State ex rel. BADKE v. Greendale Village Board
173 Wis.2d 553 (1993)
494 N.W.2d 408
Contents: Pages 553-588
STATE of Wisconsin 553 559 565 571 577 583
EX REL. Fred BADKE, 554 560 566 572 578 584
Bernice Badke, 555 561 567 573 579 585
Michael T. Sullivan, Jr., 556 562 568 574 580 586
Jeanne Sullivan and 557 563 569 575 581 587
Richard Lennertz, M.D., 558 564 570 576 582 588
Plaintiffs-Appellants-Petitioners, RELATED CITATIONS
VILLAGE BOARD OF the VILLAGE OF GREENDALE and
Village of Greendale, Defendants-Respondents.
Supreme Court No. 91-0126.
Oral argument September 2, 1992. Decided January 26, 1993.
(Review of a decision of the court of appeals.)
REVIEW of a decision of the Court of Appeals affirming
an order of the Circuit Court for Milwaukee County,
Judge Gary A. Gerlach. Reversed. Rights declared.
For the plaintiffs-appellants-petitioners there were
briefs by Elizabeth Adelman and Adelman, Adelman & Murray, S.C.,
Milwaukee and oral argument by Elizabeth Adelman.
For the defendants-respondents there was a brief by James P Burns
and John T. Wasielewski, Greendale and oral argument by James P.
Burns and John T. Wasielewski.
Amicus Curiae was filed by Linda M. Clifford and LaFollett &
Sinykin, Madison for Wisconsin Newspapers Association and
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
Amicus Curiae was filed by Curtis A. Witynski,
Madison for League of Wisconsin Municipalities.
WILLIAM A. BABLITCH, J.
A majority of the members of the seven member Village Board of
the Village of Greendale (Village Board) regularly attended
meetings of their Plan Commission, including four meetings
at which a proposed housing project (the Sileno project)
The Village Board had ultimate decisionmaking responsibility on
the project. It is undisputed that there was no intent to
violate the open meeting law. Nevertheless, the question is
whether their attendance at these four meetings constituted
"meetings" within the meaning of Wisconsin's Open Meeting Law,
thus necessitating a notice to the public of their attendance.
The Village Board asks us to affirm the court of appeals'
decision that this case is moot, and, accordingly,
not address any of the issues presented.
Because a determination that this case is moot would thwart the
purpose of the open meeting law, we decline to follow the court
of appeals with respect to mootness. We will address all issues.
We hold that when, as here, one-half or more of the members of a
governmental body attend a meeting of another governmental body
in order to gather information about a subject over which they
have decisionmaking responsibility, such a gathering is a
"meeting" within the meaning of the open meeting law,
unless the gathering is social or chance.
Given that a majority of the Village Board trustees regularly
attended these meetings, and such attendance was anticipated by
the trustees, these gatherings were clearly not social or chance.
Accordingly, notice of these meetings was required.
Petitioners (cumulatively referred to as Badke) also allege that
the failure of the Village Board to move the meeting at which the
Village Board voted on the Sileno project to an adequately sized
room to handle overcrowding or provide amplification so that all
who wanted to attend the meeting could clearly hear the
proceedings was a violation of the open meeting law's
requirement to hold meetings "open to all
citizens at all times."
Given the facts, we find this claim to be
without any merit whatsoever.
To literally interpret the words "open to all citizens at all
times" would lead to unreasonable and absurd results.
These words demand reasonableness, not literal adherence.
The meeting was held at the village hall which holds 55 people
and has an adjacent foyer that holds approximately 20 people.
At most, three people were ultimately denied
entrance because of the crowd.
Under the facts and circumstances presented, holding
the meeting at the village hall was reasonable.
There was no violation.
The relevant facts follow.
Developer, Joseph Sileno (Sileno) applied to the Village of
Greendale for a special use permit to construct a 364 unit
apartment complex on a 56 acre, vacant parcel of land.
Under the Village of Greendale's procedures, such an application
is first given to the Plan Commission for its recommendation and
then to the Village Board for its final decision.
Sileno presented its proposal at four Plan Commission meetings.
Advance notice of the Plan Commission meetings was
provided as required under the open meeting law.
The village clerk also mailed each Village Board trustee notice
of the Plan Commission meetings and copies of the
agendas for the meetings.
The Village Board is comprised of seven trustees,
two of whom also serve on the Plan Commission.
A quorum of the Village Board attended each of the Plan
As stated in Badke's brief:
Prior to each of the plan commission meetings,
the Village gave notice that the plan commission was
holding a meeting.
The Village sent the notices of the plan commission
meetings to the Board of Trustees.
As admitted by the Village, a quorum of the Village
Board attended each of four (4) plan commission
meetings at which the Sileno proposal was presented.
Four (4) trustees attended the December meeting at
which Sileno and its architect made a presentation
and answered questions from the Village staff.
Five(5) trustees attended the January plan commission
meeting at which the Sileno architect made another
presentation, the Village staff expressed density and
Plan commissioners and a Village Trustee, who was not on the
commission, engaged in a discussion with the architect.
Five (5) trustees attended the February plan commission
meeting at which the Sileno architect described changes made
to respond to concerns expressed at the prior meeting
and the Village planner and commissioners commented.
All seven (7) Village trustees attended the April plan
commission meeting at which the Village manager and Sileno
architect made presentations, plan commissioners commented
and then voted to recommend approval with a few
modifications. Badke brief at 7 (citations omitted).
Trustees who attended the Plan Commission meetings
submitted affidavits stating that they attended the
meetings as interested observers and citizens.
Subsequent to the Plan Commission's recommendation to
approve Sileno's application, the Village Board
met to vote on the proposal.
The Village Board met for its meeting in the village hall,
a facility which holds 55 people.
The village hall also has a foyer that can accommodate
approximately 20 people.
Prior to April 17, 1990, the day of the meeting, the Village
Board received a petition signed by more than 1,600 village
residents opposing Sileno's plan.
Additionally, a resident sent the village manager a letter
asking that the village hold the meeting at another site.
Police were assigned to the meeting for crowd control.
From the record, we discern that no more than three people,
if that, were ultimately denied entrance into the meeting.
The press attended the meeting.
There is testimony in the record that some citizens who could not
get into the village hall and remained in the foyer were unable
to hear the proceedings, but there is also evidence to indicate
that the proceedings were clearly audible in the foyer except
during those times the crowd itself became disruptive.
The Village Board approved Sileno's application at this meeting.
Fred Badke and other Greendale residents filed an action in the
circuit court alleging that the Village Board violated the open
meeting law's requirement that all meetings of local governmental
bodies "shall be open to all citizens at all times." The circuit
court issued a preliminary injunction to prevent the Sileno
development from proceeding.
Following the issuance of the temporary injunction, the Village
Board reconvened and revoted on Sileno's application in a
proceeding that complied with the open meeting law.
After the revote, both parties stipulated to dissolve the
The plaintiffs amended their initial complaint to seek
declaratory relief regarding the alleged April 17 violation and
added a second claim that the open meeting law was violated by
not giving public notice of a Village Board meeting when a quorum
of the Village Board attended the Plan Commission meetings on the
Both parties moved for summary judgment on the two claims.
The circuit court granted the Village Board's motion for summary
judgment and dismissed Badke's complaint on the grounds that the
Village Board had substantially complied with the laws'
requirements and that to require a "supertechnical" standard of
compliance would unduly burden local governments.
On appeal, the court of appeals held that the Village Board's
second meeting at which it held a revote on the Sileno project
mooted the controversy and that none of the exceptions to the
mootness doctrine applied.
We accepted Badke's petition for review.
When reviewing a grant or denial of a motion for summary
judgment, we apply the standards set forth under sec. 802.08(2),
Stats., which provides that the judgment sought shall be rendered
only if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories,
and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,
show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and
that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of
law." In addition, "even if there are no disputed material
facts, summary judgment is not appropriate if reasonable
alternative inferences may be drawn from these facts: in such a
situation, a trial is proper." Ervin v. City of Kenosha, 159
Wis.2d 464, 478-79, 464 N.W.2d 654 (1991) (citation omitted).
At oral argument, the parties agreed that there is no issue as to
any material fact.
Accordingly, we determine whether only one reasonable inference
can be drawn from the undisputed material facts and entitle Badke
or the Village Board to judgment as a matter of law.
We first discuss the issue of mootness.
Badke seeks a declaratory judgment that the Village Board's
actions violated the open meeting law.
In its brief, before directly addressing mootness, the Village
Board claims that certain prerequisites to obtaining declaratory
relief have not been satisfied in this case.
First, the Village Board claims that this case does
not present a justiciable controversy.
In Loy v. Bunderson, 107 Wis.2d 400, 410, 320 N.W.2d 175 (1982),
this court determined that a justiciable controversy must exist
between the parties before declaratory relief may be obtained.
Specifically, we stated:
There must exist a justiciable controversy Ä
that is to say:
(1) A controversy in which a claim of right is
asserted against one who has an interest
in contesting it.
(2) The controversy must be between persons
whose interests are adverse.
(3) The party seeking declaratory relief must have
a legal interest in the controversy Ä that is
to say, a legally protectible interest.
(4) The issue involved in the controversy must be
ripe for judicial determination.' Id.
The Village Board contends that there is no existing controversy
in this case, and Badke has no claim of right.
Specifically, the Village Board asserts that the controversy in
this case centered around the proposed Sileno project and whether
such development should continue.
Thus, it reasons, any claim of right Badke might have had was
satisfied when the Village Board held a second valid meeting
where it approved the permit for the development and allowed
construction to go forward.
According to the Village Board, the second meeting extinguished
the controversy and Badke's claim of right.
If the granting of the Sileno permit was the center of the
controversy in this case, then the Village Board's
arguments might have merit.
However, the existing controversy in this case involves the
process, not the substance, of the Village Board's actions.
The proceeding itself is at the heart of the dispute in this
case, as in any open meeting law case.
However, an alleged open meeting law violation usually does not
concern the merits or the ultimate resolution of the substantive
matter which was discussed at the meeting.
The open meeting law is concerned with the process
of public decisionmaking.
The law's purpose is to protect the public's right to be informed
to the fullest extent regarding the affairs of government.
If a simple revote on the substantive matter at issue at an
alleged invalid meeting extinguished a violation of the open
meeting law, the purpose behind the law would be thwarted.
The controversies in this case are whether the Village Board
violated the open meeting law by attending Plan Commission
meetings without giving notice of a Village Board meeting and
whether the Village Board violated the open meeting law by
excluding some residents from the April 17 meeting.
The sections of the open meeting law in question deal with
procedure Ä they do not concern the merits of the Sileno project.
We conclude that the revote at the second, valid meeting
did not extinguish the controversy in this case
or Badke's claim of right.
The Village Board also asserts that this case involves nothing
more than a mere difference of opinion, which is not
enough to make a justiciable controversy.
Specifically, the Village Board claims that Badke seeks "nothing
more . . . than a declaration that Respondent violated the Open
Meeting Law." Village Board brief at 8.
This dispute is more than a mere difference of opinion, however,
in that Badke seeks to exercise his right under sec. 806.04(2),
Stats., to have Wisconsin's Open Meeting Law judicially
Succeeding on review will do more for Badke than resolve a
difference of opinion.
Succeeding will, as Badke suggests, teach the Village Board what
to do under the law to avoid future violations.
For example, if the regular attendance of Plan Commission
meetings by a quorum of the Village Board does in fact require
notice, the Village Board will continue to violate the law if
this court does not issue a declaratory judgment mandating
Furthermore, Badke has a claim of right by virtue of the
authorization to seek a declaratory judgment in sec. 19.97(4),
Next, relying on the same reasoning as used to explain why this
case does not present a justiciable controversy, the Village
Board contends that, because the valid second meeting
extinguished the controversy, a judgment by this court will not
have any practical legal effect upon an existing controversy, and
the action is therefore moot.
A case is moot when a judgment can have no practical legal effect
upon the existing controversy.
Hahner v. Board of Ed. Wisconsin Rapids,
89 Wis.2d 180, 186, 278 N.W.2d 474 (Ct. App. 1979).
This case is not moot.
As explained earlier, the controversy in this case did not end
when the Village Board held its second meeting.
The controversy in this case is the legal status of the acts that
preceded the revote, and a declaratory judgment will have a legal
effect on that controversy: it will declare the legal status of
the Village Board's acts.
We conclude that the criteria for sustaining a declaratory action
have been met, and the controversy continues despite the second,
valid meeting of the Village Board.
Accordingly, this case is not moot.
We also note that the consequences of accepting the Village
Board's argument concerning mootness would be to render the open
meeting law meaningless in many future cases.
To dismiss enforcement proceedings on the grounds that a revote
makes this case moot would invite circumvention of the policy of
the open meeting law.
Rather than hold open meetings, a governmental body would know it
could hold secret meetings to discuss a proposal, wait until
someone filed a complaint, and then hold a valid
open meeting to vote on the proposal.
The complaint would then be dismissed as moot.
The public would never know of the information and discussion
that took place at the first secret meeting which may have formed
the basis for the governmental body's decision or course of
action taken at the second meeting.
This type of secrecy is exactly what the open meeting law is
intended to avoid.
We turn now to the issue of the attendance of one-half or more of
the Village Board at the Plan Commission meetings where the
Sileno project was discussed and whether such attendance
violated the open meeting law.
The resolution of this issue requires application
of the open meeting law.
The application of a statute to a particular set of facts
is a question of law which this court reviews de novo.
See State ex rel. Newspapers v. Showers, 135 Wis.2d 77, 85,
398 N.W.2d 154 (1987).
The specific question is whether, by regularly attending Plan
Commission meetings regarding the Sileno project, a quorum of the
Village Board held "meetings" as defined in the open meeting law
such that notice of Village Board meetings were required.
The fundamental purpose of the open meeting law is to
ensure the right of the public to be fully informed
regarding the conduct of governmental business.
The open meeting law demands that it be liberally
construed in favor of open government.
At the outset, we acknowledge the difficult task that public
officials, such as those in this case, often face in
determining the applicability of the law.
In Wisconsin, there are many parttime citizen boards that
work long hours for relatively little or no pay.
These boards' real compensation comes from the
satisfaction of public service.
It is very difficult for these boards to anticipate the
myriad of situations that may call into question
the parameters of the open meeting law.
We recognize that most public officials diligently try
to abide by the law, as is surely the case here.
The record and oral argument reveal that the Village Board
members are hardworking and concerned about being informed so
that they can vote intelligently and carry out their duties as
Village Board members.
Because of their conscientiousness, the Village Board members
regularly attended Plan Commission meetings for the purpose of
gathering information about matters over which they had
The four meetings at issue in this case involved the Sileno
project, a matter over which the Village Board had ultimate
The Village Board's members' conscientiousness is
to be commended, not criticized.
Clearly, their purpose in attending the meetings was not to
evade the law or to hide information from the public.
Nevertheless, the question remains as to whether their attendance
at these meetings constituted "meetings" within the meaning of
the open meeting law.
We must first determine whether these were "meetings"
within the meaning of the open meeting law.
Section 19.84(3), Stats., mandates that
[p]ublic notice of every meeting of a governmental body
shall be given . . ., and sec. 19.84(4) mandates that
[s]eparate public notice shall be given for each meeting
of a governmental body. . . . The term "meeting" is
defined under sec. 19.82(2) as follows:
"Meeting" means the 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.
If one-half or more of the members of a governmental body
are present, the meeting is rebuttably presumed to be 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 or
conference which is not intended to avoid this subchapter.
Reading these sections together, Badke asserts that having a
quorum of Village Board trustees present at the Plan Commission
meetings created the rebuttable presumption that a governmental
body had met for the purposes enumerated in the statute, and such
gatherings were Village Board meetings which required
In State ex rel. Newspapers v. Showers, 135 Wis.2d 77,
398 N.W.2d 154 (1987),
this court thoroughly discussed the
meaning of the term "meeting" in Wisconsin's Open Meeting Law.
The issue presented in Showers was whether the open meeting law
applies to meetings of members of a governmental body at which
less than one-half of the members are in attendance.
In reaching our conclusion that in certain circumstances the law
applies to such gatherings, we rejected the notion, as we had in
State ex rel. Lynch v. Conta, 71 Wis.2d 662, 685-686,
239 N.W.2d 313 (1976),
that the phrase "convening of members" mandates that
there be some type of formal convening in
order for the law to be triggered.
Our opinion in Showers indicated that a "convening of members"
occurs when a group of members gather to engage in formal or
informal governmental business.
We held that informal governmental action includes such things as
discussion, decision, and information gathering.
Showers, 135 Wis.2d at 92.
We set forth a twofold analysis for determining whether a
gathering of members of a governmental body
constitutes a "meeting" within the open
meeting law and expressly stated that:
First, there must be a purpose to engage in
governmental business, be it discussion,
decision or information gathering.
Second, the number of members present must be
sufficient to determine the parent body's course
of action regarding the proposal discussed.
Id. at 102. (Emphasis supplied.)
As is evident from our statements in Showers, interaction between
members of a governmental body is not necessary for a convening
of a meeting to have taken place nor is interaction necessary
for the body to have exercised its powers,
duties or responsibilities.
Listening and exposing itself to facts, arguments and statements
constitutes a crucial part of a governmental body's
We recognized the importance of exposure to information in
Lynch v. Conta, 71 Wis.2d at 686, and again in Showers,
135 Wis.2d at 90 (quoting Conta):
Some occurrence at the session may forge
an open or silent agreement.
When the whole competent body convenes,
this persuasive matter may or may not be
presented in its entirety to the public.
Yet that persuasive occurrence may compel
an automatic decision through the votes of
the conference participants.
The likelihood that the public and those members of
the governmental body excluded from the private
conference may never be exposed to the actual
controlling rationale of a government decision
thus defines such private quorum conferences
as normally an evasion of the law.
The possibility that a decision could be influenced
dictates that compliance with the law be met.
In this case, a quorum of trustees gathered information at the
Plan Commission meetings concerning the Sileno project, a project
over which they would later exercise final control.
They listened to the developer's presentation, heard the
developer discuss the proposal with the Plan Commission,
heard the Plan Commission's views on the proposal,
and heard the suggestions of the village planner.
The Village Board members present could have, and in all
likelihood did, reach some conclusions about the Sileno
project based upon information, data and material that
was presented at the Plan Commission meetings.
However, because no notice was given of their attendance,
the public may not have been aware of the perceived
importance of these meetings to the Village
Board and therefore failed to attend.
Thus, the public was not made aware that information
was being presented that could form the rationale
behind the Village Board's action.
The open meeting law is intended to allow the public access
to the fullest information possible concerning the workings
of government and the decisionmaking process.
The public can hardly have access to this information
if not made aware of its existence.
Thus, even if the Village Board members did not interact at the
Plan Commission meetings, their presence at the meetings allowed
them to gather information that influenced a decision about a
matter over which they had decisionmaking authority.
The public had a right to be made aware of the
existence of this information as well.
This is sufficient to trigger the open meeting law.
The Village Board next argues that the Village Board's members'
attendance comes within an exception to the law in that these
were chance gatherings and thus were not "meetings" under the
As support for this contention, the Village Board points to
affidavits submitted by the members of the Board who attended the
Plan Commission meetings which state that they attended the
meetings as interested citizens and observers.
Their affidavits also state that the Village Board members did
not discuss or collude with each other or prearrange going to the
Plan Commission meetings.
Furthermore, the affidavits assert that each trustee's attendance
at the meetings was spontaneous and independent of the fact that
other village trustees were at the meetings.
If the assertions submitted in the trustee's affidavits stood
alone, with no evidence to the contrary, this court may well have
held that the open meeting law was not implicated because the
Village Board's attendance were chance gatherings.
However, the Village Board's counsel's statements at oral
argument and other evidence indicate that these meetings
were not chance gatherings.
The evidence indicates that although, as the affidavits suggest,
the trustees may not have gotten together and talked about going
to these particular meetings, they did not need to confer with
each other because it is the regular practice of a quorum of the
Village Board to attend Plan Commission meetings.
As counsel for the Village Board stated at the beginning of his
argument before this court:
Justice Bablitch you asked the question about other
Plan Commission meetings over the years and so
It's been my pleasure to be associated with the
Village of Greendale for 26 years, three years of
which I sat on the Village Board.
There has always been in our village an interest on the part
of the board members to attend the board meetings [sic] to
find out what is going on and it [sic] obvious the reason
that you do it Ä because when you go to a Village Board
meeting you have a long agenda, and if your going to be able
to act on a subject you want to know what was the citizens'
input Ä that is the way we schedule our meetings.
We send things to committees.
The Plan Commission is a statutory commission and zoning
matters go to the Plan Commission.
If you want to find out in detail what is going on so
you can vote intelligently the board members over
the years have gone to these.
Your question has [sic] would there be a majority at Plan
Commission meetings over the years of Village Board members.
I would say, I would think so, I would think yes because our
board members over the years have always had that
concern that they wanted to go to the meetings.
In response to another question concerning whether attendance
is the practice of the Village Board, counsel said, "Yes,
traditionally over the years, not only for Plan Commission
meetings, but other commission meetings as well."
In addition to these statements by the Village Board's counsel,
other evidence suggests that attending Plan Commission meetings
is the practice of the Village Board.
For example, the clerk's office sent out notice to each board
member about each Plan Commission meeting, as well as
a copy of the agenda for each meeting.
At the bottom of each notice of a Plan Commission meeting there
is a notation that a copy was sent to the "Village trustees".
Furthermore, the trustees' presence at the Plan Commission
meetings was noted in the Plan Commission minutes
by their status as village trustees.
These statements at oral argument and other evidence cited
indicates that the Village Board members were present at
the Plan Commission meetings to carry out
their duties as Village Board members.
They were there to inform themselves so that they could vote
intelligently at Village Board meetings.
The statements at oral argument also indicate that the Village
Board's members' attendance was not haphazard, irregular or
A majority of the Village Board members got together at Plan
Commission meetings with regularity Ä not haphazardly or
irregularly Ä not by chance.
As a result of this practice, Village Board members did not have
to call each other the night before the meeting to know that a
majority of the members would be there.
Because of the regularity of attendance, Village Board members
had every reason to anticipate that at least a quorum of the
Board would be present.
When one-half or more members of a governmental body attend a
meeting of another governmental body in order to gather
information about a subject over which they have decisionmaking
responsibility, the open meeting law applies unless the gathering
is social or chance.
The gatherings in this case were not social or chance gatherings.
There was an understanding among the members that one-half or
more of them would be in attendance.
Such an understanding, whether oral or tacit, is nevertheless an
agreement among the members to engage in their powers, duties, or
responsibilities, which in this case was to gather information
about the Sileno project for which they could ultimately cast the
The public has a right to know what information the Village Board
members have before them when making their decisions.
Unless the public knew that the Village Board members would be
attending the Plan Commission meetings at which information
regarding the Sileno project was discussed, the interested
members of the public might well have foregone attendance
at the Plan Commission meeting, unaware that Village Board
members were being given information that would form
the basis for their decision.
Based on the above, we hold that when, as here, one-half
or more of the members of a governmental body attend a
meeting of another governmental body in order to gather
information about a subject over which they have
decisionmaking responsibility, such a gathering
is a "meeting" within the meaning of the
open meeting law, unless the gathering
is social or chance.
We also conclude that the meetings at issue in this
case were clearly not social or chance gatherings.
The Village Board's members' attendance as a group at the Sileno
project meetings was a regular occurrence, with expectations
among the members that at least one-half or more of their
membership would be in attendance.
These factors remove their attendance from the "social or chance"
gathering exception of the open meeting law.
These were not social or chance gatherings.
Their attendance as a group did not occur on a sporadic basis,
was not haphazard, irregular, nor spontaneous.
Notice of these meetings was required.
Questions were raised at oral argument which suggested that even
if the attendance of the Village Board at Plan Commission
meetings constituted meetings of the Village Board, separate
notification should not be required because notice was properly
given of the Plan Commission meeting.
Thus, they argue, the public was aware of the meeting and its
However, notice of only the Plan Commission meeting contravenes
the policies behind the open meeting law because it does not give
citizens the fullest public knowledge.
The notice of the Plan Commission meeting alone does not alert
the public of the importance of the meeting because it does not
notify the public that a quorum of the Village Board will also be
present to gather information upon which they will base their
If the public knows that the Village Board's trustees are going
to the Plan Commission meeting they will likely realize that the
meeting is important and that the proposal discussed is probably
something over which the Village Board will ultimately exercise
final decisionmaking authority.
Notice of a Village Board meeting alerts the public that what
might otherwise be a relatively innocuous meeting of the Plan
Commission might be more than that.
Notice that a quorum of the Village Board will attend informs the
public that it can go to the meeting and obtain the same
information upon which the Village Board may be basing its
Accordingly, notice of the Plan Commission meeting alone is not
enough to satisfy the requirements of the open meeting law.
The Village Board raises the concern of the effect of our holding
on situations where a quorum or a negative quorum is present at a
meeting of a second governmental body merely because all of the
individual members of the quorum make up the membership of the
second governmental body.
That presents a different situation than in this case.
In this case, had the quorum of the Village Board attended the
Plan Commission meetings regularly because all of the individuals
who made up the quorum of the Village Board also constituted the
membership of the Plan Commission, separate notice would not have
In such a situation, notice of a Plan Commission meeting alone
gives the public the fullest knowledge possible because it gives
it notice of the individuals from the Village Board who will be
present, as they make up the membership of the Plan Commission.
However, anytime a regular attendance of a quorum is present such
that the gatherings are not social or chance and one or more of
the members of the quorum is not also a member of the second
governmental body, separate notice must be given.
The Village Board also contends that if this court does not
require interaction and discussion as prerequisites to a finding
that a gathering of members is a "meeting, " our holding will be
contrary to the court of appeals' decision in Paulton v.
Volkmann, 141 Wis.2d 370, 415 N.W.2d 528 (Ct. App. 1987).
In Paulton, a quorum of the Town of Phelp's school board
attended a meeting of the Town of Alvin's school board.
The court of appeals held that the gathering of the quorum was
not for the purpose of exercising the responsibilities,
authority, power or duties of the body because "[u]nlike Swanson
and Showers . . . [t]he board members did not engage in a
discussion concerning the merits of merging the Phelps and Alvin
school districts or gather information on this issue." Paulton,
141 Wis.2d at 377-378 (emphasis added).
Thus, consistent with our holding in this case, the court of
appeals concluded in Paulton that there was not a violation of
the open meeting law because the quorum did not engage in
information gathering which had the possibility of influencing a
decision concerning a proposal over which the group had the
potential to determine the outcome.
We next address the issue of whether the April 17 meeting
violated sec. 19.81(2), Stats., which provides: "all meetings . .
. 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 provided by law." We find no
merit to this claim whatsoever.
Badke focuses exclusively on the language "open to all citizens
at all times" and contends that the language must be read
literally to mean that governmental bodies are required to meet
in facilities adequate to accommodate all members of the public
interested in the meeting or provide an audio system.
Thus, Badke contends that the Village Board violated the open
meeting law by failing to move its April 17, 1990 meeting to a
larger facility or provide amplification so that everyone present
could clearly hear the proceedings.
To literally interpret the words "open to all citizens at all
times" would lead to unreasonable and absurd results.
Badke's assertions overlook the language preceding "open to all
citizens at all times." That language provides that governmental
bodies must meet in places "reasonably accessible" to the public.
The language "reasonably accessible" suggests that the absolute
accessibility suggested by Badke is not necessary under the
The word "reasonably" suggests a balancing by the court on a case
by case basis to review whether a meeting was reasonably
accessible to the public.
Read together, we conclude that the two phrases mean that a
governmental body must meet in a facility which gives reasonable
public access, not total access, and that it may not
systematically exclude or arbitrarily refuse admittance to any
See Gutierrez v. City of Albuquerque, 96 N.M. 398, 631 P.2d 304,
306 (1981) (interpreting statute which required that individuals
be allowed to "attend and listen" as mandating a reasonable
public access and that no one be systematically excluded).
Applying the requirements of the open meeting law as we have
construed it, we hold that the Village Board did not violate the
open meeting law with respect to public access at its April 17
The meeting was held at the village hall which holds 55 people.
The village hall also has a foyer that can accommodate
approximately 20 people.
Although Badke points to a petition signed by 1,600 village
residents, there is no evidence in the record to indicate that
even a small fraction of that number (perhaps 5 percent)
attempted to attend the meeting.
At best, we determine that no more than 3 people were ultimately
The press attended the meeting.
Badke claims that many in attendance could not hear the
proceedings, but the record indicates that to the extent hearing
was difficult, it was intermittent and due to some disruptive
To require that a Village Board meeting be held in a place that
allows attendance by everyone who wishes to attend would unduly
burden local government.
The question is one of reasonableness.
The circuit court found, and we agree, that the village hall
provided reasonable access to those members of the public wishing
By the Court. Ä The decision of the court of appeals is reversed.
Justices DONALD W. STEINMETZ and JON P. WILCOX, took no part.
[fn1] Section 806.04(2), Stats., provides in relevant part:
POWER TO CONSTRUE, ETC.
Any person interested under a deed, will written
contract or other writings constituting a contract,
or whose rights, status or other legal relations are
affected by a statute, municipal ordinance, contract or
franchise, may have determined any question of
construction or validity arising under the instrument,
statute, ordinance, contract or franchise and obtain
a declaration of rights, status or other legal
[fn2] Section 19.97(4), Stats., provides:
If the district attorney refuses or otherwise fails to
commence an action to enforce this subchapter within 20
days after receiving a verified complaint, the person
making such complaint may bring an action under subs.
(1) to (3) on his or her relation in name, and on
behalf, of the state.
In such actions, the court may award actual and
necessary fees to the relator if he or she prevails,
but any forfeiture recovered shall be paid the state.
SHIRLEY S. ABRAHAMSON, J. (dissenting).
I agree with much of the majority's opinion.[fn1]
I disagree, however, with the majority's conclusion that the
Board conducted a reasonably accessible meeting,
thereby complying with the open meeting law,
secs. 19.81-19.98, Stats. 1989-90.
I conclude that the Board violated the open meeting law.
The statutory requirement that meetings shall be held "in places
reasonably accessible to members of the public" and "shall be
open to all citizens at all times,"[fn2] adopts, as the majority
concludes, a "reasonableness" standard[fn3] Upon review of the
record, I find myself in disagreement with the majority's
application of the reasonableness standard to the facts of this
Reading together the words "in places reasonably accessible to
members of the public" and "shall be open to all citizens at all
times," sec. 19.81(2), I conclude that the open meeting law
requires governmental units to hold their meetings in open, not
secret, sessions and that a meeting is not in open session unless
it is reasonably accessible to members of the public.
When the meeting place may not be large enough to accommodate all
the people who may wish to attend, the governmental unit must
balance the public's right of access against the burdens that
providing additional public access would impose on the
The stated policy of the open meeting law is 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." Section 19.81(1), Stats. 1989-90.
Thus the governmental unit must strive for reasonable
Its selection of a meeting place must be reasonable under the
It must be flexible in setting the meeting place to accommodate
unusually large crowds. 67 Op. Atty Gen. 126 (1978).
When, as happened in this case, a meeting place is challenged
under the open meeting law as being too small to be reasonably
accessible to members of the public, the court's role is to
review the decision of the governmental unit to determine whether
its selection of the meeting place was reasonable.
In doing so, the court need not look for optimal outcomes, but
must seek to determine whether the local governmental unit
achieved a reasonable balance under the circumstances presented
at the time its decision was made.
In the present case, I believe that the Board's decision to hold
its meeting at its usual site was not reasonable under the open
The usual meeting room can accommodate 69 members of the public
through a combination of seating capacity for
non-Board-affiliated persons and standing room in the foyer.
However, from the facts available to the Board prior to the April
17 meeting it was only reasonable to conclude that more than 69
members of the public could be expected to attend.[fn4] First,
development projects are often controversial.
A previous development project had aroused controversy in the
village and a large number had attended the Board meeting at
which that project was considered.
Second, the public interest in this particular meeting was
Between 1,600 and 1,700 people had signed a petition opposing the
development project to be discussed at the meeting.
The petition did not lead the Board to anticipate that 1,600
people would appear at the meeting, but it should have alerted
the Board that interest in the meeting was high.
Third, a Planning Commission meeting on April 11, 1990, involving
the same development project, had drawn a crowd of between 75 and
The large turnout should have signaled the Board that the public
was willing to attend meetings on this issue.
Finally, the Board had received two communications from a
concerned citizen in advance of the meeting date, asking that the
meeting place be changed to accommodate a large turnout.
I thus conclude that the Board, acting reasonably, should have
expected an attendance far in excess of the public attendance
capacity of its regular meeting room and its foyer.
Since the only reasonable conclusion the Board could have reached
from the available information was that more than 69 people would
probably attend, it should have considered its options for making
the meeting "reasonably accessible" to the number of people
In considering its options, the Board was required to attempt to
make the meeting "open" for two purposes Ä for citizens to hear
the proceedings and for citizens to participate in the
proceedings during the time allotted for public comments.
Several alternatives were available.
In one possible scenario, the Board could have kept its regular
meeting site and provided a sound system in the foyer or
While standing for long periods is not conducive to citizen
participation (and seeing as well as hearing is important), a
sound system could have made the proceedings at least partially
accessible to more people.
As another alternative the Board could have made closed circuit
television available outside the meeting room.
Although the record shows that the Board did not have a sound
system, the record does not demonstrate that the cost or
commercial unavailability of a sound or TV system precluded
either of these options.
Still another alternative would have been to schedule the
meeting at a larger facility, if one was available in
a reasonable location and at a reasonable cost.
The community's schools apparently had suitable rooms, since a
school had been used for a prior Board meeting.
The Board, however, did not explore any alternatives to its
regular meeting site.
Under the circumstances presented, I would conclude that the
Board violated the open meeting law when it failed, in advance of
the meeting, to explore the use of a sound system, closed circuit
TV, or an alternative site to provide additional access to what
could reasonably have been expected to be an overflow crowd.[fn5]
The majority concludes that "at most three persons were
ultimately denied entrance because of the crowd" and that the
Board's holding the meeting at the usual meeting place "was
reasonable." Majority op. at 561.
To borrow a phrase from other areas of the law, this reasoning by
hindsight employs a "harmless error" test, not a reasonableness
In this case reasonableness must be judged from the perspective
of the Board prior to the meeting: What should the Board have
done to assure that the meeting would be reasonably accessible to
the public, considering the information the Board had or
should have had before the meeting about the anticipated size of
the crowd and the available alternatives.
Even if I were to use a harmless error test to determine whether
the Board had violated the open meeting statute, I would conclude
that the error was not harmless in this case.
The circuit court decided the case on summary judgment and made
no findings of fact.
The record contains conflicting statements about how many people
tried to attend and how many people were turned away.
As I read the record, it is likely that more than three people
were denied admission.[fn6] We also cannot know how many citizens
were deterred from attempting to enter or to attend the meeting
because they did not want to stand or to be in a large crowd
confined to a small area.
On this record, the error was not harmless.
I would conclude that under the circumstances presented in this
case the Board's failure to have the meeting at a place that
would accommodate more people was a violation of the open meeting
For the reasons set forth, I dissent.
[fn1] I agree with the majority that the court should decide
the issues raised in this case.
While the controversy about the validity of the Board's
approval of the development project may have been
eliminated by the Board's holding a second meeting in
compliance with the open meeting law, the legality of
the initial meeting remains in controversy.
Furthermore, the plaintiffs' claim for attorney fees
depends on the court's deciding whether the open
meeting law was violated in this case.
Section 19.97(4), Stats. 1991-92.
Finally, questions about open meetings recur and might
evade review if this court were to accept the Board's
mootness argument in this case.
The open meeting issues are of sufficient public
interest to justify the court's addressing them even if
we were to determine that the case was moot.
State ex rel. LaCrosse Tribune v. Circuit Court,
115 Wis.2d 220, 229-30, 340 N.W.2d 460 (1987).
I also agree with the majority's conclusion that the
open meetings law required that notice be given when a
majority of the Board members attended a meeting of the
[fn2] Sections 19.81(2), 19.82(3), 19.83, Stats. 1989-90.
[fn3] See 67 OAG 125 (1978).
I agree with the attorney general that there is no
requirement that the place which has the greatest
accessibility be used.
The test is whether the meeting place is reasonably
accessible; that is a factual question to be determined
in each case.
[fn4] The majority opinion assumes that admission to the
foyer (standing room for 25 people) constituted
adequate access to the meeting.
I would not so conclude.
As the majority concedes, there is evidence in the
record that some citizens couldn't hear the
proceedings from the foyer.
(Majority op. at 563.)
Jeanne Sullivan testified about her experience in the
foyer, ". . . there was enough room so that as long as
we couldn't see or hear mostly anything, we sat on the
floor with our legs out, and we thought we might as
well wait until the meeting was over to find out really
had happened from other people." (R: 26-23) There is no
evidence that any provision was made to enable the
people in the foyer to participate in the public
question and comment segment of the meeting.
[fn5] Since the Board was alerted in advance of the meeting
to the probability that a larger facility would be
needed and should have made the necessary arrangements
before the date of the meeting, I do not have to
discuss the question of whether the Board should have
rescheduled the meeting when an overflow crowd appeared
at the meeting.
It is not clear whether, on the evening of the meeting,
the Board could have changed its location.
Greendale Village Manager Donald Fieldstad, Jr. stated
in an affidavit that arrangements to move the meeting
to alternative rooms at Village schools "must be made
when representatives of the School District are working
and could not have been made just prior to the Village
Board meeting on April, 17, 1990."
[fn6] Bernice Badke testified that she and her husband sat in
their car and watched other people being turned away.
Police officer David Sjoberg estimated that he held six
people outside and kept them from entering the
building, although three of them were
apparently able to enter later.
CASE LAW CITING BADKE:
State ex rel. Hodge v. Turtle Lake,
180 Wis.2d 62 (1993)
508 N.W.2d 301
Stae ex rel. Badke v. Greendale Villiage Board,
173 Wis.2d 553
494 N.W.2d 408
See also Wisconsin Statutes
19.81 Declaration of Policy
19.83 Meetings of Governmental Bodies