NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WISCONSIN · Freedom of Information · June 20, 2007
Notice of meeting subjects must be reasonable
June 20, 2007 · Wisconsin’s high court has adopted new standards for assessing what government bodies must tell the public about what will happen at official meetings.
In the future, the notice provided by the government entity must “reasonably” inform citizens of what subject matters will be addressed at a public meeting, the Wisconsin Supreme Court announced in a ruling last week.
The court said the notice requirement of the Wisconsin open meetings law did not lend itself to a “bright-line” rule that can be adopted in every situation, and that whether a given notice is sufficient will depend on the specific situation.
Among the factors to consider are the burden on a public body to provide more detailed notice and whether the subject being considered is of particular public interest. Also, the court said “non-routine action that the public would be unlikely to anticipate” could require additionally detailed notice.
The case arose from a dispute between Brian Buswell and his local school district. Buswell was among several citizens who were concerned that the school board was considering adopting a policy that favored the hiring of district personnel for coaching positions. Buswell signed onto a letter of protest to the school district, which nevertheless adopted the contract that contained the new coach hiring policy in two separate meetings in 2004.
Buswell sued, alleging that the school board did not adequately inform the public prior to the meetings that the coaching policy was going to be discussed. The court found improper the notice for the first meeting, which simply announced the board would be considering “action concerning employment/negotiations with District personnel.”
“This description is vague, for it could cover negotiations with any group of district personnel or with any individual employee within the district,” the court wrote.
The court disagreed with Buswell as to the adequacy of the notice for the second meeting, which announced the board would be considering the specific contract in question, mentioning it by name. That, the court said, was reasonable given the circumstances, even though the notice did not specifically announce that the coach hiring policy would be considered.
“The burden of specifying particular provisions in a multifaceted contract would be too great,” the court wrote.
Ultimately, the court awarded Buswell his attorney fees for the case, but denied the other relief he had sought. The court explicitly declined to void the coach hiring policy because the master contract that contained it had expired.
Justice Patience Drake Roggensack concurred in the final decision, but wrote separately to address several points, among them her concern that the court’s opinion did not offer enough guidance to government bodies on what degree of specificity is now required in Wisconsin. She advocated the development and use of a standardized form that could be distributed to the public.
Justice Louis B. Butler joined in several parts of the court’s decision, but disagreed with the ruling that the promulgation of a new hiring policy for coaches need not be specifically articulated in the meeting notice in this case.
“[I]t is incomprehensible that the majority would reject its own analysis when discussing the . . . notice as it relates to the new provision for the hiring of coaches that is set forth in the . . . master contract,” Butler wrote.
(Buswell v. Tomah Area Sch. Dist.; Requester’s Counsel: Jack D. Buswell, Arndt, Buswell & Thorn, S.C., Sparta, Wis.) — NW