Because government belongs to the people, the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, found in sections 19.81 through 19.98 of the Wisconsin Statutes, requires that public business, with certain exceptions, be conducted in public.
Under the law, all meetings of governmental bodies are presumed to be open to the public unless the law specifically allows a closed session. The county board, its committees, boards, commissions and agencies are governmental bodies. There are several reasons allowing a closed session (found in s.19.85, Wis. Stats.)
The major reasons are:
Considering punitive personnel action against an employee of the body; evaluating performance, compensation, promotion or employment of a public employee of the body; considering strategies for crime prevention or detection; conducting public business (such as purchasing property) where competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session; considering information related to personal, social, medical or financial data of specific people where open discussion might injure their reputations; conferring with the attorney for the body to discuss litigation. Specific applications of these exemptions should be discussed with legal counsel in advance.
The law requires that the public have notice of what will be discussed at meetings. This requires advance preparation of an agenda which gives a specific description of the matters to be discussed and acted upon by the body. The agenda must be prepared at least 24 hours before the meeting, except where urgent situations require less notice.
The law also forbids use of secret ballots except in certain elections of offices. No body can convene privately to avoid the law – any gathering of a majority of the body is presumed to be a meeting. No body can meet in open session after going into closed session unless prior written notice has been provided.
The basic rule of the open meetings law is: “access by the public, to public business”. Where any closed sessions are contemplated, care should be taken to assure the law is being followed.