MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin natural resources officials are planning to meet for a social hour and dinner despite their pledge to give up informal meetings following complaints of violating open-meeting laws.
The state’s Department of Natural Resources policy board will gather in a downtown Madison pub this month despite promising in October to end the practice amid criticism that such meetings shut the public out of decision making. The agenda doesn’t list topics for the gatherings.
Department spokesman Jim Dick said this month’s meeting is different from past gatherings that are the subject of a lawsuit because the upcoming events have been announced more publicly.
“They are expected to avoid DNR or NRB (Natural Resources Board) business discussions during any purely social gathering,” Dick said.
Wisconsin law requires public bodies to announce meetings and the official business they’ll discuss or decide.
There wasn’t a public notice before a January 2016 “social dinner” that drew a lawsuit and forced the board to vote a second time to approve controversial plans for snowmobiles in Blue Mound State Park. The lawsuit partly is based on DNR emails from agency staff members talking about their efforts to block Natural Resources Board members’ opposition to the snowmobile plan at an unannounced dinner meeting the night before board members initially approved the plan on Jan. 27, 2016.
Madison attorney Christa Westerberg filed a complaint with the Dane County district attorney alleging the state’s open-meetings act had been violated. Dick said on Oct. 20 that the department would stop having social dinners with board members without differentiating between announced or unannounced dinners.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne indicated in a Jan. 7 letter that the department had offered a plan to address alleged open meetings violations and that if it was followed, he wouldn’t take further action on Westerberg’s complaint.