Media questions board’s closed sessions

Superintendent: District will better communicate subject matter in future

By Vicky Wedig


The Delavan-Darien School Board met twice last week in closed sessions at the beginning of meetings about a referendum, raising the eyebrows of local reporters who suspected open meetings violations.

The board met in closed session for an hour before its Jan. 13 meeting and again before its Jan. 15 meeting for about a half hour. It cited personnel exemptions to the state Open Meetings Law in each instance but cited no subject matter.

After the Jan. 13 closed session, board Vice President Joe Peyer, filling in for President Jeff Scherer, who was out of town, announced the board would table the referendum discussion that was on the agenda.

Superintendent Robert Crist acknowledged that announcing that the referendum discussion would be delayed immediately after meeting in closed session made it sound like the board discussed the referendum behind closed doors.

But, he said, the closed session discussion was primarily about the lay-off of individual employees that would be necessary if the district is not able to increase its revenue. Crist said the board wanted to know, before putting a referendum on the ballot, what would happen if the district has to make budget cuts – who might lose their jobs and what dollar amounts would be saved.

Crist said the Jan. 13 discussion was about wages and benefits, a timeline for altering contracts and increases in health insurance costs. He said 95 percent of the discussion was about individual employees, but acknowledged some general statements were made.

“If that’s a violation, then I’m in error,” he said.

Exemptions to the Open Meetings Law allow discussion about individual employees in closed session, but not about staffing or wages in general.

“I think that if they’re talking about individual employees by name who might be laid off, that they’re probably able to hold that discussion in private,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “But it sure seems from the scenario that there must have been some broader discussion, and that discussion, I believe, should have taken place in the open.”

After the Jan. 13 closed session, the board felt like it needed more information, Crist said, so it continued the discussion Jan. 15.

Crist said the board also discussed the cost of fringe benefits, which has bargaining implications. The Open Meetings Law allows closed session meetings to form negotiating strategies for collective bargaining. Crist acknowledged the board did not cite that exemption on its agenda.

Lueders said the board should have had the entire discussion in the open, and then announced that they were going to go into closed session to discuss the names of individual employees who might be laid off.

Crist said he will be more wary about noticing closed session meetings in the future and clearly communicating the subject matter to the public.

“From now on I will make sure that adequate information is provided by the spokesperson or myself about what is discussed in closed session,” he said.

Reporters from the Delavan Enterprise and the Janesville Gazette contacted Crist on Jan. 16 after the second closed session and provided information about the Open Meetings Law.

Southern Lakes Newspapers, which publishes the Delavan Enterprise, also sent a letter to Crist and board members outlining its concerns about the closed sessions.

Crist said he was not aware the subject matter of a closed session had to be listed in addition to the exemption under which the board is meeting.

State statute requires the topic to be listed, and case law says such notice “must contain enough information for the public to discern whether the subject matter is authorized for closed session”

Lueders said the problem with closed sessions is that they breed mistrust because members of the public feel they have a right to listen to the board deliberate.

“The whole purpose of the Open Meetings Law is to affirm the notion that the public has a right to hear their elected officials deliberating,” he said. “And that’s why the exemptions are so few and so narrow. It is up to the elected officials to interpret them and implement them narrowly.”

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