Avoid problems, embrace the law

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SOMETIMES THIS SORT of thing is called an unforced error, or even a self-inflicted wound.

We refer to mistakes made by the School District of Beloit for not observing - let alone failing to welcome - conditions required under the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.

A task force convened by the district gathered last week for a presentation on the superintendent's grade reconfiguration recommendations. The task force exists to gather information and produce input for a decision expected to be made by the board in the next few months. The meeting opened with the district's consultant telling those present any recording or live streaming was prohibited, and anyone who violated the ban could be asked to leave. Likewise, the consultant told the gathering no one should roll their eyes or do anything someone else might consider disrespectful.

LET'S CONSIDER the "eye roll" part first. The world we live in has become an uncivil and sometimes rude place. That is not conducive at all to productive discussion and decision-making. There's nothing wrong with encouraging people to behave within the bounds of propriety.

All the same, free speech is free speech and no one has a right not to be offended. Civility is always preferable. It's also mostly unenforceable.

As for trying to ban people in attendance from recording or live streaming the event, that's a clear violation of both the intent and letter of the state open meetings law. The school board should make sure it never happens again.

There seemed to be confusion over whether the law would apply to a committee created by administration to gather information and provide input on a recommendation to materially change the way Beloit educates its kids. There shouldn't have been any such confusion. The group was put together under the authority of the district for the purpose of advising on a major public policy proposal. That's as open as it gets, and clearly falls within the requirements of the law, both in statutory terms and case law findings.

LOOK, WE GET IT. There's always the concern that people on boards or councils or named to related committees - either standing or convened for a special policy purpose - may be intimidated by public exposure and self-censor themselves. That can be true. But such possibilities obviously do not supersede the legal requirements under which public institutions operate.

The law expressly states individuals wishing to record or video sessions are to be accommodated, unless doing so would disrupt the meeting. That means one should not, for example, set up equipment in a way that somehow interferes with people's ability to see or hear what's happening. It does not mean recording might make somebody nervous.

Neither is it good enough, after the fact, to argue no violation occurred because - when one person began to record anyway - the individual was not ejected. Just saying no recording was to be allowed and that offenders might be kicked out violates transparency requirements.

AND IT SHOULD be noted, when the individual began recording, the consultant went over and sat down next to the person. Then, the consultant interrupted the meeting to announce someone was recording. If anyone was at risk of being intimidated in those circumstances, it was the individual exercising the right to record.

We believe there was not a corrupt intent involved. Nevertheless, this should not have happened.

A FINAL WORD: Speaking of board members, four were present at the meeting - John Wong, Wendy Sanchez, Kyle Larsen and Megan Miller. That's a quorum of the seven-member board, and arguably should have been noticed as such under legal requirements. The law recognizes that chance or social encounters can happen, and such instances are not considered a violation. But these were four board members present to hear, and possibly engage, in discussions about important district proposals. The best approach always is to err on the side of openness, and in this case that should have meant a public notice of a board quorum gathering. The City of Beloit routinely provides a sound example. Even when the city thinks a quorum of the Beloit City Council might be in attendance at a social event, let alone a policy event, a notice is sent out under the open meetings law. The school district should do the same.

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