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When a Retreat is actually NOT a Retreat

by on March 3rd, 2009

As you read in the most recent City Pages, the Wausau City Council went discussed going on some sort of council based retreat.  Like the Ed Murrow-like journalist reports, Bill Forrest and Deb Hadley asked that the Mayor stay home.

On its surface, this doesn’t seem like a bad thing.  I have no government experience, but I was on Student Council for a semester.  It was always the most fun when we met when the teacher was there: we felt more responsible.  We had to check with Mr. Chopp anyway, so what could really be hurt.

Right now the rumor is that one of the City Council members with a research background and familiarity with the state statutes has found out that excluding the Mayor from meetings like this is technically illegal.  The law apparently states that he is a member of the council, and to actively exclude a member of the council during a meeting is illegal.

So it appears that a large group of the council is considering not going, as they do not want to break the law.

That is fine and good, and I appreciate the desire for open meetings within our largely opaque city council, but this leads to a few questions.

1.    It has been said that even if council members meet socially, that counts as a meeting, regardless of the number or the business involved.  So, how are several members knowing that this is or is not illegal, and how are they all talking about doing the same thing?  Does this not reflect some discussion or meeting of some kind, and is that NOT a violation of the open meeting law?  I mean, if they all have a plan, then how could they come to that plan without some sort of interaction?

2.    Does the Open Meeting law make all communication between council members subject to open review?  Does this apply to phone records or emails?  Can the public request them?  What is to stop a group to exchange emails, or even worse, set up a private website or have IM discussions?  That can lead to the very conspiracy that is being alleged by those who see the Mayor being shut.

3.    How would one request those records?

4.    Have you seen City Council members at social events together?  I have.  Is that a meeting?  Do they have to inform someone that they had drinks at Malarkeys together or sat together at City Grille or the VFW?

I am one of those folks who thinks that we should have access to these folks, and the business of government in a TMZ-like manner.  The halls should be prowled by cameras, and they should be prepared to talk on the record often.  But, like a good Northern Wisconsin person, I think that nothing bad can come from getting on a pontoon boat with some coworkers and laughing about stuff.  Is there a middle ground?  I was going to make a Village of Kronenwetter joke here, but we can leave that to the upcoming election they are going to have

Retreat?Either way, do we as tax payers have a right to demand this public scrutiny of our officials, or are we still such a small town that our elected officials think they deserve a pass?

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