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OPINION: The ‘chilling effect’ of new council rules
Editorial by Joe Hart, Boscobel Dial Editor
Dial Masthead

BOSCOBEL - Last week, Boscobel Mayor Brenda Kalish announced changes in how the public may connect with the City Council. No longer can individuals sign up for emailed copies of the council’s agenda and the background information packet that guides their votes. And anyone with comments for the council must now preregister with the city.

These are small—but important—actions. They were presumably vetted by City Attorney Ben Wood, and there appears to be no statute that makes them illegal or technically unethical. But they erect an unnecessary and harmful barrier between the council and the public it serves.

As Boscobel’s representative of the “fourth estate,” with a duty to serve as watchdog and advocate for the citizens of Boscobel, the Dial objects to these changes in no uncertain terms.

Arguments in favor of the rules are flimsy at best.

The mayor told the council that too many of the 80 recipients missed the email, and requested it be resent. It’s hard for us to imagine that these bimonthly snafus represent a hardship for city staff. At any rate, both documents are public records and, by law, must be provided to anyone who requests them. Wouldn’t those requests create more work, not less, than a group email? Surely there is a simple technological fix.

Regarding preregistration, Kalish said that in the past, unruly arguments broke out during public comments. She failed to explain, however, how preregistration would prevent such behavior in the future.

In either case, the remedy for unruly conduct in chambers already exists: The mayor holds the gavel. It is her job to conduct orderly meetings. Should anything get truly out of hand, our Chief of Police attends council meetings.

The Dial has observed no unruly arguments in this past year. Recent citizens addressing the council included, among others, the mother of a disabled daughter who asked about accessible parking downtown, and a senior citizen who wondered about progress on the city-owned lots at Pine Shores.

These issues might have been answered in a phone call. But addressing them at council puts their questions—and the city’s answers—in the public record.

Another justification came from City Attorney Wood, who said council can discuss only items that are on the public agenda. “That’s the whole point of an agenda, to have notice about what we’re going to talk about,” he said.

He is wrong. Wisconsin’s open meeting laws specifically exempt public comment sessions from notice requirements: “During a period of public comment… a governmental body may discuss any matter raised by the public.” 19.83(2)

These unwarranted rule changes are troubling on their own. But they come shortly after several errors in applying the open meeting laws on the part of Boscobel’s new City Administrator, Patricia Smith.

As reported here, Smith’s mistake delayed the city’s budget hearing, which requires a 15-day public notice. Additionally, on at least two occasions, the city has failed to legally post agendas 24-hours before a meeting and justified the error by claiming an “emergency” prevented proper posting.

Some might see these as minor technical details. They are not.

Wisconsin’s open meeting law states the point neatly in its “Declaration of Policy:”

“In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business.”

Under these standards, all government business is assumed public unless it passes specific exemptions.

Smith is new to her job and to public service. She can be forgiven a few stumbles in learning the ropes. She deserves the chance to succeed, and the Dial sincerely hopes that she will. In fact, in our coverage, we have tried to give her more room to maneuver than we would a seasoned pro.

What concerns us more is the potential for a cavalier culture in City Hall around public participation and openness, one that falls short of the legal standard of providing “the fullest and most complete information.” When hired, Smith told the Dial that building a culture of transparency was one of her goals, and we hope that she follows through on that pledge.

Others might argue that the proposed rule changes are insignificant. After all, the council is not required by law to have a public comment section at all, and anyone can still request the agenda and packet and expect to receive it. (The agenda is also on the city website.)

But even minor obstacles to participation can have a major “chilling effect.” Perception and culture matter, and these rules send a message. Why bother to address people who seem like they don’t want to hear you? Instead of hindering public participation, the city should cultivate it. For example, some municipalities begin their budget cycle with a series of public meetings to gather input and buy-in on citizen priorities.

Still, the Dial understands that these are difficult times in which to serve. Hard times often prompt mistrust and hostility toward those in power. The general lack of civility since the pandemic began is well documented. We feel strongly that our government servants deserve respect and are within their rights to demand it, especially in City Hall.

But the instinct to “circle the wagons” is exactly the wrong instinct. The cure for mistrust is enshrined in literally every democratic playbook: Let the sunshine in. A transparent, open, accountable government with no secrets and no backroom deals has nothing to hide and welcomes public input and inspection.

Maybe there are no secrets in Boscobel. But the public has a bedrock legal right to see for themselves.

Under Boscobel’s municipal code, the mayor is charged with deciding council procedure, but any alderman may appeal to a full vote. The Dial urges the council to do so and roll back these unnecessary hindrances to public participation.