Councils make their own rules on public comments
To read the open meetings compliance guide published by the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office, go online to www.doj.state.wi.us.
People attending a recent Darien Village Board meeting grumbled when told they couldn’t speak at the meeting if they hadn’t signed up 24 hours earlier.
In Janesville, the city council doesn’t make citizens sign up to speak and council members set aside time each month to listen to constituents.
Some boards allow residents to talk only about things not on the agenda.
Others let almost anything go.
They all are, in the legal sense of the word.
The “public comment” portion of a board meeting is “simply not something that’s dictated by statute,” said Bob Dreps, an attorney with the Godfrey & Kahn law office in Madison. Dreps is a public member of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and an advocate for open government.
He’s the attorney reporters call when they have a legal question such as, “Does Wisconsin have laws that dictate how public comments should be handled at regular board meetings?”
The short answer is, “No,” Dreps said. Governmental bodies are not required by law to allow the public to speak during meetings.
But statutes don’t prohibit public comment, either.
For the sake of healthy democracy, governmental bodies should make sure they are allowing people to share their thoughts, Dreps said.
“As elected officials, in the spirit of democracy, allowing time for that (public participation) in a public meeting is not only appropriate but to be encouraged.”
Some issues, such as budget approval or ordinance changes, require public hearings, according to statutes. But for regular, open meetings, municipalities are left to their own devices to make the meeting rules.
Rules can be good, Dreps said. They can keep meetings moving so everyone can get home before midnight. They can prevent municipal employees from getting dragged through the mud when they’re not there to defend themselves.
But public officials shouldn’t hide behind rules for convenience’s sake, he said.
“What can you say?” Dreps said. “Democracy is messy.”
Here is a sample of public comment rules from local governmental bodies:
-- The Janesville City Council allows two opportunities for public comment on every agenda. One is for items on the agenda that don’t require a public hearing. The other is for items that aren’t on the agenda but could be affected by the council in the future.
The council also hosts informal listening sessions an hour before the first Monday meeting of the month.
Residents sign up to speak. Council members might respond or ask questions of the resident, said city Clerk Jean Wulf.
“It’s the prerogative of the city council,” Wulf said. “If they have questions, they’ll ask. If they just want to listen, they’ll listen.”
-- The Janesville School Board allows public comments at every regular meeting. The council will not hear “personal complaints” about school personnel or anyone connected with the schools in open session.
Speakers must identify themselves by name and address. Comments should be about matters pertaining to school district business and are limited to three minutes.
-- The Clinton School District requires citizens to contact the board president or the district administrator in advance of the meeting so the citizen’s issue can be put on the agenda.
The public is allowed to raise issues and questions if a general subject matter designation is listed on the agenda, according to the district policy.
District Administrator Pam Kiefert said the board’s practice is pretty relaxed.
“It’s very open, very transparent,” Kiefert said. “There’s not a lot of adhering to times. At least that’s the practice.”
The board will limit itself to answering basic questions that don’t require board discussion or deliberation. If necessary, the board will put the issue on a future agenda or refer it to a committee or district administration.
-- The city of Milton does not have a formal policy, Administrator Todd Schmidt said. The council allows comments at the beginning of meetings for items not on the agenda. The council also lets people speak up during meetings about items on the agenda.
“The mayor is in charge of running the meeting and can issue time limits depending on the amount of people who want to be heard and the amount of business to be handled on the agenda,” Schmidt said.
-- The Edgerton City Council includes a time at the beginning of its meetings for public appearances for non-agenda items. Residents are allowed to comment on agenda items during the meeting. They do not have to sign up in advance to speak.
-- The Evansville City Council allows anyone to speak at the start of every council meeting, council President Mason Braunschweig said. The agenda lists a citizen appearances item where anyone can speak about anything.
The council is “very, very informal,” and people can speak during the meeting as it relates to an agenda item, he said. The policy states speakers have a three-minute limit, but speakers aren’t timed or cut off unless it’s a really full, long meeting.
“We’re not experts by any means,” Braunschweig said. “It’s good to get input from people who take time out of their day (to come to the meeting).”
People wishing to speak are asked to give their name and address for the record, but they don’t have to be a resident.
-- The Village of Darien has been working to institute a rule that speakers must contact Administrator Marc Dennison before noon on the Friday before the board’s regular Monday night meetings. If the subject matter is relevant to village business, Dennison will put the matter on the agenda and put the resident on a list to speak.
Comments are limited to three minutes, and foul language is prohibited.
Screening the subject matter helps prevent personal attacks and keeps meetings from becoming “rancorous,” Dennison said.
The goal is to keep meetings civil so business gets conducted and issues get resolved, Dennison said.
Before the rules were introduced, “It was like the Wild West out there,” Dennison said.
-- The Lake Geneva City Council lets the public speak at a specified time at the beginning of city council and committee of the whole meetings, said Lake Geneva City Clerk Diana Dykstra.
At city council meetings, residents may speak only about items on the agenda for that meeting—with the exception of public hearing items—and city council members and other city officials present cannot respond, she said.
At committee of the whole meetings, on the other hand, residents may speak about anything; their comments do not have to relate to items on the agenda, nor do their comments have to be about city business, Dykstra said. City officials, again, cannot respond, she said.
Dykstra said the reason officials cannot respond to residents’ comments at meetings is because such a discussion—without proper notice—would be a violation of Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.
Bob Dreps, an attorney with the Godfrey & Kahn law office in Madison and public member of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, disagrees with this interpretation of the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law. He said council members are allowed to discuss issues brought up by the public, just as they are allowed to take public comment.
-- The Whitewater City Council allows the public to speak at a specified time at the beginning of meetings, City Clerk Michele Smith said.
During that time, residents are prohibited from speaking about items on the agenda. However, they may address those items when the city council comes to them during the course of the meeting, she said.
City officials cannot respond to residents’ comments, Smith said.
Some committees also have time set aside for public comments, she said.
The Wisconsin Open Meetings Law doesn’t address everything about what is and is not allowed at government meetings, leading to questions about what’s legal.
Here are a few questions that reporters sometimes hear at public meetings.
Answers come from a compliance guide published by the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office and from Bob Dreps, an attorney with the Godfrey & Kahn law office in Madison.
Note that as a matter of convenience, we used “board” to refer to any kind of governmental body, whether it’s a county board, school board, town board or city council.
Q: What does the open meetings law require for an open meeting?
A: Closed sessions are allowed for some things, but as a rule of thumb, the vast majority of a governmental body’s meetings should take place in a space that’s accessible to the public. The open meetings law applies to “every” meeting, according to the attorney general’s guidelines.
Q: How do we know when meetings will take place or what the board will talk about?
A: Barring emergency, boards are required to post agendas 24 hours before the meeting. The agendas must clearly list all the board’s planned discussions or votes. The agendas should be posted in places where residents can see them. If a newspaper is published in the area, the board must publish the agendas. Boards can place agendas on the Internet, but that’s not a legal substitute for posting or publishing the paper copy.
Q: If I ask a question at a board meeting, may the board discuss the issue I raise?
A: Yes. But officials have to be careful. They’re not allowed to extensively deliberate or vote on something that wasn’t on the agenda. That would be a violation of the open meetings law and they could be subject to fines.
But, legally, they are allowed to discuss issues brought up by the public, just as they are allowed to take public comment.
“Any governmental body who claims they can’t discuss (public comments) or claims they can’t take comments is misguided,” Dreps said.
Q: I’ve heard board members say they follow Robert’s Rules of Order. Does that mean they’re compliant with state statutes?
A. No. Robert’s rules are not law, Dreps said. They are a guide to parliamentary procedure—used by everyone from 4-H’ers to legislators—to prevent chaos at meetings. But Wisconsin law trumps Robert’s rules.
For example, at a Darien Village Board meeting Feb. 16, board member Craig McCue, citing Robert’s Rules of Order, attempted to amend the agenda by adding an item for discussion and vote.
While Robert might allow an amendment, state law does not permit a last-minute addition for action, Dreps said.
McCue, who is running a contested race to keep his seat on the board, wanted the board to vote to host a candidate forum. The village attorney and administrator explained that it was not the village’s responsibility to host a forum, so the board did not take what would have been an illegal vote.