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A right to know

Last Wednesday, at a pair of back-to-back meetings, Colby’s elected officials got what seems like mixed messages from city staff. First, at a meeting that was mostly held behind closed doors, the council was pitched the idea of purchasing land — where, we don’t know — for some kind of development opportunity. Later that same night, members of the council’s public works committee were told that the city has no money available to fix North Second Street or replace a 24-year-old dump truck.

Of course, one of the most important tasks for an elected official is to prioritize spending, often with limited money in the coffers. Officials ideally make these decisions with input from the public, whether it’s choosing which road to repair first or selecting what equipment to buy for city staff.

Unfortunately, when it comes to buying or selling land for public purposes, the public is often left out of the loop, especially in the early stages of the discussion. This is often made possible by a provision in the state’s open meetings law that allows city councils, school boards and other entities to close the doors to the public when “deliberating or negotiating the purchasing of public properties...”

In our experience, many officials choose to ignore the second part of this provision, which says that such closed sessions are only allowed when required by “competitive or bargaining reasons.” A Wisconsin court of appeals put a lot of emphasis on this word when, in 2007, it ruled against the city of Milton after it held a series of closed-door meetings to negotiate the building of an ethanol plant.

One of Milton’s excuses for having it conversations in private was that it was trying to buy land from a man named Douglas Goodger so the ethanol plant could be built on the land. Milton officials, like those in Colby, argue that “secrecy was necessary to avoid attracting interest in Goodger’s land from other potential purchasers.” The court struck down this argument with one sentence: “Goodger was not required to keep the negotiations confidential, and it defies common sense to believe that if he wanted to sell his land, he would not want to receive the best price for it.”

The court’s reasoning in the Milton case has made its way into the Wisconsin attorney general’s open meeting compliance guide. We have recited excerpts from this guide to officials in both Colby and Abbotsford whenever they try to buy or sell land in secret, but it usually seems to fall on deaf ears, though we have managed to eke out a few details by raising questions.

To be clear, we’re not trying to pick a fight with city officials or scuttle a deal that may very well be a good one for Colby and its taxpayers. We just believe those same taxpayers deserve to know when their money is going to be used to buy land and for what purpose — before those decisions are made behind closed doors. As mentioned above, Colby has other pressing priorities to pay for, like street projects and outdated equipment, and the public should be part of the discussion on how best to spend the city’s limited funds. It can’t do that if the council won’t divulge even minimal information about possible land purchases.

Wisconsin’s District IV Court of Appeal supports this position, stating: “We cannot accept the proposition that a governing body’s belief that secret meetings will produce cost savings justifies closing the door to public scrutiny.”

This doesn’t mean the city isn’t entitled to some degree of secrecy to protect its bargaining position. The court said “developing a negotiation strategy or deciding on a price to offer for piece of land” are perfectly acceptable reasons to go into closed session, as long as other portions of the conversation remain open to the public.

Council members have the power to keep the public informed by refusing to vote to go into closed session until more information is shared. We urge them to exercise this power before the city signs an offer to purchase without any real public input.

The Tribune-Phonograph editorial board consists of publisher Kris O’Leary and editor Kevin O’Brien