July: It’s time to end closed caucuses

2004 Columns

There’s a double standard in the state Open Meetings Law that the Waukesha County Board wants eliminated.

So, too, should the rest of us.

The Open Meetings Law prohibits a majority of a local elected body to meet in secret. That means, for example, that four or more members of a seven-member village board can’t legally gather in private, except for some narrow exceptions spelled out in the law. This reduces the possibility that a majority of the board will railroad through ordinances out of public view, thus turning their public meetings into a sham.

But the law specifically exempts legislative caucuses. As a result, Republicans and Democrats can and do meet in private to discuss pending legislation. And because one party or the other holds a majority – currently it’s the Republicans in both the state Senate and Assembly – it allows state lawmakers to flout the very law that local elected bodies must obey.

The Waukesha County Board recently voted 26-9 to recommend that the Legislature end its closed-door caucuses. Hopefully, more local elected bodies will put pressure on the Legislature to do away with this indefensible practice.

Rep. Rob Kreibich (R-Eau Claire), a former TV news reporter and 12-year Assembly veteran, doesn’t think eliminating closed caucuses would be a big deal and may even help him and his colleagues be more effective. Kreibich wouldn’t mind eliminating the closed-door caucuses for two reasons.

“The minute we go behind closed doors, within an hour the documents are in the media’s hands,” says Kreibich, noting that a recent tax freeze proposal offered in closed caucus by Assembly Speaker John Gard was quickly leaked.

Kreibich’s other reason?

“I’ll say whatever I’m going to say regardless,” says Kreibich. “I don’t feel any safer in closed session. I’d rather have people hear what I have to say from my lips than from some other person’s lips.”

According to Kreibich, most closed caucuses are little more than “venting sessions,” and many members often leave and go to their offices to get work done. “You’d be extremely underwhelmed by the discussions. It’s not compelling, earth-shattering stuff.”

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group concerned about the growing role of special-interest money in state elections, “respectively disagrees” with Kreibich’s assessment.

“A lot of the business that the public ought to be privy to is done behind closed doors,” says McCabe. “People have waited outside closed doors for hours, only to have leaders emerge with deals that have been struck on some important matter of public policy.”

To their credit, Assembly Republicans debate budget matters in open session to avoid any appearance of back-room deals. But as long as closed caucuses exist, there will be a perception that lawmakers have something to hide.

McCabe, who as a legislative aide more than 20 years ago sat in on his share of caucus meetings, says legislative leaders often use these closed-door sessions “to beat up on rank-and-file lawmakers and get them into line. Sometimes, they offer inducements to fall into line. Sometimes they threaten them. An awful lot of arm-twisting goes on in these sessions.”

The Open Meetings Law allows public bodies to meet behind closed doors for such sensitive matters as personnel evaluations and discipline, pending litigation, collective bargaining, land acquisition and other issues with competitive or bargaining implications.

But general caucus “strategy sessions” conjure up images of the vote trading and strong-arming that McCabe alleges. The problem, he says, has gotten worse as legislative power has become increasingly centralized:

“Whoever the leaders happen to be at the moment negotiate (legislation), then go into the caucuses and sell it. Public hearings essentially have become a sham in our state Capitol. The opportunity for meaningful public input is almost nonexistent. Deals are struck in leaders’ offices and party caucuses. The public has no access to those places.”

Kreibich, meanwhile, believes the caucuses waste time and exhaust lawmakers.

“Now, we sometimes check in at 10 a.m., go into caucus and don’t get started (in floor session) until 4 o’clock,” he says. “We’re so worn down by 7 or 7:30 (p.m.), when the debates start, and in some cases they last all night. We’ve talked ourselves out in closed caucuses. We’d operate more efficiently under the light of day.”

Wisconsin legislators ought to hold themselves to the same standard of openness required of local elected bodies. The only losers would be those with something to hide from the rest of us, and the party leaders whose influence would diminish under a truly open system.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, devoted to protecting public access to meetings and records. Huebscher is editor of the Leader-Telegram in Eau Claire.