City of Madison Initiative Demonstrates Lack of Transparency

MOST fails to provide public with information and access to meetings and records

Local watchdogs and litigators say a City of Madison initiative and its multiple committees should provide the public with greater transparency.

In a unanimous 2017 decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that committees created by local governmental bodies in Wisconsin are themselves governmental bodies subject to the state's open meetings law.

Wisconsin open meetings law states: “All meetings of all state and local governmental bodies shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public and shall be open to all citizens at all times unless otherwise expressly provided by law.”

Public bodies are required to give notice of the time, date, location and general agenda of all meetings at least 24 hours in advance. Even when, “for good cause such notice is impossible or impractical…in no case may the notice be provided less than 2 hours in advance of [a] meeting.”

Madison-area Out-of-School Time, or MOST, is a City of Madison initiative. According to the City’s website, the group was started by Mayor Paul Soglin.

“The Madison OST project really began to take shape toward the end of 2012 however, when Mayor Soglin met with a host of neighborhood center directors. Together, they envisioned a Madison in which all children and youth were within walking distance of out-of-school-time activities.”

The city officially founded MOST in May 2013 when they hired a coordinator to run the group. A new coordinator was hired in 2017. The job was posted by the city with the listed salary advertised as “$55,394.04 - $65,222.30 annually.”

In 2017, President of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council Bill Lueders told the Wisconsin State Journal that “public officials cannot create committees without making them subject to the open meetings law.”

According to MOST’s website, the group is a “collaboration between the City of Madison, Dane County, Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), and over 45 Madison-area youth-serving organizations.”

The group is funded by the City of Madison and the Madison Metropolitan School District. According to a June 2018 contract with the Madison Board of Education, the school district pays 40 percent of the MOST coordinator’s salary while the city pays the rest.

Also according to the group’s website, MOST’s “vision” is to ensure “all of Madison’s children and youth have access to comprehensive, high-quality, out-of-school time programs that support positive youth development, educational achievement, and readiness for college, career and community.”

In the five years since the group’s inception, MOST has not given the public notice of its meetings times, dates, locations, and agendas, allowing little to no oversight.

According to an internal document from a 2014 meeting, MOST formalized an “Action Team” that began meeting twice a month starting July 2013. But, the group did not make meeting notices publicly available. The same handout said the City’s Education Committee adopted MOST as one of its “key initiatives” in November 2013.

According to MOST meeting notes sent only to MOST participants by the former coordinator, Jennifer Lord, on Nov. 3, 2013, concerns about the committee’s need to comply with open records laws were discussed. In response, city employees cited a desire to want to remain an “independent coalition.”

But, a desire to remain an “independent coalition” is not sufficient to grant MOST immunity from open meetings laws. Nor does this desire grant MOST immunity from open records laws.

Tom Kamenick is a deputy counsel and litigation manager at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), a non-profit organization that advocates for open government and civil liberties. WILL successfully litigated the 2017 Supreme Court case.

Kamenick said in an email to Simpson Street Free Press that after briefly reviewing MOST, he was unable to definitively determine if the group qualifies as a public body. But, he also said the Attorney General has stipulated open records and meetings laws should be “applied expansively.”

According to Kamenick, there is a five-factor test for determining if groups must comply with open records and open meetings laws; whether the group is funded government money, whether the group serves a government function, whether the group appears to be a government entity, whether the group is subject to some level of government control, and whether a governmental body can access to group’s records.

MOST is a publically funded city initiative staffed by government officials on the city payroll.

Kamenick said that MOST may be attempting to perform a laudable service, “but because it relies so heavily on public money and works together with government entities, the public would be better served by more transparency.”

Lueders agrees that regardless of MOST’s technical classification, the group should be more transparent.

"Given the court's ruling in the Appleton case, I believe this group should be fully compliant with the state's open meetings law. No one should be splitting hairs over whether MOST meets this test or that; it should embrace the ideal of openness and let the public have access to its meetings and records. Transparency serves its own interests as well as the public's" Lueders said.

Simpson Street Free Press questioned city officials about MOST’s compliance with open government rules. Office of Community Resources staff told our reporters questions would be forwarded to the city’s legal counsel. No response was received by press time.

Disclaimer: Simpson Street Free Press has participated in the MOST initiative.


Read The Cap Times Response:
Plain Talk: Simpson Street student journalists are digging deeper -- Dave Zweifel

Wow, what an interesting story--I had no idea about the MOST initiative. Thank you for keeping us informed, SSFP! – MadelineMadison, WI (2018-08-11 10:57)
Hi all, this is Nathan Beck the new MOST coordinator, You all know I have mad respect for the great work SSFP does providing platform for youth stories. That work is absolutely essential and you all do it as good as anybody! As I have said several times before, you are all welcome at anything MOST does, meetings, events, etc. I would so love your voices in the mix to think about how we can leverage the platform that you all provide for youth voices to tell the powerful story of how important and essential Out of School Time is. Similarly if any readers are interested in learning more and getting involved feel free to reach out to me. We have a few exciting things coming up including a free conference for youth workers on 8/31 that we planned along with five other OST organizations featuring Bianca Baldridge as the keynote. Hope the last bits of your summer camps go well and I certainly hope to connect with you all soon. – Nathan BeckMadison (2018-08-11 13:27)
I had no idea the agendas and meeting times and minutes were not automatically available in timely fashion. I'm delighted Nathan Beck wants to involve SSFP, but the most important first step is creating transparency so anyone can see and hear what is going on and monitor MOST's progress. One should not have to call the coordinator to get routine information. – Louise RobbinsMadison (2018-08-11 16:20)
Thank you for this important information. SSFP is an INCREDIBLE place for young writers to learn their craft. I would love to have such a place in western Wisconsin. Also as pointed out in the article having transparency in organizations can only make them stronger and help the community to stay informed and supportive of the great things happening for young people in the Madison area. – JulieWest Salem (2018-08-11 17:10)
Among the things I hope to accomplish this year is enacting this policy: "Any Committee, Task Force, Collaborative, Coalition, Advisory or other group convened by MMSD staff or administration that has an identifiable membership which includes more than two (2) people who are not appointed as MMSD students, employees, or as employees of MMSD partners (as defined by the Partnership Policy) or contractors, will be treated as governmental bodies and required to follow open meetings statutes, with notices, agendas, and meeting materials posted in the manner of MMSD Board Committees and Work Groups. Additionally, these bodies must include opportunities for public comment on their agendas (as with Work Groups, comment may be limited to items before the body at that meeting)." More here: https://madisonamps.org/2018/05/12/how-should-the-mmsd-board-of-education-operate/ – TJ MertzMadison (2018-08-12 15:23)
Among the things I hope to accomplish this year is enacting this policy: "Any Committee, Task Force, Collaborative, Coalition, Advisory or other group convened by MMSD staff or administration that has an identifiable membership which includes more than two (2) people who are not appointed as MMSD students, employees, or as employees of MMSD partners (as defined by the Partnership Policy) or contractors, will be treated as governmental bodies and required to follow open meetings statutes, with notices, agendas, and meeting materials posted in the manner of MMSD Board Committees and Work Groups. Additionally, these bodies must include opportunities for public comment on their agendas (as with Work Groups, comment may be limited to items before the body at that meeting)." More here: https://madisonamps.org/2018/05/12/how-should-the-mmsd-board-of-education-operate/ – TJ MertzMadison (2018-08-12 15:29)
Great article. Excellent reporting!! – MeganMadison (2018-08-13 19:24)
Great article. Excellent reporting!! – MeganMadison (2018-08-13 19:24)
I think it is so important for everyone to get access to these meetings and have the times and dates in hand so they can plan to attend. It is essential to involve everyone since this is in fact a public meeting therefore, the dates and times should be more publicized. – ShreyaMadison (2018-08-25 10:59)
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Author Bio: Anna Welch

Anna Welch is a recent graduate of UW Madison where she studied Journalism and Gender and Women’s Studies. This summer and fall, she spearheads several SSFP investigations and examines local education issues. Anna also runs book clubs for middle school students at the SSFP South Towne location.

Author Bio:
Mckenna Kohlenberg

Mckenna Kohlenberg is an SSFP Literacy Specialist and Editor. She is also a JD candidate at the University of Wisconsin Law School and a Masters student studying Educational Policy and Analysis.