A Town, A Walmart and A Land Deal

Charles Davis
November 7, 2007 — 1,243 views  
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An entity that receives 90 percent of its funding from the public, is housed in a public building and conducts business that affects the community should be subject to the open meetings and public records law, an assistant attorney general told the Wisconsin Supreme Court today.

In a case involving the Beaver Dam Area Development Corp. and its secret negotiations to woo a Wal-Mart distribution center, Assistant Attorney General Monica Burket Brist disputed the quasi-governmental corporation's claim that it was a private entity and didn't have to tell the public when it meets or why.

"If all the negotiating is paid by the taxpayers, then public oversight ought to be given some weight, " she said.

Burket Brist added that the law would still allow these semi-public corporations to engage in confidential negotiations with firms, but that they are not exempt from the state's open records laws.

Michael Cieslewicz, attorney for the Beaver Dam Area Development Corp., or BDADC, said firms interested in relocating to a community would be less candid in discussing business plans with a development corporation if they knew documents they submitted could be part of an open records request once the discussions concluded.

"Not all negotiations result in an agreement, and if those discussions fall through then the records could be disclosed to their competition," Cieslewicz said.

Cieslewicz said that decisions on whether a quasi-governmental agency is subject to open meetings law should be made on a case-by-case basis. Two key factors in that decision should be whether the corporation has the power to bind the city to do anything and who has day-to-day control over the corporation's functions. The BDADC's voting directors are private citizens and don't have the power to bind the city, Cieslewicz said.

Charles Davis

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Charles N. Davis is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, headquartered at the School. Davis' scholarly research focuses on access to governmental information and new media law, including jurisdictional issues, intellectual property and online libel. He has earned a Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his work in furthering freedom of information and the University of Missouri-Columbia Provost's Award for Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching, as well as the Faculty-Alumni Award.