that exemption protected only the discussion of individual employees and not the more general discussion of personnel matters. When the trial court ruled that the exemption did apply, the state appealed.

The law imposes a fine of $25 to $300 when an official “knowingly” violates the requirement to hold a public meeting. Hoover noted, however, that the Gilman school board members believed that they held a lawful meeting to discuss an individual employee.

(Wisconsin v. Tereschko) CC


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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