July: Legislature should be subject to Open Meetings Law

2011 Columns

Wisconsin has a long and proud history of open government. We have a strong Open Meetings Law which has served Wisconsin citizens well.

That law, which requires public notice at least 24 hours before public meetings, applies to your library board, school board and city council – but it does not apply to the Wisconsin Legislature anymore.

We can all agree that the public has a fundamental right to participate in government and have a seat at the table when decisions are made.  However, because of a recent state Supreme Court ruling, the Legislature can ignore the Open Meetings Law without consequence.

Wisconsin’s commitment to open meetings started in our state constitution, which includes a provision requiring that the doors of the Legislature be kept open.

During a special session in the summer of 1976, the Legislature completely rewrote Wisconsin’s open meetings statutes expressly to make itself bound by the law’s requirements.

To make their intent perfectly clear, lawmakers included a statement in the statutes declaring that the Legislature is expected to comply to the fullest extent with the Open Meetings Law, in conformity with the constitutional requirement that “the doors of each house shall be kept open.”

Shortly after these reforms passed, one of the legislators who helped write the new law explained to the press what he and his colleagues had intended.  The new law “eliminate(s) many loopholes, inconsistencies and ambiguities and put(s) more teeth into a very important area of the law,” said then-Rep. Cal Potter, who is now on the board of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan citizens’ advocacy group.

Those loopholes were reopened last month when our state’s highest court overturned a lower court’s injunction on the contentious collective bargaining law.

In a 4-3 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to decide whether legislative leaders violated the state’s Open Meetings Law when they rushed to pass a bill that eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public workers.

Despite the Legislature’s clear intent to apply the Open Meetings Law to itself, and a constitutional guarantee that the statehouse doors remain open to the public, the Supreme Court ruled otherwise on this issue.

As a result of this ruling, here is the law in Wisconsin today: When it comes to open meetings, the Legislature is free follow its own rules—even if those rules violate the law or provide no public notice of a meeting.

While I disagree with the court’s analysis, I respect its decision and am now working to close the loophole in Open Meetings Law that many thought had been closed 35 years ago.

With help from the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Common Cause in Wisconsin and others, I have introduced a constitutional amendment that authorizes the Legislature to enact laws requiring reasonable notice of and public access to meetings of the Legislature and other government bodies and makes legislators subject to citations and civil penalties for violating the law.

Lawmakers should not be allowed to subvert the open meetings law.  The Legislature must be held to the same standard of openness and transparency as city councils, school boards and all other government agencies.

The constitutional amendment I have introduced takes an important first step to preserving the people’s fundamental right to an open government so they can monitor the people’s business. (In order to be ratified, constitutional amendments must pass the Legislature in two successive legislative sessions, and be approved by voters in a statewide referendum.)

Let’s amend our constitution to close the Legislature’s special privileges to do its work more secretly and with less public notice than any other public body in Wisconsin.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, represents the 19th Assembly District.