They tell aldermen repeated closed sessions leave public in the dark, may violate law, but city attorney defends practice
A Port Washington woman on Tuesday questioned the legality of the many closed sessions the Common Council has held over the past year and warned officials that these meetings have left the public disenfranchised.
“I have heard the confusion and the frustration all around me, and I have seen it expressed here in this chamber firsthand,” said Kim Haskell, 767 W. Grand Ave.
“The more I talked to people and asked why they didn’t go to council meetings or watch them on TV, I heard almost unanimously that they gave up because anything they were interested in was not discussed in open session. It was all done behind closed doors.”
That feeling was echoed by several others at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I feel as a resident of this city I am shut out,” said Barb Martzahl, 505 N. Montgomery St. “I am denied access. I am denied information. It’s not an opinion — it’s a fact. You’re taking what is public and turning it into an old boys club.”
Mike Strauss, 238 E. Norport Dr., said, “I’m of the age for voting. I think I should know what’s going on.”
Amy Otis-Wilborn, 233 E. Pier St., said the council has held an “excessive” number of closed sessions, and noted that this contributes to the growing animosity between officials and the public.
“When people’s perceptions are what they are, something’s wrong,” she said. “There’s no good communication, and that needs to be repaired.”
Haskell, a litigation paralegal, said before the meeting that some residents are so frustrated they are considering filing a complaint with the district attorney’s office over the closed sessions.
Haskell said she began researching the closed sessions while trying to learn more about proposed developments in the city’s marina district, and said she was shocked to find the Common Council held 19 closed session meetings during 2016. Only three council meetings during the year did not include a closed session.
Virtually all these sessions had to do with developments in the harbor or south bluff areas, Haskell said.
“I have no doubt this council believes it has had good reason to go into closed session to discuss the proposed developments,” she said.
However, Haskell said, while the Open Meetings Law allows governmental bodies to meet in closed sessions for a limited number of reasons, the law is expected to be interpreted narrowly.
“It appears the council has been applying an overly broad interpretation of the allowed exceptions based on a misunderstanding of the law,” Haskell said.
She cited case law, Supreme Court opinions and the Attorney General’s Open Meeting Compliance Guide in making her case, and noted that while officials may want to close a meeting doesn’t mean they can.
She urged aldermen not to hold Tuesday’s planned closed session “to allow this body time to assess its past and future compliance with the extremely limited exceptions to an open meeting.
“Holding your deliberations publicly allows the residents of Port Washington be an informed electorate, which is the mandate of the Wisconsin Open Meeting Law,” she said.
City Attorney Eric Eberhardt disagreed with Haskell’s interpretation of the law, saying, “I want to assure the public that in deciding whether a closed session is permitted we vigilantly do apply the law. We take the Open Meeting Law seriously.”
Eberhardt agreed that there have been many closed sessions held during the past year, but said that is because there have been more development proposals involving city land or investment than ever before.
“This is an unprecedented time,” he said, adding that if the city had been contemplating the sale of a single piece of land to one developer, perhaps only one such meeting would be necessary.
And, Eberhardt said, in the case of the proposed Blues Factory development, “there was an utter change in the identity of the developer midstream.”
He said that the council is allowed to conduct a closed session for negotiating, investing public funds or specified public business, where competitive or bargaining reasons require one.
“It is contrary to the public interest to discuss the price (of property) in a public session,” Eberhardt said as an example. “Common sense says you ought not do it.”
He noted that the council’s closed session Tuesday dealt with financial aspects of three proposals to buy city-owned bluff land.
“They (the financial aspects of the proposals) are wildly different, and that’s what this council needs to consider, how the city will benefit financially and intangibly,” Eberhardt said. “That’s the business of a closed session and the law sanctions that.”
A second reason for Tuesday’s closed session was negotiations for the sale of a city-owned car-trailer parking lot, Eberhardt noted, adding “the terms are just now being formed.”