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Local Governments and School Districts Blog

Closed Session Public Meetings

Authored by Ruder Ware Attorneys
Posted on May 4, 2015
Filed under Local Governments and School Districts

It was recently reported that following a municipality’s convening its public meeting into closed session, some of the body’s members objected to a portion of their discussion because that portion was not adequately stated in the agenda and closed session notice. The notice for the closed session stated that discussion would be held over the strategy to be employed in current and upcoming bargaining negotiations with the municipality’s labor unions. The objection was over discussing the membership of the municipality’s bargaining team that would negotiate over wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. In the report, the attorney for the municipality disagreed, stating that a discussion of the membership of the bargaining team is a part and parcel of establishing a bargaining negotiation strategy. It was reported that public knowledge - including the unions - of the specific roles for each bargaining team member could be detrimental to the municipality’s upcoming negotiations with those unions.

In Wisconsin, the Open Meetings Law states that “all meetings of all state and local governmental bodies shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public and shall be open to all citizens at all times unless otherwise expressly prohibited by law.” Wis. Stat. §19.81(2). One of the statute’s exemptions from this provision allows a governmental body to deliberate over matters regarding collective bargaining. Wis. Stat. §19.85(1)(e). The Wisconsin Attorney General has stated that it is appropriate to convene in closed session to develop negotiating strategies for collective bargaining. (Open Meetings Compliance Guide, 2010). However, closed sessions are only for those occasions where discussion in open session would directly and substantially harm bargaining interests. (OAG, I-04-09).

The elements required for going into a closed session are also important to keep in mind. The chief presiding officer must announce to all present in open session the intention of going into closed session. That person must also state the specific section of the Open Meetings law by number which allows for a closed session meeting. A motion must then be made, seconded, and a roll-call vote recorded by the custodian of the records. A majority vote of those present is required to convene in closed session. In addition, a public notice for a closed session must be provided at least 24 hours in advance (there is an exception of 2 hours in an emergency situation and for good cause) and the subject matter of what will be discussed in closed session must be reasonably specific. 

There are many legal requirements and things to consider before a governmental body goes into a closed session meeting. Therefore, public officials should be cautious so as to provide appropriate notice, to follow the procedural rules for a closed session vote, and to ensure the reason for going into closed session is specifically authorized by exemptions provided for in the statute.