Damakant Jayshi

For the second time in two months, an agenda item for the Wausau City Council was removed amid concerns that Wausau could have violated Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law had the discussion moved forward.

In each instance, the matter under discussion centered on 1300 Cleveland Ave., property owned by the city that has been the subject of intense environmental scrutiny.

First on Aug. 10, Alder Tom Kilian objected to a proposed Finance Committee resolution approving funding for “additional engineering services” on the property on the grounds that adequate notice was not given to the public. The Wisconsin Open Meetings Law requires that public notice of every meeting of a governmental body must be provided at least 24 hours prior to the meeting.

Under state law, every meeting public notice must give the time, date, place and subject matter of the meeting, including that intended for consideration at any contemplated closed session, “in such form as is reasonably likely to apprise members of the public and news media thereof,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Information in the notice “must be sufficient to alert the public to the importance of the meeting, so that they can make an informed decision whether to attend – generic designations are not sufficient.”

Kilian said in his opinion the wording on the agenda for the August meeting, along with a July 13 Finance Committee meeting, was insufficient to meet legal requirements. He also noted the property is surrounded by vulnerable segments of the population who would not realize the discussion was about the property in their neighborhood unless they read page 207 of the meeting packet. The agenda does not mention the address.

The agenda item subsequently appeared for the Sept. 14 council meeting, when city officials learned that “additional engineering services” had already begun.

During the Aug. 10 meeting, Attorney Anne Jacobson said the agenda was sufficient to meet the open meetings requirements, noting that items do not have to include every detail. Mayor Katie Rosenberg agreed.

But Jacobson and Rosenberg also suggested the council take a vote to decide. Council members then voted 6-5 to remove the item from the agenda.

Pat Peckham told Wausau Pilot & Review that he disagreed with Jacobson’s opinion.

“There might not have been an intention to deceive, (but) it did violate the Open Meetings law,” he said.

Kilian also objected to the Finance Committee’s approval of funding for a fleet maintenance shop on July 13, with less specific language. In that instance, the agenda had two items related to the property – but only one of the two specifically mentions the address. The other states: Discussion and possible action regarding budget modification for facility engineering services.

Jacobson did not respond to a request for comment on the open meetings issue.

Finance Committee Chair Lisa Rasmussen said the agenda items related to “two different processes.”

“I did not see the agenda item as too vague because we are a long way off from reviewing the results of that study, picking a site for a fleet facility, approving a plan and then funding it,” Rasmussen said.

The wording on the agenda does not appear compatible with the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide. On page 23, the guide states: In order to draft a meeting notice that complies with the reasonableness standard, a good rule of thumb will be to ask whether a person interested in a specific subject would be aware, upon reading the notice, that the subject might be discussed.

And the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, states: Wisconsin’s open meeting law provides that “the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business.” To that end, the law requires that all meetings of governmental bodies be preceded by public notice. The notice must set forth the time, date, place and subject matter of the meeting “in such form as is reasonably likely to apprise members of the public and the news media thereof.”

Rasmussen added that it was up to the City Council to accept or reject an item. She also pointed out that the council could have referred the matter back to the Finance Committee but did not.

The council last week voted against funding the feasibility study.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.

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