63 Op. Att'y Gen. 509 (1974)
 
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Wisconsin Attorney General Opinions

7 October 1974

Open Meeting;

Meaning of "communication" in Section
66.77(2)(e), Stats., the open meeting law,
discussed with reference to giving the
public and news media members adequate notice.

GERALD K. ANDERSON,
District Attorney, Waupaca County

You request my opinion as to the meaning of
"communication" as that term is used in
Section 66.77(2)(e), Stats., as created
by Chapter 297, Laws of 1973.

Subsection 66.77(2)(e) defines "public
notice" but does not define
"communication" and provides:

66.77(2)(e) "Public notice" means statutorily
            required notice, if any. If no
            notice is required by statute, it
            means a communication by the
            chief presiding officer of a
            governmental body or his
            designee, to the public and to
            the official municipal or city
            newspaper designated under
            Sections 985.05 or 985.06,
            or if none exists, then to
            members of the news media who
            have filed a written request
            for such notice, which
            communication is reasonably
            likely to apprise members of
            the public and of the news
            media of the time, place and
            subject matter of the meeting
            at a time, not less than one
            hour prior to the commencement
            of such meeting, which affords
            them a reasonable opportunity
            to attend.

Section 990.01(1), Stats., provides:

     GENERAL RULE.

     All words and phrases shall be construed
     according to common and approved usage;
     but technical words and phrases and
     others that have a peculiar meaning
     in the law shall be construed
     according to such meaning.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary
defines "communication" as:

     facts or information communicated;
     a letter, note, or other instance
     of written information;
     conversation, talk.

 
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The same source defines "communicate" as:

     to make known; inform a person of;
     convey the knowledge or information of.
 

In order to conform with the public notice
provisions of Section 66.77(2)(d),(e),
Stats., it will be necessary for each
governmental body to search for any
statute or statutes other than the
above section which requires notice.

In some cases a statute may require
notice in a specific form to both
members and to the public.

Where a statute requires notice, the special
statutory method as to form, content and
means of communication must be complied with.

Statutes relating to some governmental
bodies, as in the case of the county board of
supervisors, require public notice but do not
specify the method of communication.

Section 59.04(3), Stats., provides in part:

     The board shall give adequate public
     notice of the time, place and
     purpose of each meeting.

Under such a statute I recommend that, as a
minimum, the method of communication
contained in the second sentence of Section
66.77(2)(e), Stats., be complied with.
 

Subsection 66.77(2)(e), Stats., requires
communication by the chief presiding officer
or his designee, to the public, AND to the
official municipal newspaper, or if none
exists to members of the news media
(newspapers, radio, television, press
associations) who have filed a written
request for such notice.

The communication must be reasonably likely
to apprise members of the public and of the
news media, of the time, place and subject
matter of the meeting and must be given at a
time, not less than one hour prior to the
commencement of such meeting, which affords
them (members of the public and news media),
a reasonable opportunity to attend.

Where subsection 66.77(2)(e), Stats., is
applicable, each governmental body and the
chief presiding officer thereof will have to
use their best judgments in determining the
method of communicating to the public,
official newspaper, or if none exists,
to members of the news media who
have filed written requests.

Whereas written or verbal communication could
be used with respect to all three classes
which may be entitled to notice, written
notice would be most appropriate insofar
as the public is concerned.

A single verbal announcement outside the
building or meeting place would not
reasonably apprise the public or members
of the news media in most cases so
as to enable them to attend.

Such public announcements in verbal form
can serve as a supplementary method
of communication.

 
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Such public announcements in verbal form
can serve as a supplementary method
of communication.

Timely posting of a written notice in one or
more readily accessible public places would
serve to notify the public under the statute
and will probably be the method most used.
 

A paid notice published in a newspaper
having circulation likely to give notice
in the area and to people likely to be
affected could also be used.

The meetings of some governmental bodies are
newsworthy and such bodies may be able to get
the cooperation of newspaper editors to
timely and adequately print articles,
without charge, to notify the public.

Such method can be used
to supplement posting.

The statute requires notification of the
time, place, and subject matter of each
meeting and although some newspapers carry
a calendar of meetings as to body, time
and place, they do not always refer
to subject matter.

I am of the opinion that notice to the
official newspaper, or if none exists,
to news media members who have filed
written requests, can be given by
verbal communication (direct or
by telephone) or in written form.

Where there is an official newspaper, the
timely publishing of a legal notice would
in my opinion give adequate notice to the
newspaper and to the public.

Where there is no official newspaper, the
timely publishing of an advertisement in a
newspaper of general circulation in the area
stating the time, place, and subject matter
to be considered would be adequate notice to
the public but would not be a substitute for
the communication to which members of the
news media, who have filed written requests
for notice, are entitled.

Governmental bodies should have no difficulty
in complying with the requirement of giving
notice of the time and place of the meeting.

Stating the subject matter is
a more difficult problem.

Whenever possible, specific subject matters
upon which discussion or action is
anticipated should be included in the notice.
 

While Section 66.77, Stats., does provide
that the notice reasonably apprise of the
"subject matter of the meeting," I do not
construe the provision in subsection
66.77(2)(e) or any other provision of
Section 66.77, Stats., as precluding a
governmental body from taking up business
which they are authorized to conduct under
other laws, even where specific reference is
not made to such subject matter, if the
notice contained an agenda item:

     "such matters as are authorized by law"

or   "regular business."

This is especially true where the
governmental body could not at the time
of giving notice anticipate the introduction
or discussion of such business.

Many governmental bodies utilize a detailed
agenda which is in itself suitable for
posting or delivering to any official
newspaper or members of the news media.

 
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Many governmental bodies utilize a detailed
agenda which  is in itself suitable for
posting or delivering to any official
newspaper or members of the news media.

Whether adequate notice of the subject matter
was given is best left to a determination on
a case-to-case basis, considering the
circumstances of each case.

The intent of the law is clear and the giving
of notice under this law should comply,
insofar as possible, with that intent.
Governing bodies of some municipalities
have designated official newspapers under
Sections 985.05, 985.06, Stats.

Since any municipality, as defined in
Sections 985.01(5), 345.05(1)(a), Stats.,
which includes counties, may designate such
an official newspaper, it may be desirable to
so do in order to simplify compliance with
Section 66.77(2)(e), Stats.
 

I am of the opinion that subunits of
municipalities, such as county board
committees, do not have to separately
designate official newspapers where the
parent governmental body has acted.

Where state governmental bodies are
concerned, it is questionable whether
communication to the official state paper
will alleviate the necessity of notifying
members of the news media who have filed
written request for such notice since the
section refers only to "official municipal
or city newspaper."

I recommend that state governmental bodies
notify the state official paper in any event.

In essence you inquire, whether in case there
is an official newspaper, the publishing of a
one-time legal notice in January, listing the
dates, times, places, and subject matter to
be considered at the meetings of such body to
be held during the entire year would suffice.

In my opinion, it probably would
not in most cases.

In my opinion it would not be

     reasonably likely to apprise
     members of the public . . .
     of the time, place and subject
     matter of the meeting at a time,
     not less than one hour prior to
     the commencement of such meeting,
     which affords them a reasonable
     opportunity to attend."

It is difficult to imagine how any
governmental body could with any accuracy
predict what specific subject matters
would be taken up at meetings many months
or even one year in advance.

There undoubtedly are some governmental
bodies which hold regular meetings to
take care of regular business
without any formal agenda.

 
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Other governmental bodies may occasionally
have an agenda while still others will
regularly operate from an agenda.

When there is an agenda, even if it be an
informal one drawn by the presiding officer
or the clerk, this is the sort of information
relating to subject matter of the meeting
concerning which notice should be given.

To say that the publishing of a once-a-year
notice in a newspaper giving dates, times,
places and general subject matter constituted
compliance with the statute would be to
relieve a governmental body and its presiding
officer of any obligation to give notice of
any particular subjects to be taken up at a
meeting when such subject matter was
scheduled and at least known to
the presiding officer.

Even where a governing body meets regularly
without any agenda, taking up only such
business as may properly come before it, and
without any real advanced knowledge of what
form that business may take, it is my opinion
that the mere publication of a once-a-year
notice in a newspaper would not constitute
compliance with the statute.

The statute clearly deals with specific
meetings, even though they may be regular and
routine meetings, and a separate notice as to
each such meeting should be given.

In terms of time, the statute makes it clear
that less than one hour's notice is
not acceptable.

Beyond that, what constitutes reasonable
notice in terms of time within the meaning
of the statute must be judged on the
circumstances surrounding each
individual meeting.

A once-a-year published notice designed to
cover several or many meetings would not
constitute compliance with the statute.

In seeking to comply with this statute,
presiding officers and other members of
governmental bodies should keep in mind that
the public and the news media are entitled to
reasonable notice of the time, place and
subject matter of these meetings.

Every effort should be made to comply with
the spirit as well as the letter of this law.

Robert W. Warren
Attorney General

RWW:RJV

 
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