By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Did the “WI-5” mayors who lapped up all that “free” Zuckerberg money to help administer November’s presidential election break Wisconsin’s open meetings law? Wisconsin’s attorney general should weigh in on that question, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council. “After reviewing the materials submitted at the hearing, it appears that the meetings among the mayors were not subject to the Open Meetings Law. However, the question is close enough that it is advisable to request an Attorney General’s Opinion on the matter,” Leg Council staff attorney Peggy Hurley wrote in a memo obtained by Wisconsin Spotlight. Members of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections sought a legal review after a recent hearing into the involvement of the left-leaning Center for Tech and Civic Life and its network of liberal activist groups in November’s election. The Chicago-based CTCL handed out more than $8 million in “election safety and security” grants to Wisconsin’s five largest and most heavily Democratic cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine. The brunt of that — $6.3 million — was distributed as part of a controversial contract between the center and the cities. CTCL received more than $300 million from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, ostensibly to “help” local elections offices administer “safe and secure elections.” As a Wisconsin Spotlight investigation uncovered, CTCL required the “Wisconsin 5” cities to sign contracts that included funding clawback provisions if they failed to meet CTCL’s demands. Local elections officials had to work with the center’s partner organizations, like the National Vote at Home Institute, whose Wisconsin lead was a long-time Democratic operative. Emails obtained by Empower Wisconsin through open records requests also show the liberal mayors of the five cities met to discuss the creation of the “Wisconsin Safe Voting Plan 2020,” the guiding plan required by CTCL in order for the cities to receive the money. They were brought together by far left Racine Mayor Cory Mason. Hurley notes that Open Meetings Law generally applies to governmental bodies — a state or local agency, board or commission. The attorney concludes the group of five mayors, while representing their cities, did not constitute a “governmental body.” But Hurley concedes the mayors could have been acting on authority granted to them by the Racine Common Council, which first signed off on a $100,000 grant to create what would become the “WI-5.” “…(A)n Attorney General’s Opinion on the matter would provide more definitive guidance and could be used to determine whether to take additional action or seek more information,” Hurley wrote. Erick Kaardal, the attorney representing several plaintiffs in election complaints against the cities, said the Legislative Council’s conclusion is premature. “We believe the evidence will show the Open Meeting Law applies to the Mayors of Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Kenosha and Racine when they are jointly planning and agreeing to a privately-funded plan to increase absentee voter participation in their respective cities,” Kaardal said. Documents show an addendum to the grant contracts with CTCL were adopted without Common Counsel approval. That appendix, legal experts assert, required the “WI-5” cities to promote and “encourage higher percentages our electors to vote absentee.” That condition violates state law, which states: The legislature finds that the privilege of voting by absentee ballot must be carefully regulated to prevent the potential for fraud or abuse; to prevent overzealous solicitation of absent electors who may prefer not to participate in an election; to prevent undue influence on an absent elector to vote for or against a candidate or to cast a particular vote in a referendum; or other similar abuses. Kaardal said a lot of questions remain unanswered. “When the U.S. Constitution and state law puts the state legislatures in charge of federal elections, what legal authority did the Wisconsin five mayors have to jointly plan and agree to a privately-funded plan to increase absentee voter participation in their cities?” he said.