June: Judge gives meetings law vital support

Your Right To Know - 2011 Columns
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No matter how people feel about the changes to Wisconsin’s collective bargaining laws passed by the Legislature in March  — and then voided on May 26 by Judge Maryann Sumi — Wisconsin residents should take heart in Judge Sumi’s decision. She declared the state’s Open Meetings Law means something.

“This case is the exemplar of values protected by the Open Meetings Law: transparency in government, the right of citizens to participate in their government and respect for the rule of law,” Judge Sumi wrote in her decision. “It is not this court’s business to determine whether 2011 Act 10 is good public policy or bad public policy; that is the business of the Legislature. It is this court’s responsibility, however, to apply the rule of law to the facts before it.”

Judge Sumi described the evidence supporting her finding that the law was violated as “clear and convincing. This was not a case in which proper notice was missed by a few minutes or an hour. Not even the two-hour notice justified by ‘good cause’ was provided. The legislators were understandably frustrated by the stalemate existing on March 9, but that does not justify jettisoning compliance with the Open Meetings Law.”

According to Sumi, the Joint Committee of Conference, the committee of legislative leaders from both chambers of the Legislature that met to separate fiscal from non-fiscal portions of the Budget Repair Bill, was aware that it was violating the law.

She noted that remedies were readily available. In her Conclusions of Law, Judge Sumi said the conference committee violated the Open Meetings Law by failing to provide at least 24 hours advance public notice of the meeting. She doesn’t mention it in her documents, but the remedy for that problem is pretty obvious: Give 24 hours notice.

Sumi said the meeting also violated the law by failing to provide reasonable public access to the meeting. The meeting was held in the Senate Gallery, which, after being set up to accommodate legislative staff members and the media, had seating for only 20 people. Larger rooms in the Capitol were available, the judge wrote, and they had been used for conference committee meetings in the past.

The Legislature could still post a timely notice of a new committee meeting and take the same action again, voiding the effect of her decision. The judge pointed out that it has been possible all along for the Legislature to hold the vote again, making the case unnecessary.

In fact, the legislators could have held a new vote without admitting they violated the law. They didn’t do so, so the case proceeded, but now that the judge has ruled a new vote may be forthcoming.

For that reason, Judge Sumi’s ruling ultimately may not have any effect on the public policy concerning collective bargaining. But it will have an important effect on the way legislators and the public look at the Open Meetings Law: It still matters.

Many of our elected politicians speak glowingly of Wisconsin’s tradition of open government, but it took a circuit court judge to hold the Legislature to that tradition.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Steve Lund is the editorial page editor of the Kenosha News, where a version of this column appeared.