What can I do if I believe a governmental body violated the open meetings law?
Answer: Under the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, there are several options available when an individual believes a governmental body has violated the law. The Attorney General and the district attorneys have authority to enforce the law. Generally, the Attorney General may elect to prosecute complaints involving novel issues of law that coincide with matters of statewide concern.
More frequently, the district attorney of the county where the alleged violation occurred may enforce the law. However, in order to have this authority, an individual must file a verified complaint with the district attorney. The verified complaint must be signed by the individual and notarized and should include available information that will be helpful to investigators. Helpful information includes the name of the governmental body, the names of the body’s members who are alleged to have violated the law, a description of the factual circumstances of the alleged violations, the names of witnesses, and any relevant documentary evidence.
The law does not require a district attorney (or the Attorney General) to commence an enforcement action upon receipt of a written request to do so. A district attorney has broad discretion to decide whether to bring an action for enforcement. The open records law takes into account the fact that the Attorney General or district attorneys may not always commence actions for enforcement and provides individuals with the option of commencing their own action.
If the district attorney refuses or otherwise fails to commence an action to enforce the Open Meetings Law within 20 days after receiving the verified complaint, the individual may bring an action in the name of the state. (Please note, a district attorney may still commence an enforcement action even after 20 days have passed.) Such actions by an individual must be commenced within two years after the cause of action accrues.
An individual who is interested in bringing an action in the name of the state may wish to consult with an attorney. The Department of Justice’s Office of Open Government webpage provides additional information, including the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide, which has an open meetings law complaint template in its appendix.