Open Meeting Law FAQ 13

How specific does an agenda item have to be to satisfy the open meeting law notice requirement?

Wisconsin’s open meeting law provides 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.” Wis. Stat. sec. 19.81(1). To that end, the law requires that all meetings of governmental bodies be preceded by public notice. The notice must set forth the time, date, place and subject matter of the meeting “in such form as is reasonably likely to apprise members of the public and the news media thereof.” Wis. Stat. secs. 19.84(1) and (2).

In State ex rel. Buswell v. Tomah Area School District, 2007 WI 71, 301 Wis. 2d 178, 732 N.W.2d 804, overruling State ex rel. H.D. Enterprises v. City of Stoughton, 230 Wis. 2d 480, 602 N.W.2d 72 (Ct. App. 1999), the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that notice of an agenda item must be reasonably specific and that reasonably specific notice will depend on the particular circumstances associated with the item and other considerations including:

1.     The burden of providing more detailed notice. The public official must consider the amount of time and effort required to assess what information should be included in the notice, keeping in mind that the demands of specificity should not “thwart the efficient administration of governmental business.”
 
2.    The public interest in the subject matter. The public official must consider the number of interested citizens and the intensity of the interest. The greater the public interest, the greater specificity required.
 
3.    The public ability to anticipate the subject matter. If the item involves a “novel” or non-routine matter that the public is unlikely to anticipate under more general agenda language, then greater specificity is required.
 
All three of the above considerations require a case-by-case analysis based on what the public officer preparing the meeting notice knows, or reasonably should know, at the time the notice is provided. Accordingly, the presence of a large crowd at a meeting that the official did not know would be present or did not have any reasonable basis to believe would be present will not determine compliance or noncompliance with the open meeting law notice requirement under the Buswell standard.