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What Libraries Need to Know About
Open Meetings Law

Cheryl Becker
Public Library Consultant

South Central Library System
November 10, 2006

Today’s Agenda

Where can I find the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law?

Wisconsin Statutes and Annotations

Wisconsin Statutes 19.81-19.98





“In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business.”

Wis. Stat. § 19.81(1)

The State of Wisconsin recognizes the importance of having an informed public, and that the public is entitled to full and complete information about governmental affairs.


(Wis. Stat. § 19.82)

Governmental Body

“. . . [A] state or local agency. . . created by. . . statute, ordinance, . . . or order; . . . or a formally constituted subunit of any of the foregoing. . . .”

YES, a library board is one of these!

(Wis. Stat. § 19.82(1))


“ [T]he convening of members of a governmental body for the purpose of exercising the responsibilities, authority, power or duties delegated to or vested in the body. . . .  The term does not include any social or chance gathering which is not intended to avoid this subchapter. . . .  ”

(Wis. Stat. § 19.82(2))

Open Session

Open session

“[A] meeting which is held in a place reasonably accessible to members of the public and open to all citizens at all times.”

(Wis. Stat. § 19.82(3))

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Requirements for meetings of governmental bodies

(Wis. Stat. § 19.83)

Public Notice—Who and Where?

(Wis. Stat. § 19.84(1))

The statute specifies that you have to communicate it to the news media. They don't have to print (or broadcast) it. (Martin v. Wray, 473 F. Supp. 1131 (1979)

It is also recommended that agendas be physically (not just virtually) posted in 2-3 places, and the same places every time, so citizens know that's where they are posted. 

Public Notice—What and When?

(Wis. Stat. § 19.84(2)-(3))

It isn't a good idea (and the Attorney General's office advises against) to have a catch-all phrase such as "other business"  or "old business" in the agenda. Discussion of last minute items can lead to open meetings law violations. If emergency items arise, it is better to amend the meeting notice, and post it at least 2 hours before the meeting. Or even better, postpone consideration until the next meeting.

Discussion, and particularly, voting, must be limited to subjects listed in the public notice. However, if the agenda includes a public comment period, the board may briefly discuss, but not vote on, issues raised by the public during that period.

Closed Sessions

Closed session

(Wis. Stat. § 19.85)

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A library board (or any other board, for that matter) is never required to go into closed session. Closed sessions are permitted, not required, and only for the reasons discussed below.

Exemptions which permit closed sessions

There are several most likely to apply to library boards:

(For the full list see Wis. Stat. § 19.85(1))

The exemption is for considering these things for a particular employee, not for discussion of general personnel policies or salary scale.

For example, it allows for closed session to discuss qualifications of and salary to offer a specific applicant, but NOT to discuss the qualifications and salary range for the position in general.   It allows for closure to determine which employees to lay off, or whether to renew an employee's contract, but NOT to discuss whether to reduce or increase staffing, in general.

Exemptions—closed sessions—Library Boards

"I was scolded"Considering dismissal, demotion, licensing or discipline of a public employee. (b)

(For the full list see Wis. Stat. § 19.85(1))    Image Credit


If employee requests permission to attend the closed session you need not comply (although the board could choose to)

Exemptions—closed sessions—Library Boards

Deliberating or negotiating purchase of public properties, investing of public funds, or other specified public business when competitive or bargaining reasons require closed session. (e)


(For the full list see Wis. Stat. § 19.85(1))

"Other specified business" can include developing strategies for collective bargaining, BUT discussion and ratification of collective bargaining agreement must be held in open session.  (81 Op. Att'y Gen. 139, 141 (1994).

Exemptions—closed sessions—Library Boards

Considering the following if their discussion in public is likely to have adverse affect upon the reputation of anyone referred to in them (f):

(For the full list see Wis. Stat. § 19.85(1))

However, this exemption is extremely limited.  It applies only where a member of the body has actual knowledge of information that can have substantial adverse affect.  (74 Op. Att'y Gen. 70, 72.)

Required procedures for closed session

Public Notice1. Meeting notice must indicate contemplated closed session, subject matter of closed session, and specific statutory provision.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.84(2))

These steps are all clearly listed in Trustee Essential #14 (

Required procedures for closed session, cont'd

2. Convene in open session.

3. Board presiding officer must announce the intention to go into closed session and the purpose of doing so.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.85(1))

Required procedures for closed session, cont'd

4. Board presiding officer must announce specific section of the law, by statute number and section, and announcement must be recorded in meeting minutes.

5. Motion, second, and roll call vote to reconvene in closed session.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.85(1))

Required procedures for closed session, cont'd

6. Attendance limited to board, necessary staff, and anyone whose presence is required to conduct the closed session business.

(Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Outline, page 11)

Required procedures for closed session, cont'd

7. Discussion in closed session limited to subject announced.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.85(1))

Required procedures for closed session, cont'd

8. Votes pertaining to the closed session subject MAY be taken in closed session BUT it is better practice to take votes after reconvening in open session.

(Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Outline, page 16)

Required procedures for closed session, cont'd

Taking notes9. Votes taken in closed session MUST be recorded in the minutes and open to public inspection.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.88)

Required procedures for closed session, cont'd

10. May reconvene in open session only IF noticed in public notice.

If there was not advance notice, must wait at least 12 hours to reconvene in open session.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.85(2))


Meeting notice (agenda) including notice of closed session, and intent to reconvene in open session.  (See item #12 in this agenda.)

(from Trustee Essentials, TE #4: PDF)

Examples, cont'd

Language for Board President: "I will now entertain a motion to reconvene in closed session to consider the performance evaluation and compensation of the library director as authorized by Wisconsin Statutes Section 19.85(1)(c)."

Frequently Asked Questions


Frequently Asked Questions, cont'd


Frequently Asked Questions, cont'd


Does "open meeting" mean the door must be open?

Opening and closing the door

No.   The definition is "a meeting which is held in a place reasonably accessible to members of the public and open to all citizens at all times." A closed door is still reasonably accessible.

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A closed, but unlocked, room is reasonably accessible. It is also probably a good idea to post a sign on the closed door that an open meeting of the library board is taking place within.

Must the room an open meeting is held in be accessible by persons with disabilities?

Yes. 19.82(3) states that state government bodies must meet in a room "which enables access by persons with functional limitations." In order to comply with the sprit of the open meetings law, local bodies, should also, whenever possible, meet in buildings and rooms that are accessible without assistance.

(Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Outline, page 10-11.)

Can we meet by telephone?


Yes.   Telephone conference calls meet the definition of a meeting subject to the open meetings law. 

To comply, a conference call meeting must be properly noticed to the public, and the public must be provided with a means to monitor the conference.

(69 Op. Att'y Gen 143, 145.)

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A meeting which has been properly noticed, and is in an accessible location, which one person attends by telephone is meeting all the open meeting requirements.

Can we meet by email?


Since it isn't possible for the public to attend a meeting held entirely by email, such a meeting would be in violation of the open meetings law.



Emailing and replying to the entire board about matters within the board's authority, even if not intended to take the place of a meeting, could be construed as carrying on private debate and discussion of matters that belong at public meetings, open to public scrutiny. Therefore, the Wisconsin Attorney General discourages board members from discussing matters via email. (Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Outline, page 6-7.)

Emailing information, such as agenda, or other background material, would not violate the law. (As long as the meeting is also properly noticed.)

Can we discuss topics brought up in the "public comment" period?

You may discuss topics raised by the public, but only in the public comment period.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.83(2), 19.84(2))

It may be wise to limit the amount of time citizens may speak during the public comment period, and end with "Thank you for your comments. The board may consider them at a future meeting."

Can we vote on topics brought up in the "public comment" period?


You may not vote on topics raised by the public during the public comment period. You may only vote on those topics described in the public notice.

((Wis. Stat. § 19.83(2), 19.84(2))

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May a citizen record our meetings?

Yes. You must make a reasonable effort to accommodate anyone wishing to record, film, or photograph the meeting, as long as it doesn't interfere with the meeting, or the rights of the members. (Wis. Stat. § 19.90)

But, the board may disallow recording of a closed session. (66 Op. Att'y Gen. 318, 325 (1977).)

Can we vote during closed sessions?

Votes pertaining to the closed session subject MAY be taken in closed session.

BUT it is better practice to take votes after reconvening in open session.

(Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Outline, page 16)

Should we take minutes during closed sessions?

Taking notes

Yes.  The motions and roll call votes of EACH meeting of a governmental body must be recorded.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.88(3))


Minutes must be available for public inspection, under the Wisconsin Public Records Law.

In some cases, for example, purchasing property, you may be able to keep the records (minutes) of the meeting closed, until the reason for keeping them confidential has passed. 

Who enforces the open meetings law?

The Attorney General, or,

The district attorney of the county in which the violation occurs, upon receipt of a verified complaint from an individual.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.97)

What are the consequences of violating the open meetings law?

Any member of the board who knowingly attends a meeting in violation, is subject to forfeiture of $25-$300 for each offense.

A board member is not legally liable if he or she voted against the actions that caused the violation.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.96)

Not only is the member of the board personally responsible to the payment described above, BUT, the governmental body can not reimburse a member for a forfeiture incurred as a result of a violation of the Open Meetings Law.  (66 Op. Att'y Gen. 226 (1977))

What are the consequences of violating the open meetings law? cont'd


A court may void board actions taken in a meeting held in violation of the open meetings law.

(Wis. Stat. § 19.97(3))

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Resources, cont'd

Resources, cont'd

You can contact the SPAR unit with specific questions on the Open Meetings Law by calling the Lead Legal Secretary of the SPAR unit of the Department of Justice at 608-266-3952.  One of the unit's attorneys will be in contact with you.  You may also write to SPAR, at: Wisconsin Department of Justice, Legal Services Division, Post Office Box 7857, Madison, WI 53707-7857.  When writing, indicate that your concern relates to open meetings.

Thank You!



For further assistance

Cheryl Becker:
cbecker at or 608-246-7973

John DeBacher, DLTCL:
john.debacher at or 608-266-7270

Your municipality's legal counsel

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