For the past year, Milton has followed a strict interpretation of a Department of Justice letter on the state’s open meetings law.
The city has prohibited city council members from attending subcommittee meetings unless the council member sits on that subcommittee. It’s a way to prevent an accidental quorum—the minimum number of people required for action—from occurring at a noncouncil meeting, City Administrator Al Hulick said.
But the decision comes with a trade-off.
While residents can attend any public committee meeting they want, Milton council members don’t have the same access to information despite having decision-making power.
City staff schedules regular committee updates at every council meeting to compensate. But it can be frustrating for council members to hear lengthy policy discussions condensed into a few minutes, Hulick said.
“It’s unfortunate, and it hinders their ability to do their job to the best of their ability,” he said. “It’s ironic. Once they get elected, they can no longer attend these subcommittee meetings. That’s caused some frustration for people.”
The situation has not been perfect, but committee updates have gone more smoothly in recent months. And Milton has no plans to distance itself from the state’s July 26, 2016, letter, Hulick said.
The letter detailed a systemic violation of the open meetings law.
For four years, members of two Winnebago County Board subcommittees regularly attended the meetings of a different subcommittee and reached a quorum, Assistant Attorney General Paul Ferguson wrote in the letter.
The meetings were not properly noticed and did not have agendas. In response, the subcommittee began including “boiler-plate notices” on agendas to announce the possibility of a quorum from the other two subcommittees, Ferguson wrote.
Such notices can be practical in small communities where elected officials serve on multiple subcommittees. But they do not provide the “fullest and most complete information” to the public, making them insufficient, Ferguson wrote.
In a phone interview, Ferguson told The Gazette he did not intend to prevent all subcommittee members from attending different meetings.
“It wasn’t the intent of the letter to encourage local governments to bar body members from attending meetings of another body,” he said. “It was intended to make sure if they’re going to attend, that they’re careful and they comply with the intent of the open meetings law.”
The line between boilerplate language and sufficient public notice can be blurry. It could require a joint meeting notice or other extra steps, Ferguson said.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, thinks Milton is going overboard with its interpretation.
“It’s crazy to prevent public officials from attending public meetings if they are not a member of that committee, unless they are actively participating in discussion,” Lueders said.
“I just don’t understand why that’s a problem,” he said. “Why should a public official have less rights to attend a meeting than a regular citizen?”
But the specter of Milton’s own open meetings controversy plays a role in the city’s interpretation.
Last year, former council member Nancy Lader revealed information from a closed session. She later sued the city council and Mayor Anissa Welch because she believed the city had not properly noticed the closed-session item.
If the closed-session item was not properly posted, there was nothing wrong with discussing its details publicly, Lader argued.
Lader eventually dropped her lawsuit, and the two sides reached a resolution in February.
Hulick said the Lader situation has played a role in the city’s strict interpretation of open meetings. While other communities might ignore Ferguson’s letter, Milton did not have that luxury, he said.
Perhaps in a few years, the city could revisit the policy. But for now, the council wants to avoid a similar situation, he said.
“Maybe over time as we distance ourselves from that unfortunate situation, people will feel more comfortable,” Hulick said. “It’s more a general understanding that this is how we should proceed, to not even put ourselves in a position that someone could raise an open meetings question.”