Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Meeting Notice Concerns Mount For SDC Following Layoffs

Organization say its volunteer board has complied, experts say they haven’t.

The entrance to the Social Development Commission main office at 1730 W. North Ave. The agency temporarily ceased operations on April 26 without providing a reopening date. (Photo by Trisha Young)

The entrance to the Social Development Commission main office at 1730 W. North Ave. The agency temporarily ceased operations on April 26 without providing a reopening date. (Photo by Trisha Young)

Michael Harper attended a Social Development Commission board meeting on May 16 to find out how the board is charting a path forward after the agency suspended operations in late April.

A small business owner who ran for Milwaukee County comptroller in the spring, Harper has relationships with contractors who have worked with SDC.

He said there has been little disclosed from SDC on how community members can access information about the board’s work and meetings. He only discovered the May 16 meeting from contacting SDC’s attorney William Sulton.

“Having chaired boards before, the first thing I thought of was like: Man, where was the meeting notification?” Harper said.

Since mid-April, the SDC Board of Commissioners has met more frequently than its usual monthly meeting schedule to develop a strategic plan to reorganize SDC’s many anti-poverty programs and pay its employees.

Torre Johnson Sr., a program manager for Wisconsin Community Services and a former elected SDC commissioner for District 4, said people have contacted him with questions about SDC and its services.

He is unsure of how to direct them because he has not seen or heard communication from the board on its meetings or plans.

“When is the board meeting so we can (sit in) and see what’s happening?” he asked.

Wisconsin open meetings law requires government bodies to notify the public at least 24 hours in advance of meetings, or two hours in advance in special cases, so community members have an option to participate.

SDC is meeting only part of the law’s notice requirements, experts say. SDC has alerted news media, a newspaper of record and some individuals of upcoming board meetings but has failed to consistently notify the public at large of its Board of Commissioners meetings since the agency closed.

Open meetings law requirements

Wisconsin open meetings law requires public notice of all meetings of a governmental body to be communicated to the public, news media who have requested to be notified and to the official newspaper, or if there is none, a news medium likely to give notice in the area.

A meeting notice needs to contain the time, location and subject matter of the meeting, which is typically presented in the form of an agenda, said Tom Kamenick, an attorney and founder and president of the Wisconsin Transparency Project.

To notify the public, the law requires the chief presiding officer of a governmental body or its designee to give notice in one of three ways: physically posting a notice in three public places, posting a notice in one public place and to the government body’s website, or by “paid publication to a news medium likely to give notice to persons affected,” according to Wisconsin statute.

How is SDC subject to open meetings law?

Open meetings law applies to governmental bodies and “quasi-governmental” agencies like SDC, which is an intergovernmental commission established in 1963 under Wisconsin Statute 66.0125.

Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee both have ordinances that reference this state statute in establishing the creation of SDC and directly mention that meetings of the commission and its consulting committees are public and subject to open meetings law.

What SDC is doing to give notice

When asked about SDC’s meeting notice policies after a recent board meeting, board chair Barbara Toles referred questions to Sulton.

Sulton said SDC has notified members of new media organizations, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, four local TV news stations and other outlets that have requested notice to share meeting information with the public.

The board’s meeting agendas have not been published on the SDC’s website since the agency laid off its staff.

A notice was posted physically on the SDC’s main office on North Avenue for one recent meeting, Sulton said, but he is not aware of any other SDC meeting notice postings in public places or a paid notice to a newspaper.

“I think that there’s at least substantial compliance to the law, but if there were some errors, the errors are unintentional and caused by the lack of staff who would ordinarily be doing those tasks for the board,” Sulton said.

Differences between notifying media and the public

Since all SDC employees have been laid off and board members are volunteers, Sulton said the board is working under difficult circumstances and does not have access to the SDC’s website to post a meeting agenda.

Sulton said he believes SDC is meeting the law’s notice requirements by providing agendas and meeting links to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff.

“The law doesn’t require anything more than making a well-circulated news outlet available and in Milwaukee, the Journal Sentinel certainly meets that standard,” Sulton said.

Notifying the news media and a newspaper meets some of the law’s requirements but does not satisfy it completely, Kamenick said, because a governmental body still needs to meet one of the law’s three options focused specifically on informing the public.

“They are hard requirements, and there’s a strict requirement that [a government body] follow it precisely,” Kamenick said.

Sulton said he would relay concerns about meeting notices to the board and asked about a practical remedy.

“It can’t be that we want to make it harder for the board to solve problems here,” he said.

Stressing the need for openness, Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said, “As a quasi-governmental agency that provides vital services to people’s lives, the Social Development Commission has an affirmative responsibility to be as transparent as possible about the events leading to its recent shutdown.”

Board committed to public access

In addition to providing notice to media organizations, SDC commissioners have also circulated meeting agendas to state and local government offices and the organizations they represent, Sulton said.

“We also have members of the public and former employees who have asked for agendas and meeting links and have been provided that information,” Sulton said.

He also said the board’s meetings are hybrid and that the board has kept the Zoom link and login information the same in recent weeks to make the virtual meeting more accessible.

“We’re trying to provide information to the public,” Sulton said. “We’re trying to offer the public an opportunity to ask questions and queries and comments.”

Trisha Young contributed to this report.

Meredith Melland is the neighborhoods reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Report for America plays no role in editorial decisions in the NNS newsroom

SDC’s inconsistent meeting notices raise transparency concerns. Here’s what you need to know. was originally published by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

One thought on “Meeting Notice Concerns Mount For SDC Following Layoffs”

  1. Thomas Sepllman says:

    Volunteer Board What are they talking about It has a budget of ?? millions and they seed themselves as a volunteer board???? They are elected from districts and they are a volunteer board Yes they are not paid BUT that does not make them a volunteer They have specific duties etc an Some one has to do some board training to say the least. That there has been no report by now about the financials condition is beyond incompetent It is time for 5 community members who have a clue how to manage the SDC and for the Board to appoint them receivers or some such and resign ASAP

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