Q. Are all committees created by departments or administrators subject to WOML?
A. Whether a committee is subject to WOML depends on how it is created. If you are not sure whether a committee or similar body would be subject to WOML, you should contact the Office of General Counsel or Campus Legal Counsel.
Q. Are social gatherings, staff meetings and other informal encounters subject to WOML?
A. No. WOML applies only to gatherings and meetings whose purpose is to conduct the official business of the campus body; WOML specifically excludes social or chance gatherings from its scope. Thus, "brown bag lunches" and academic social functions are not normally subject to WOML, unless those present at the functions attempt to circumvent the law by considering or taking official action on a matter.
Q. If my committee, subunit or department plans to hold a series of meetings, may I post a single notice that lists all the meetings that we plan to hold?
A. No. WOML requires you to provide a separate notice for each meeting at a time and date reasonably close to the meeting date. Wis. Stat, § 19.84 (4).
Q. Is a departmental personnel committee or tenure review committee that meets to evaluate a candidate's credentials for promotion and tenure subject to the requirements of WOML?
A. Yes. Departmental personnel committees and tenure review committees are established under departmental rules (and are thus formally constituted subunits of a campus body), and are subject to WOML. The General Counsel advises that tenure decisions be made in open session if requested by the candidate.
Q. May matters not included in the chairperson's announcement preceding a closed session be addressed at the closed session?
A. No. No business may be conducted in closed session except on matters contained in the meeting notice. Wis. Stat. § 19.85 (1).
Q. Does the order in which a body convenes in open or closed session make any difference?
A. Yes. A closed session may not precede an open session. WOML requires the body to convene first in open session to approve a motion to convene in closed session. Also, a body may not commence a meeting, convene in closed session and then reconvene in open session within 12 hours after completion of the closed session unless written notice of the subsequent open session was given at the same time and in the same manner as the notice for the initial open session. Wis. Stat. § 19.85 (2).
Q. Must the motion and roll call votes of closed sessions be recorded, and are they open for public inspection?
A. Yes. The motion and roll call votes must be recorded, regardless of whether they are taken in open or closed session, and they are open to public inspection to the extent disclosure is required under Wisconsin's Public Records Law (WPRL).
Q. Can a citizen record an open meeting?
A. Yes, as long as the recording (video or audio taping) does not disrupt the meeting. Wis. Stat. § 19.90.
Q: Can a government body conduct business via email?
A: The Attorney General discourages government bodies from doing official business via email. An email between two or more members of a government body regarding business matters can lead to an inadvertent meeting if a quorum of the government body is copied and responds to the rest of the group. It is permissible for members of a government body to circulate documents (e.g., agendas, discussion documents) and logistical details via email in preparation for a meeting, as long as the members avoid discussing business matters.
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. For more information, see the latest edition of the Wisconsin Department of Justice Compliance Guide for Wisconsin’s Open Meeting Law and other resources.
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 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 persons at all times. Wis. Stat. §19.83. 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 (1). 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.
- 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 (1) (b).
- 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 session.
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) (b).
- 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 (1) (f).
- 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 (1) (e).
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 and citing 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.
Special Practices Related to Notes on Personnel Matters: Because of the heightened scrutiny and litigation potential in personnel matters, the General Counsel advises institutions to record notes on significant decisions (e..g. nonrenewals, tenure) in such a manner as to permit determination of how individuals voted.
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.