All About Public Meetings
All meetings of the common council or any other established committee must be open to the public pursuant to open meetings law, with few exceptions (see Closed Sessions, page 9). The intent of the law is to ensure that council action and deliberation is conducted openly. All regular and special meetings must be publicly noticed with an agenda that includes a specified time and date in advance of the meeting.
Public meetings, whether of the common council or another municipal committee, serve as a showcase of municipal government for the people of Whitewater. Meeting attendees can often include journalists and reporters for local news outlets, university students, representatives from community groups, and interested residents. Common council meetings are broadcast live and meeting business is often the subject of newspaper articles the following day. In short, many eyes are on each meeting with the public often basing its opinion of the entire City on how efficiently committee meetings operate.
The following subsections provide important information regarding the conduct of common council meetings. The guidance herein given also extends to the many standing committees and commissions established by ordinance.
As established by ordinance, the common council is required to meet at least once per month. Regular meetings are held on the first and third Tuesdays in each month. Meetings begin at 6:30 p.m. If a common council meeting date falls on an election day or a holiday, the meeting is held on the Thursday of the same week instead. All other committees should maintain a regular meeting schedule and make sure the schedule is posted on the committee’s webpage. The regular meeting schedule should also be provided to the city clerk for the municipal record.
When at all possible, municipal committees, especially the common council, should endeavor to conduct business during regular meetings. However, circumstances may, at times, call for a meeting outside of the regular meeting schedule. These meetings are referred to as “special meetings.” When circumstances warrant a special meeting, the staff person responsible for the committee should work with the committee chair to establish a meeting time when a majority of committee members can attend. In the case of the common council, the city manager is primarily responsible for arranging the meeting; however, the city manager will typically work with the common council president to arrange the meeting at a time when the largest number of councilmembers are available. Posting of the special meeting should comply with the requirements set forth in the Whitewater Transparency Enhancement Ordinance (Ord. 2.62).
If a minority of committee members disagree with the calling of the special meeting, said committee members can submit a written objection for the meeting record. In lieu of submitting a written objection, language can be placed on the next regular meeting agenda calling out the objection. This allows the objecting party an opportunity to voice their objection, which is then added to the minutes for the meeting.
Electronic devices such as smart phones, tablets, Chromebooks and laptops have become commonplace in the Whitewater community. Use of electronic devices during a public meeting is encouraged when the device is used as an alternative to printed materials, to look up information relevant to the discussion items, or a similar use that supports the discussion at hand. Use of electronic devices for other irrelevant uses is discouraged.
City staff provides all common council members with an electronic copy of posted packet materials in advance of the meeting via email. City departments may also provide an electronic version of packet materials to other committees. The City maintains a number of Chromebooks which can also be used by public officials during meetings to reduce or avoid the need for paper copies of meeting materials. Chromebooks can be made available to public officials upon request. A request must be provided ahead of time so that the device can be ready at the start of the meeting.
During public meetings, electronic messaging (text, email, IM, etc.) should not be used for private communication. While use of electronic devices is encouraged, encouragement comes with the expectation that devices will be used for meeting business and personal communications will be avoided. Public officials should not correspond via electronic messaging on agenda items during the meeting, unless the conversation will be publicly shared with the full common council as part of the meeting discussion. If the need to make a personal communication arises during the meeting, public officials should step out of the meeting room to communicate. No device should be used by a public official for personal entertainment while a meeting is in session.
In general, meeting materials are provided in advance of every meeting. Hard copies of meeting materials are usually distributed three to four days in advance of the meeting. Common council packets, for example, are distributed to common council members on the Friday before the next meeting. Public officials are expected to review meeting materials provided in the packet prior to the meeting so that they can more effectively contribute to the discussion for each item on the agenda.
Questions of Staff
City staff welcomes questions related to agenda items. When questions are shared with staff in advance of the meeting day, additional material to help answer the question can usually be provided by the start of the meeting. Questions during meetings are, of course, welcome also, but some questions may require additional staff research thus delaying a response until the next meeting.
Meetings of the common council, community development authority, plan and architectural review commission, and police and fire commission are required to be recorded on video per city ordinance. The common council and the plan and architectural review commission are also broadcast live. In addition, the city clerk, under the direction of the city manager, is responsible for maintaining meeting records including documenting the minutes of the proceedings at each public meeting. Due to the number of potential meetings, most committees are assigned a specific city employee to serve as meeting support, distributing agendas and keeping minutes.
While meetings are required to be open by law, there are situations where the best interest of the City demands a confidential discussion. Closed sessions are allowed under Wisconsin Statutes for a limited list of circumstances. Items discussed in closed session should not be shared outside of closed session or with persons not party to the closed session discussion. The importance of maintaining confidentiality surrounding items discussed in closed session cannot be overstated. It is also important to limit closed session discussions to the topic(s) noted on the agenda. Discussion of issues other than what is posted on the agenda and what qualifies as permissible in closed session is a violation of state law with violators subject to a fine.
Rules of Order
The common council has the authority by ordinance to determine its own rules of procedure. However, Robert’s Rules of Order serves as a general guideline for setting procedures in meetings. Specific details regarding the conducting of meetings can be found in the Whitewater Municipal Code of Ordinances, Chapter 2.08.
Setting the Agenda
By local ordinance, the agenda for meetings of the common council is set by the city manager.
Councilmembers wishing to add agenda items should make their request no later than one week prior to the meeting. Councilmembers can make requests by contacting the city manager directly, or by contacting the city clerk who will then notify the city manager. The city manager will honor all legal agenda item requests made by a councilmember. However, if the city manager anticipates a long meeting or that a particular item requested will be contentious and result in a lengthy meeting, s/he may contact the requesting councilmember to discuss setting the item for a future meeting agenda.
For all municipal committees outside of the common council, meeting agendas should be set by the committee chair. In cases where there is a staff person assigned to support a particular committee or commission, the staff member should assist in drafting the agenda, ensuring that the agenda complies with standard formatting guidelines. Just as with requests made by councilmembers, the committee chair should honor requests for agenda items that are submitted by committee members. If a question or concern regarding a potential discussion item arises, the committee chair should consult with the assigned staff person, the city clerk, or the city manager for guidance.
Meeting Attendance and Participation
To ensure that voting members are well versed on the issues facing the board or commission, regular attendance is mandatory. In the event that a member fails to attend three consecutive, regular meetings or fails to attend at least three-fourths of the regular meetings during the preceding twelve months, the board may request that the common council select another individual to serve out the member’s term.