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Inconvenient: Keep public meetings public

December 26. 2012 11:23PM

Making work more convenient for government officials is a common excuse for limiting the public's access to public information. It is always an excuse, never a justification. When a new bill that would amend the state's right-to-know law comes up for discussion in the next legislative session, lawmakers must not pretend otherwise.

Rep. Mary Beth Walz, D-Bow, has put forth a legislative service request (what bills are called before the session begins) that would exempt from the public meetings law a board's discussion of its legal advice. It would be a sweeping change that would remove from public view too much of the public's business.

Under current law, a board's "consultation with legal counsel" is not considered a public meeting, and therefore is not subject to the right-to-know law. In 2009 case involving the Madison Planning Board, the state Supreme Court concluded that the language plainly intended such meetings to include the actual consultation with the attorney. A meeting to discuss the attorney's advice - without the attorney present - is not a consultation and therefore would be a public meeting, the court ruled.

Walz' proposed legislation would make discussions of the attorney's advice, not consultations with the attorney, exempt from the public meetings law. Her reasoning is that many small towns share attorneys and the current requirement makes scheduling these sessions difficult. In other words, adhering to the right-to-know law can be a hassle, so the law must be amended to accommodate public officials.

But her proposed solution is worse than the problem. To avoid the inconvenience posed by having to schedule meetings with busy attorneys, she would gut an important protection against closed-door meetings. Walz would let public bodies meet in private to discuss matters that now must be discussed in public.

House Majority Leader Steve Shurtleff defended Walz's proposal to expand the closed-door meeting. "At some point, you have to trust these officials not to abuse it," he said. No, you don't. If we could trust public officials not to abuse their power, we would not need things like constitutions and tightly written right-to-know laws. Weakening those laws to needlessly sweep more public business into the shadows is a bad idea.

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