Proponents of open, transparent government in our state received an early July Fourth present last week from the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Best of all, it was a unanimous ruling.
Elected bodies in our state, such as city councils and school boards, are subject to a law that presumes their business –in truth, the public’s business — will be conducted in public.
With few exemptions, that means meetings should be held in public and documents should be open to public inspection.
When in doubt, our elected officials should be guided by a spirit of openness.
Open government allows citizens to can keep an eye on the workings and the people of government. That’s also how we make sure our public money is being spent wisely.
But, what happens when one of those public bodies appoints a special committee with the authority to take action?
Is that committee subject to open-meetings and open-records laws?
The answer from the state Supreme Court is a resounding “yes” – something that everyone should celebrate.
The court ruled that the school district in Appleton should have provided public notice, in advance, of a meeting held by a committee appointed to review the suitability of books used by district students.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the decision “affirms that public officials cannot create committees without making them subject to the open meetings law.”
The suit was brought by a parent who wanted to listen to the committee’s deliberations about books that were being chosen for students, including his.
He was rejected – and he filed suit.
A circuit court and an appellate court both sided with the school district; the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously came down on the side of openness.
Justice Michael Gableman wrote the opinion for the court that sets a clear standard: When a governmental body forms committees and allows them to take collective action, those committees are deemed “created by rule” under state law and subject to the open meetings law.
The ruling is a very important reminder to public bodies that the work that occurs on their behalf is the public’s business, subject to public scrutiny.
And, it’s a wonderful victory for transparency and freedom.