Wisconsin Open Meetings Law

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The Wisconsin Open Meetings Law legislates the methods by which public meetings are conducted. Statutes 19.81-19.98 of the Wisconsin statutes define the law.

Every meeting of a governmental body must be held in open session. All discussion, action, and deliberations can only occur in open sessions, with few exceptions.

Relevant legal cases

See also: Court cases with an impact on state FOIA

Here is a list of open meetings lawsuits in Wisconsin. For more information go the page or go to Wisconsin sunshine lawsuits.
(The cases are listed alphabetically. To order them by year please click the icon to the right of the Year heading)

Lawsuit Year
Sands v. Whitnall School District 2008
State of Wisconsin v. Beaver Dam Area Development Corporation 2008

Proposed open meetings legislation


See also Proposed transparency legislation, Open meetings legislation

We do not currently have any legislation for Wisconsin in 2010.

Statement of purpose

The statement of purpose of the Open Meetings Act states,
"(1) In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state 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.

(2) To implement and ensure the public policy herein expressed, all meetings of all state and local governmental bodies shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public and shall be open to all citizens at all times unless otherwise expressly provided by law.

(3) In conformance with article IV, section 10, of the constitution, which states that the doors of each house shall remain open, except when the public welfare requires secrecy, it is declared to be the intent of the legislature to comply to the fullest extent with this subchapter.

(4) This subchapter shall be liberally construed to achieve the purposes set forth in this section, and the rule that penal statutes must be strictly construed shall be limited to the enforcement of forfeitures and shall not otherwise apply to actions brought under this subchapter or to interpretations thereof. "[1]

Which government meetings are open to the public?

The law states that a meeting is any gathering of the members of a public body with the intention of conducting public business. The act determines that any gathering of at least half of the members of the public body is a clear indication of an intention to conduct public business.[1]

Notable exemptions to this definition include:

  • chance or social meetings
  • conferences so long as they are not intended to circumvent the chapter[1]

What government bodies are subject to the laws?

The act defines government body as all state and local government agencies created by the constitution or any other statute, ordinance or rule. The act also includes quasi-government corporations, including all public purpose corporations, and any corporations who operate the Olympic ice training center.[1].

The following examples of a government body under the Wisconsin Open Records Law are:

  • A municipal public utility managing a city-owned public electrical utility.
  • Departments of formally constituted subunits of the University of Wisconsin system or campus.
  • A town board, but not an annual or special town meeting of town electors.
  • A public inland lake protection and rehabilitation district established by a county or municipality pursuant to Wis. Statutes 33.21 to 33.27.
  • A committee appointed by the school superintendent to consider school library materials.
  • A citizen's advisory group appointed by the mayor.
  • An advisory committee appointed by the Natural Resources Board, the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, or a District Director, Bureau Director or Property Manager of that department.
  • A consortium of school districts created by a contract between districts; a resolution is the equivalent of an order.
  • A school district's strategic-planning team whose creation was authorized and whose duties were assigned to it by the school board.
  • A citizen's advisory committee appointed by a county executive.
  • A Criminal Justice Study Commission created by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the University of Wisconsin Law School, the State Bar of Wisconsin, and the Marquette University Law School[2].

Notable exemptions to the definition of public body include:

  • groups organized for the purposes of collective bargaining[1]

==== Legislature====


In its ruling in State v. Circuit Court for Dane County the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the legislature did not amend the constitution by enacting the Open Meetings Law and as a result the open meetings law does not apply to the legislature. Instead, the guidelines for the legislature are outlined by the constitution which requires all legislative meetings to be open to the public but fails to outline guidelines for notice and affords the legislature the opportunity to decide on its own requirements for executive session. In addition, the court held that it had no power to enforce the rules of the legislature due to separation of powers considerations.[3]

Showers test

The Showers Test is a key requirement used by courts in Wisconsin to determine if a local or state government unit violated the state's open records law. The Showers Test determines two key parts on determining if a meeting is compliance in the law:

1. There is a purpose to engage in governmental business
2. The number of members present is sufficient to determine the governmental body’s course of action[4].

When determining the purpose of government business, the Showers Test defines this as any formal or informal action, including discussion, decision or information gathering, on matters within the governmental body’s realm of authority. The Wisconsin State Supreme Court stressed that once a quorom is present and at a government unit is gathering information at a minimum, this is the first sign a government meeting must be open except in certain circumstances[5].

The numbers requirement in the Showers Test strictly defines that at least one half of the members present is the standard for determining if a meeting has to be open to the public. Both the purpose and numbers requirement must be met in order to determine if a government unit is in compliance with open meetings law[6].

Notice requirements

Governmental bodies must give public notice of all meetings, showing the time, date, place (as accurately as possible) and subject matter of the meeting. If the body anticipates that part of the session will be closed they must indicate this along with the topics to be discussed in that session. The body must distribute and communicate the notice to the public, to those news media who have filed a written request for such notice, and to the official newspaper designated, if there is one. Otherwise, the body must communicate with whatever publication would involve the area's news or announcements.

The notice must be provided at least 24 hours before the beginning of the meeting unless this requirement is impossible or impractical. It cannot be provided less than two hours in advance of the meeting.

Any university of Wisconsin system institution or campus departments and a nonprofit corporation operating the Olympic ice training center do not have to abide by the above requirements, but they must provide meeting notice that will be able to reach people interested in what the meeting is about as well as news media who have filed written requests for a notice.

A governmental body that is a subunit of another governmental body does not have to give notice as stated above for a meeting with where members will be discussing or acting upon a matter that was the subject of the parent governmental body's meeting. The presiding officer of the parent governmental body shall publicly announce the time, place and subject matter of the meeting of the subunit in advance at the meeting of the parent body.[1]

Meeting process

During an open meeting, governmental body motions and roll call votes are recorded and kept for public access. Unless this law provides an exception, there is no secret ballot to determine an election or other decision unless it is the election of the body's officers. Any governmental body member may require a vote to be taken at any meeting and members can require the name and vote of each member be recorded.

During a period of public comment, governmental body may discuss any matter raised by the public.[1]

Exclusion of members

No elected or appointed member of the governmental body may be excluded from any body meeting, nor may they be excluded from any meeting of a subunit of that body, unless the governmental body has rules to the contrary.[1]

Use of equipment

The body allows any person desiring to record, film or photograph the meeting, as long as the meeting is open and the recording, filming or photographing does not interfere with the meting or the participants' rights.[1]


There are no specific requirements regarding minutes other than motions for closing a meeting must be recorded in them.[1]

Executive sessions

Common executive session exemptions
Personal privacy (including employees)Yes.pngp
Attorney-client privilege/litigationYes.pngp
Security/police information
Purchase or sale of propertyYes.pngp
Union negotiations
Licensing exams/decisionsYes.pngp
Exempt under other laws

Any meeting of a governmental body can be closed after a motion if the rules for executive sessions apply. The motion must be recorded in the minutes and the chief presiding officer must announce the nature of the business that will be conducted and the specific exemption that allows for the closing. Only the information that the chief presiding officer announced may be discussed in the closed session. The only exemptions that allow a governmental body to close a session are:

  • Deliberation concerning a case the body heard.
  • Consideration of dismissal, demotion, licensing, , promotion, compensation, performance evaluation data , investigation, denial of tenure or discipline of any public employee or person licensed by a board or commission. This includes taking formal action on any matters like these. The person in question must be informed about it and may request an open session, it must be opened.
  • Consideration of specific applications of probation or parole, or consideration of strategy for crime detection or prevention.
  • Deliberation or negotiation of purchasing of public properties, the investing of public funds, or conducting other specified public business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session.
  • Deliberation by the council on unemployment compensation in a meeting without any present employer or employee members of the council.
  • Deliberating by the council on worker's compensation in a meeting without any present employer or employee members of the council.
  • Deliberation the disposition of human remains when speaking about the burial site or when discussing the location with the public would result in the site’s disturbance.
  • Consideration of financial, medical, social or personal histories or disciplinary data of specific persons, preliminary consideration of specific personnel problems or the investigation of charges against specific people because discussing these points in public would likely substantially harm the reputations of anyone named in the meeting.
  • Meeting the governmental body’s legal counsel when he or she is giving oral or written advice about strategy that the body will adopt with respect to litigation with which the body is or will like be involved.
  • Consideration of requests for confidential written advice from the ethics board or from any county or municipal ethics board.

Considering any and all matters related to acts by which, if discussed in public, could harm the business, its employees or former employees.

  • Consideration of financial information relating to a non-authority person’s support of a nonprofit corporation operating the Olympic ice training center under s. 42.11 (3), if the information is exempt from disclosure under s. 42.115 or would be so exempt were the information to be contained in a record. In this paragraph, "authority" and "record" have the meanings given under s. 19.32.

Governmental bodies cannot commence a meeting, then close it and thereafter open it within 12 hours of the completed closed session, unless this expected process has been provided to the public in the manner that this law requires.

Under no circumstances is the governmental body authorized to consider at a closed meeting the final ratification or approval of a collective bargaining agreement for employment peace, municipal employment relations, state employment labor relations, which has been negotiated by such body or on its behalf.[1]

Legislative meetings

For the senate and assembly and the committees, subcommittees and other subunits thereof:

  • The public notice section of this law does not apply to any meeting of the legislature or its subunits when it is called solely to schedule the business before them, or to adopt resolutions with the sole purpose of scheduling business before the senate or the assembly.
  • If any part of this law conflicts with laws for legislative procedure, it does not apply to the senate or general assembly.
  • This law does not apply to any partisan caucus of the senate or any partisan caucus of the assembly, except as the legislative rule provides.
  • This law does not apply to meetings of the senate or assembly committee on organization under the “Persons qualified to examine returns for specific purposes” statute (71.78(4)(c)) or the “administrative provisions” statute (77.61).[1]

If violated

Any member of a governmental body who knowingly attends a meeting in violation of this law, or who otherwise violates this law by some act or omission at least $25 but less than $300 for each violation.

No member of a governmental body is liable under this subchapter on account of his or her attendance at a meeting held in violation of this subchapter if he or she makes or votes in favor of a motion to prevent the violation from occurring, or if, before the violation occurs, his or her votes on all relevant motions were inconsistent with all those circumstances which cause the violation.[1]


The attorney general or the district attorney of any county where the violation occurs are the enforcers of this law. The state or the county will be reimbursed with reasonable costs, respective of which officer brought the case.

The attorney general or the district attorney may try to bring a mandamus, injunction or declaratory judgment against the violator (in addition to or separately from the fine above), whichever is appropriate under the circumstances.

Any action the governmental body takes in violation of this law is voidable when the attorney general or the county's district attorney brings a complaint. The court must find that the public interest in the law's enforcement outweighs any public interest there would be if the action was left valid if the action is to be voided.

The district attorney must enforce this law within 20 days after receiving a verified complaint, otherwise the person making such complaint may bring an action on behalf of and in the name of the state. If this occurs, the court can award actual and necessary costs of prosecution, including reasonable attorney fees to the person bringing the complaint if the violation is confirmed illegal, but any forfeiture recovered shall be paid to the state.

The state constitutional sections entitled, "Claims against governmental bodies, officers or employees;Notice of Injury; limitation of damages and suits" (893.80) and "Claims against state employees; notice of claim; limitation of damages" (893.82) do not apply to actions commenced under this section.

Any person may request advice from the attorney general about whether this law is applicable to certain circumstances.[1]

See also

External links