Open Meetings Law - Wisconsin
This document provides a summary of the law in this area and answers questions frequently asked of attorneys in the Office of General Counsel. However, the information presented here is intended for informational purposes only and nothing in this document should be construed or relied upon as legal advice. The Office of General Counsel or your Campus Legal Counsel should be consulted regarding the specific facts and circumstances associated with any legal matter.
Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law (WOML) (Wis. Stats. §§ 19.81-19.98), like Wisconsin's Public Records Law, embodies the principle that the public is entitled to the greatest possible information about government affairs. WOML requires most government bodies to conduct official business in open meetings and to post in advance public notices of the meetings.
UW System Entities Subject to WOML
WOML applies to the meetings of "governmental bodies" as defined in Wis. Stat. § 19.82 (1). The definition includes the Board of Regents and its committees; campus bodies that the Board creates, such as faculty senates, academic staff assemblies, departments and executive bodies; and most campus subunits created by formal action of these bodies, including campus personnel committees and tenure review committees. For more information, please contact your legal counsel.
Meetings Subject to WOML
WOML applies to every "meeting" of a government body whose purpose is to engage in government business if the number of members is sufficient to determine the government body's cause of action. If at least one-half of the government body is present at the meeting, the meeting is presumed to be for engaging in government business. Wis. Stat. § 19.82 (2). The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that a gathering of less than one-half of the members of a body may constitute a "negative quorum" (sufficient to block action on a particular matter) and may also be subject to WOML.
Requirements of WOML
Open session. WOML requires each meeting of a government body whose purpose is to conduct official business to be in "open session," which WOML defines to mean a meeting held in a place reasonably accessible to members of the public and open to all citizens at all times. Wis. Stat. §19.83 (2). WOML also allows the limited use of closed meetings as is subsequently discussed.
Public notice. WOML requires each meeting of a government body to be preceded by public notice. Wis. Stat. § 19.83 (2). Campus bodies other than departments and their subunits must observe the following notice requirements:
Contents of notice. The notice of the
meeting must give the time, date and subject matter
of the meeting, including any matter intended
for consideration at any contemplated closed session.
Wis. Stat. § 19.84 (2). Because WOML also
requires the notice to inform the public of the
meeting's agenda, the notice should state more
than simply "regular business." Instead,
the notice should mention the specific matters
about which members of the campus body anticipate
discussion, including any closed sessions and
the reasons for going into closed session. In
addition to listing these specific matters, the
notice should include an additional item called "miscellaneous
business" to cover matters that members raise
spontaneously at the meeting.
Manner of giving notice. The chief
presiding officer or chairperson of the
campus body or their designee must give notice
of the meeting to the public. To achieve this
end, the Department of Justice recommends posting
the notice in at least three different locations
on campus. The presiding officer must also ensure
that the notice is published in the campus newspaper
and must give either oral or written notice of
the meeting to news media who have submitted a
written request for notice. Wis. Stat. § 19.84
- When notice must be given. The chief presiding officer or his or her designee must provide notice of every meeting at least 24 hours before the meeting begins. Wis. Stat. § 19.84 (3). A shorter notice period is possible but should not be attempted without advice of counsel.
Departments and their subunits need only "provide meeting notice which is reasonably likely to apprise interested persons, and news media who have filed requests for such notice." Wis. Stat. § 19.84 (5). Nonetheless, the Office of General Counsel recommends that departments and their subunits post a notice containing the information contained in paragraph 1 (above) on a departmental bulletin board to which students, faculty and staff routinely have access at least 24 hours before the meeting.
Because of the strong legal presumption in favor of open meetings, you should consult with the Office of General Counsel or Campus Legal Counsel if you contemplate holding a closed meeting for any of the reasons below.A closed session may be held only for certain, limited purposes, including the following:
- Considering an employee's dismissal, demotion or
discipline, or considering an investigation of charges
against the employee. Wis. Stat. § 19.85 (1)
- Considering an employee's employment, evaluation,
promotion or compensation, including renewals or
nonrenewals of contracts, if tenure is not at issue.
Wis. Stat. § 19.85 (1) (c).
- Conferring with lawyers for the university concerning
pending or possible lawsuits involving the university
or its members. Wis. Stat. § 19.85 (1) (g).
- Deliberations that follow an open judicial or quasi-judicial
trial or hearing. Wis. Stat. § 19.85 (1) (a).
- Considering information which, if discussed in
public, would likely have a substantially adverse
effect on the reputations of the persons named. Examples
include financial, medical, social or personal histories;
disciplinary data of specific persons; preliminary
review of specific personnel problems; or investigations
of charges against specific persons. Wis. Stat. § 19.85
- Considering the purchase of public property, the
investing of public funds or conducting other specified
public business, whenever competitive or bargaining
reasons require a closed session. Wis. Stat. § 19.85
Special practices relating to consideration of tenure: Under Wis. Stat. § 19.85 (1) (b), a closed session may be held when “considering the grant or denial of tenure for a university faculty member,” but the tenure candidate must be notified that he or she “has the right to demand that the evidentiary hearing or meeting be held in open session.” The General Counsel advises institutions to continue the system’s long-standing practice of holding open sessions for the entire departmental review process, including deliberations and the tenure vote, where the tenure candidate so requests.
Convening a Closed Session
The following steps must precede a closed session pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 19.85 (1):
- The body must first convene in open session.
- A member of the body must move that the body convene in closed session, stating the nature of the business to be considered in closed session.
- The chairperson must reiterate the nature of the business to be considered in closed session and cite the relevant exemption under Wis. Stat. § 19.85 (1) that provides authority for the closed session.
- The contents of the announcement must be recorded in the minutes of the meeting.
- The motion must be passed by a majority vote of those present. The vote of each member on the motion to close the session must be ascertained and recorded in the meeting's minutes.
Ballots, Votes and Records
WOML prohibits the use of secret ballots except for the election of officers to the government body. Wis. Stat. § 19.88 (1).
In addition, WOML requires all motions and roll call votes to be recorded, preserved and open to public inspection to the extent allowed under the Wisconsin Public Records Law and any ballot, regardless of form, to be taken in such a way that members' votes may be ascertained and recorded if a member of the body makes such a request at the time the vote is taken. Wis. Stat. § 19.88 (2) and (3). Thus, the meeting's minutes must record how each member voted on roll calls, and each paper ballot must identify the member voting, as well as that member's vote. If a voice vote is taken, only the results of the voice vote must be recorded.
Penalties for Violating WOML
A court could compel a campus body that violates WOML to hold the meeting a second time with proper notice or could void any action taken at the meeting. Wis. Stat. § 19.97 (2) and (3). In addition, any member of a campus body who knowingly attends a meeting of the body that violates WOML must forfeit between $25 to $300 and pay court costs. Wis. Stat. § 19.96.