Bring Open Meetings Law into the 21st Century

February 14, 2020

(Open letter to legislators about the lack of adequate public notice for public hearings from Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Matthew Rothschild.)

TO: Rep. Tusler, Chair, Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections
Sen. Bernier, Chair, Senate Committee on Elections, Ethics and Rural Issues
Evan Umpir, Clerk, Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections
Scott Nelson, Clerk, Senate Committee on Elections, Ethics and Rural Issues

Cc: Sen. Craig, Chair, Senate Committee on Insurance, Financial Services, Government Oversight and Courts
Rep. Steffen, Chair, Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight
Respective committee members

Dear Committee Chairs and Clerks:

I’d like to raise a serious point about the lack of adequate public notice for some hearings in particular during these last two weeks of the session.

For two hearings this week, we received notice at 5:19 a.m. for a hearing at noon that day – less than seven hours later!

I know you may be abiding by the letter of the law by physically posting notices at the Capitol and in the press room just 24 hours ahead of time.

But you’re not abiding by the spirit of the law, which is to make sure the public is informed – and has an opportunity to participate in – public hearings. The instructions from the Department of Justice on abiding by the Open Meetings law are clear: “The notice must be written such that it is reasonably likely to apprise members of the public and the news media of this information….It is important to note that notice to the public and notice to a news medium are separate requirements.”

In this day and age, many groups, concerned citizens, and others who watch the legislative calendar closely rely on the legislative notification service, which sends us emails about legislation that is circulating and about hearings that are upcoming.

This has become the de facto notification for just about all interested parties, and it’s how they inform their members or friends -- and the general public! -- about the hearings you’re going to hold.

There is no reason why subscribers to the legislative notification service shouldn’t be properly noticed at the same time that members of the media are – and not six hours and 41 minutes before the actual hearing!

It’s the Twenty-First Century! In this technological age, there’s no excuse for not letting the citizens, who pay your salaries, know right away when you’re holding public hearings.

Here’s the fundamental point: What good is it to have a “public hearing” when the public never hears about it in time to participate?

Public hearings are a crucial part of our democracy. They are designed to allow members of the public to participate and make their voices heard. They are not designed – and should not be used -- for bill sponsors and the special interest drafters to promote their points of view to committee members.

Please, let’s have genuine public hearings, where the members of the public are given sufficient notice ahead of time so that they can actually attend or testify.

Otherwise, you’re just making a mockery of the idea of public hearings.

We’d be happy to work with you on bringing the “Open Meetings” law into the Twenty-First Century.

But in the meantime, please give the public adequate notice when you’re having a public hearing.

I look forward to hearing from you on this urgent matter.

Sincerely,

Matt Rothschild

Executive Director