January: Local Government Center a valuable resource

2014 Columns

Each election year in Wisconsin, about one-third of the local government offices on the ballot will be filled by newcomers — driven to office by a reformer’s zeal or a desire to serve their friends and neighbors. And some of them will know little about the laws that govern the conduct of local government.

That’s where the UW-Extension’s Local Government Center steps in.

For the past 21 years, the center has worked quietly behind the scenes to help neophytes learn the ropes and veteran office holders update their knowledge. Philip Freeburg, the center’s local government law educator, describes the operation as a “boots on the ground” representation of the Wisconsin Idea.

The center offers workshops, fact sheets and teleconferences on a wide range of topics: government finances, human resources, disaster management, elections and ethics. Its mission also includes expanding research and knowledge about local government education.

But no function is more important than the center’s efforts to educate local officials on the state’s Open Records and Open Meetings Laws. It frequently works in concert with associations representing the state’s cities, towns and counties.

Nor should the center be overlooked as source of information for Wisconsin citizens who want to learn about local governance, including open meetings and open records.

Given the emotional issues — sand mining and land use master plans come to mind — that frequently dot Wisconsin’s political landscape, civility can be a resource in short supply. Failure to comply with the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records Laws can exacerbate ill will between officials and citizens.

“People are keenly interested and want to learn about this,” says Freeburg when asked to discuss how citizens’ interests and local government intersect at controversial issues. “They deal with a structure completely new to them.”

To aid in its efforts, the center has created a 10-part video on the state’s Open Meeting Law. In a series of scenarios, UW students serve as would-be elected officials and government employees. They address issues ranging from proper public notice requirements for meetings to when email exchanges between elected officials might constitute a de facto meeting and violate the law.

The installments serve as a basic primer on open meetings. Scenarios are presented in easily digestible bites. (For a sample clip, see http://fyi.uwex.edu/lgcprogramstore/2012/11/open-meetings-video-teaser/.)

Although the video and a related fact sheet on Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law may seem elementary to experienced public officials and scholars, they can serve as valuable resources for new officeholders and the public, as well as high school and college students studying journalism or political science.

The center’s instructional materials can be downloaded from its website for free. There is a $20 fee for teleconferences, including a recent session on civil dialogue in local government, and related printed material.

The DVD on the Open Meetings Law can be ordered at little or no cost through educational specialists working at UW-Extension’s county offices across Wisconsin.

Last spring, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council honored the Local Government Center for its work in this area. UW-Extension Chancellor Ray Cross accepted the council’s Political Openness Award, or Popee, on the Center’s behalf.

“Whether it’s presenting in town halls, supper clubs or church basements, or developing videos and fact sheets or through telephone conversations, these educators have helped countless local officials adopt not only the letter of the law but the spirit of the law,” Cross said in accepting the award.

The center’s “Open government” portal can be found at http://lgc.uwex.edu/OpenGovt/index.html.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Council member John Dye of De Pere is a retired executive editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.