What is a public meeting?
When is a “public” meeting not a public meeting?
The answer to that question is when it is called by a member of a public organization but is not attended by a quorum of the entire group.
That is what appears to have happened on Jan. 3 when Greg Kazmierski, a member of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board and the owner of Buck Rub Archery Shop, called a meeting to bring out different points of view involving the use of crossbows.
Kazmierski, who obviously has an economic interest in the sales of bows and arrows, asked the DNR to set up a meeting of various interest groups to discuss their concerns over the use of crossbows for deer hunting during the archery season.
DNR employees were instructed to not take a stand on the issue, but brought representatives of several groups together to talk about the use of crossbows.
Normally, if such a meeting were called by the DNR or Natural Resources Board it would be publicly noticed. This would mean that the public would be allowed to sit in if they were interested, and more likely the news media would be notified and able to cover the proceedings.
The State’s Open Meetings Law applies to every meeting of a government body, but evidently not to individual board members who ask the state to set up a meeting of stakeholders.
Since this meeting did not include a quorum of the NRB – but instead just one individual member – and was not officially a meeting of the DNR, it was not publicly noticed and many reporters who otherwise would have been interested in attending were not aware of the meeting until after the fact.
This appears to meet the letter of the law while avoiding the fact that many people are interested in what government boards and agencies are doing.
Frequently in the past when the DNR or NRB were looking for input of stakeholders they would invite the stakeholders, but the public would also be given a chance to know what went on via the news media present. Past practice seemed to show a willingness of an open government and then people aren’t surprised when proposals and actions are expressed at following meetings.
The interesting thing is that at the NRB meeting in January, Kazmierski introduced two questions he was adding to the April 8 spring hearings as a result of the meeting on crossbows by saying that, “We ran a meeting to bring many stakeholders together on the issue of crossbows.”
Evidently that “we” is Kazmerski and his friends, because in the past when the NRB has done much of anything it has routinely let the public know, bending over backwards to let light shine on the discussions of government.
The state guidelines on the Open Meeting Law issued by the Attorney General give a word of advice, that the overriding policy is to ensure public access to information about government affairs. And, a DNR attorney said that if he were to have been consulted he would advise public noticing of the meeting.
Wisconsin’s governor includes as one of his priorities that of “reforming government,” and one wonders if this is reforming to be more typical of Chicago-style politics than it does of Wisconsin’s past reputation for open government.