Wis. lawmaker working on Open Meetings Law

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 8, 2011, 11:47am


MADISON, Wis. (Legal Newsline) - Wisconsin lawmaker Jon Richards said Thursday he has introduced a constitutional amendment that would hold the state Legislature to Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law.

In a guest column that appeared in the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune, Richards, a state representative, said the amendment 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.

The proposed legislation comes after a state Supreme Court ruling in June upholding Gov. Scott Walker's controversial Budget Repair Bill.

In its opinion, the Court said the doors of the senate and assembly were kept open to the press and members of the public during the enactment of the bill. The doors of the senate parlor, where the joint committee on conference met, were open to the press and members of the public. WisconsinEye broadcast the proceedings live, it noted.

"Access was not denied," the Court wrote. "There is no constitutional requirement that the legislature provide access to as many members of the public as wish to attend meetings of the legislature or meetings of legislative committees."

The Court, in its ruling, also declined to review the validity of the procedure used to provide notice of the March 9 meeting.

"As the court has explained when legislation was challenged based on allegations that the legislature did not follow the relevant procedural statutes, this court will not determine whether internal operating rules or procedural statutes have been complied with by the legislature in the course of its enactments," it wrote.

Richards, a Democrat from Milwaukee, wrote that as a result of the ruling, the law in Wisconsin is: "When it comes to open meetings, the Legislature is free to follow its own rules -- even if those rules violate the law or provide no public notice of a meeting."

The lawmaker said while he disagrees with the Court's analysis, he respects it and is working to "close the loophole" in the Open Meetings 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," he wrote.

"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."

He added, "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."

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.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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