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Milwaukee festival board admits violating open meetings law

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Milwaukee festival board admits violating open meetings law

  • Nonprofit corporation settles newspaper’s complaint that festival board violated Wisconsin law by approving its annual budget behind closed doors.

June 13, 2003 — A Milwaukee festival board Thursday approved a settlement agreement that assures future board meetings will be open and that board members will be trained to comply with the state’s open meetings law.

As part of the settlement, Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. also admitted violating Wisconsin law when it voted on and approved its 2003 Summerfest budget at a closed meeting in December 2002. Milwaukee World Festival is a nonprofit corporation that leases land from the city. The lease requires the festival board to follow the state open meetings law.

The settlement is between the festival company and Journal Sentinel Inc., which owns the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel . The newspaper company filed a complaint with the Milwaukee County corporation counsel’s office after a reporter was kept out of the annual budget meeting for the summer festival.

While the corporation counsel’s investigation was pending, the board discussed and voted on the budget during an open session in February.

Journal Sentinel attorney James Pepelnjak said this is first time he has seen an effort by the festival board to comply with the open meetings law. The board is made up of businessmen who are not publically elected and often not aware of the nuances of the law, he said.

In addition to the admission and training for board members, Milwaukee World Festival agreed to donate 1,000 Summerfest tickets to low-income people.

“The board recognizes the importance of conducting its public business in the open and will be more mindful of complying with the open meetings law in the future,” Chairman Howard Schnoll said in a press release.

The corporation counsel investigated a second complaint by the Journal Sentinel arising from a closed festival board meeting in January. The corporation counsel found the board to be in compliance with the law because it discussed personnel issues during that meeting.

Newspapers in Milwaukee have quarreled with Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., for many years about opening its meetings. Reporters first brought an open meetings action against it in 1987. That case, which involved the former Milwaukee Sentinel, was settled after a trial court found that the open meetings law applied. In 1991, the board agreed to adhere to the law.

(Media counsel: James Pepelnjak, Milwaukee) KH


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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