OPINION: Public Deserves Answers on Closed Sessions

When a member of the public asks why a topic on a government’s agenda is scheduled to be in closed session, essentially saying “because I said so” isn’t a good enough answer.

That’s what happened to me last week Monday when I was preparing to cover the city of Blair’s regular monthly meeting. A topic on the agenda listed for closed session caught my eye because it indicated the council would consider giving public funds to private businesses. 

I have no problem with that, though, I do think such a discussion should be held in public. That said, my argument for why the session shouldn’t have been closed doesn’t really matter. It’s entirely possible that there’s something I missed or simply don’t know. If that’s the case, the city has an obligation to explain it to me. 

All I got was a snide response. 

My initial inquiry went to both the city clerk and the city attorney. The clerk responded that she would have to ask the attorney to provide an answer to me. To be clear, that’s exactly what a clerk should do in such a situation, but the attorney never responded.

I arrived at the meeting a few minutes early and asked the attorney. His first response was “it’s all allowable.” I questioned what the competitive or bargaining reasons were and the attorney said “I provide legal advice to the city, not anybody else.” 

There are numerous issues with this response. 

For starters, I was not, in any way, asking for legal advice. I was simply asking for a clarification on a public agenda. I was told he was the one who could provide that clarification.

The standard set at that meeting was that members of the public are not allowed to question what the city does. The attorney’s opinion, apparently, is that if he says a closed session is legal, we should all just accept it. 

That just isn’t how government is supposed to work. 

I don’t mean to pick on Blair, they aren’t alone here. 

There have been other instances in which cities have refused to answer our questions. When we ask council members, clerks or administrators, we’re often told the closed session was based on what the attorney recommended. There has to be a better answer. 

That happened in June when the Whitehall city council went into closed session, apparently on the advice of its attorney, to discuss the overloaded wastewater plant, that made the entire city smell like, well, a sewer. 

When asked, Whitehall Mayor Jeff Hauser said he wanted to err on the “side of safety” noting the city’s legal advisor recommended a closed meeting.

The Department of Justice didn’t like that answer, issuing an opinion later that month that the reasons for the closed session were inadequate. As the Times reported then, a 2019 opinion issued by the Wisconsin attorney general, said government entities must describe how an open meeting would jeopardize a strategy. That is the very question I asked in Blair and was, essentially told to go away.

Since I couldn’t get any answers from anybody in Blair on why that topic was set for closed session, the legal advice I received was to turn the matter over to the Trempealeau County District Attorney’s office. The DA’s office will likely call that attorney, who could bill the city for the time spent answering those questions. 

Ultimately, the refusal to answer my really simple question could cost Blair taxpayers. 

Perhaps the attorney simply doesn’t think that answering to the public is in his job description. If that’s true, then the city needs to have a better strategy to communicate with the public. When we want to know why a discussion item is closed to the public, they should answer. It is really that simple.

The attorney is right, he reports directly to the city council. But who does the council report to? It’s the people who ultimately have the power and when the people want answers, we should get them.

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