OFFICIAL IGNORANCE can prove costly [1]               Page 1 of 2


A huge victory was won this fall by the people of Reedsburg

and other municipalities across the state.

My paper, the Reedsburg Times-Press, sued the city's Community

Development Authority for violating the state's open meetings

law. After a failed effort by the city's attorneys to have

the complaint dismissed on a technicality, the city

accepted the paper's offer to settle.

The situation began more than a year ago when a 100-year-old home

was included in a redevelopment district in downtown Reedsburg.

Two plans for the four-lot district were presented to the CDA.

One plan included renovating the old home as a part of an office

and apartment complex. The other plan called for removing the old

home to put up a gas station-convenience store-Taco Bell complex.

Amid widespread public support for saving the old home and

interest from a Madison television station, the ODA began

holding its meetings in closed session. When it became apparent

to the Times-Press that the information being discussed behind

closed doors should have been part of the public record,

the paper began researching its legal options.

We were able to provide the Sauk County district attorney with

complete enough records for her to take action concerning one

of the eight closed meetings. Our law firm, La Follette & Sinykin

of Madison, pursued the other seven.

The Times-Press undertook this battle only after careful

consideration and only because the CDA had repeatedly

violated the open meetings law.

We pointed out the violations and urged the CDA, which is

composed of elected officials as well as volunteers, to obey the

law. But the CDA, following the advice of City Attorney Stephen

Chiquoine, continued to meet in closed session.

What was most shocking about this episode was the seeming

ignorance of the law shown by Chiquoine, the mayor

and most members of the Common Council.

During the Common Council meeting when the offer to settle was

accepted, Chiquoine repeatedly referred to the city's actions as

"technical violations." The settlement agreement that Chiquoine

has agreed to sign, however, clearly states that the city broke

the law. And it calls for the city to reimburse the Times-Press

for $5,150 in attorneys' fees. Chiquoine asked the council to

approve that settlement.

Ald. John Deitrich said it was "bitterly ironic that people can't

serve the community without fear of being hauled into court."

Chimed In Aid. Carl Stolte, "I don't want to say this

is ransom, but this really bothers me."

But Times-Press News Editor Michael Bailey noted that the

suit would never have been filed if the city had

not persisted in breaking the law.

As a journalist, I carry an abbreviated form of Wisconsin's open

meetings law in my wallet. I also keep a compliance guide,

published in 1996 by the state Justice Department, at my desk.

Working Journalists use these and similar publications to let

us know exactly what rights to meetings access we have and

under what conditions this access can be denied.

As representatives of the people, mayors, Common Council members

and their appointed volunteers throughout the state should also

have this information readily available, People elected to office

and volunteers appointed to committees have a responsibility

to know and understand the laws that define and limit

their power and responsibility.

And the city attorney should have known enough about

the law not to advise others to break it.

So what lessons can be drawn from this affair?

The first and most obvious is to STOP FOLLOWING BAD ADVICE. If

the city attorney's interpretations of the law are costing the

city money and landing its officials in court, get rid of the

guy dispensing bad advice and find somebody who knows what he

or she is talking about.

The second step is for elected officials - and those who are

appointed to government positions - to become familiar with the

open meetings law. It doesn't take an attorney to understand the

compliance guide. City officials looking to affix blame for this

shameful episode need not point all the way down the block to the

Times-Press office. They only need to look in the nearest mirror.

Pete Margolies is the managing editor and associate publisher of

the Times-Press. He can be reached at (608) 524-4336 or by e-mail

at "Your Right to Know" is a monthly column

produced by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a

statewide media group devoted to protecting Wisconsin's open

records and open meetings laws.

[1] The Capitol Times - - - - - - Thursday 6 November 1997

[2] The Wisconsin State Journal - Friday 7 November 1997


The Times Press, The Capital Times, The Wisconsin State

Journal and the Freedom of Information council. ADDED

EMPHASIZED TEXT was NOT in original published article.