When does a meeting occur such that the open meetings law applies?
Answer: The Wisconsin Open Meetings Law ensures that all meetings of governmental bodies are held publicly and remain open to all citizens unless otherwise expressly provided by law. A meeting occurs when a convening of members of a governmental body satisfies the two requirements of the so-called Showers test, so named after the court case, State ex rel. Newspapers, Inc. v. Showers, 135 Wis. 2d 77, 398 N.W.2d 154 (1987), in which the test was articulated. First, there must be a purpose to engage in governmental business (the purpose requirement). Second, the number of members of the governmental body present must be sufficient to determine the body’s course of action (the numbers requirement).
Regarding the purpose requirement, a body is engaged in governmental business when its members gather to simply hear information on a matter within the body’s realm of authority. Thus, mere attendance at an informational meeting on a matter within a body’s realm of authority satisfies the purpose requirement. The members of the body need not discuss the matter or even interact. This applies to a body that is only advisory and that has no power to make binding decisions.
Regarding the numbers requirement, a quorum is the minimum number of a body’s membership necessary to act. Thus, a convening of a quorum of a body’s members would meet the numbers requirement. However, a negative quorum, the minimum number of a body’s membership necessary to prevent action, also would meet the numbers requirement. Determining the number of members of a particular body necessary to meet the numbers requirement is fact-specific and depends on the circumstances of the particular body.
A meeting does not include any social or chance gathering or conference that is not intended to avoid the requirements of the open meetings law. However, a meeting of a governmental body occurs when a sufficient number of members plan to and do attend or regularly attend a meeting of another governmental body and the subject matter of that meeting is within that body’s realm of authority. In such a situation, it is important that the governmental body whose members attend another body’s meeting ensures that the open meetings law’s requirements, including notice, are followed.
If a majority of the members of a governmental body are gathered, the law presumes that the members conducted a meeting subject to the requirements of the open meetings law. The body members may overcome the presumption by proving that they did not discuss any subject within the realm of the body’s authority.
The purpose of the open meetings law is to ensure public access to information about governmental affairs, and the law is to be liberally construed to achieve this purpose. Any doubts as to whether a particular gathering constitutes a meeting subject to the open meetings law should be resolved in favor of complying with the provisions of the law.