Republican Wisconsin lawmakers want to know whether judges on the state’s ethics and elections board may have violated open records laws. State Senator Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) is one of 9 lawmakers asking Attorney General Brad Schimel to determine whether the Government Accountability Board violated open records in e-mail exchanges.
“He’s the one who should be looking at it, and saying ‘hey this is not the way to do business.’ I’m not looking at penalizing anyone,” Wanggaard said. Wanggaard said the issue came up because of testimony the board chairman, Judge Gerald Nichol, gave Tuesday during a hearing on a bill to dismantle the GAB. “This was not about operations. This was about things that were affecting the board, things that were coming in front of the board.”
A spokesman for the Government Accountability Board, Reid Magney, said members were careful to follow the open meetings law.
The Government Accountability Board members and staff are well aware of the requirements of the Open Meetings Law and carefully follow them. Board members know not to discuss agency business outside of properly noticed meetings and are reminded not to ‘reply all’ to communications they receive from the agency’s director if they feel the need to comment on an issue raised in the email.
The communication protocol described by Judge Nichol at Tuesday’s hearing was designed to keep Board members informed of the day-to-day operations of the staff and to avoid any instances of a walking quorum occurring.
The agency’s director and chair communicate regularly about day-to-day operational issues. When warranted, the director will send an email to the chair summarizing their discussion and any direction the chair has given to him. When appropriate, those emails contain a request that if a board member has a concern about the chair’s direction, the board member should communicate the concern to the director. The director will then share any concerns with the board chair, who will call a special meeting of the board to discuss the issue as required by the Open Meetings Law.
This procedure has been used since January 2015, when Judge Nichol became chair of the board, to ensure that board members were being kept informed about day-to-day agency operations and to provide a means for members to request a special meeting of the board without communicating among themselves in violation of the Open Meetings Law.
“From what his testimony was, I would say that’s exactly what they did,” Wanggaard said. “Maybe they didn’t realize what they were doing, but my goodness, they’re judges. They should realize that.”