Legal Notices on Internet Sites
By WTA Attorney Lee Turonie
This article covers issues regarding the implementation of 2015 Wisconsin Act 79, which provides for the first time that towns and villages can in part utilize their Internet sites to achieve the making of legal notices.
Firstly, here are the legal notices that Wisconsin Statutes Chapter 985 applies to:
"Legal notice" means every notice required by law or by order of a court to be published in a newspaper or other publication, except notices required by private and local laws to be published in newspapers, and includes all of the following:
(a) Every publication of laws, ordinances, resolutions, financial statements, budgets and proceedings intended to give notice in an area.
(b) Every notice and certificate of election, facsimile ballot, referenda, notice of public hearing before a governmental body, and notice of meetings of private and public bodies required by law.
(c) Every summons, order, citation, notice of sale or other notice that is intended to inform a person that the person may or shall do an act or exercise a right within a designated period or upon or by a designated date.
§ 985.01(2). As you can see, that is pretty much everything. Secondly, it is important to realize that the word “publish” is usually not meant in a literal sense for towns and villages. This is because the governing body of every municipality not required to have an official newspaper may, in lieu of newspaper publication, direct other form of publication or posting under §§ 985.02(2) & 985.05(1). Therefore, since towns and villages are not required to have an official newspaper they can often elect to post legal notices in three places instead of publishing in a newspaper.
The new law does not create any new mandate. It simply creates a new option. The new option for towns and villages is to post the legal notice in at least one public place and also on an Internet site maintained by the municipality. If a statute allowed you to post in three places per Chapter 985 before you can now also choose to post in one place and put it on your Internet site.
Beware that Act 79’s new option does not apply to everything. Some examples of overriding specific requirements are: election notices must be in either a newspaper or posted in three places per § 10.05; notice to the public after passage of an ordinance that imposes a forfeiture is required to be in a newspaper per § 60.80(2); notice of the public hearing on the budget, which for towns must be posted in three places per § 65.90(3)(a)1; notice for the Board of Review, which must be published in a newspaper, posted in three places and also posted in a fourth place, the door of the town or village hall per § 70.47(2); etc.
Implementing the new law
Underlined below is the new language added by Act 79 to § 985.02(2)(a):
The notice must be posted in at least 3 public places likely to give notice to persons affected or must be posted in at least one public place likely to give notice to persons affected and placed electronically on an Internet site maintained by the municipality.
There are a couple of issues that your town or village may need to address before you are able to take advantage of Act 79. Firstly, town resources are determined by the town board. § 60.22(1).
Whether or not your town has a town Internet site is up to the town board. A town board should adopt a formal policy creating and governing any town Internet site. The town should be the owner of the Internet site and its domain name and the policy should cover such things as: who posts things onto the Internet site; what types of things should be posted there; and the process that should be used if someone would like to have something else posted there.
The language requires that the Internet site used for legal notices must be one maintained by the municipality. I interpret this to mean that the Internet site used must be provided for, operated, or controlled by the same municipality as is using it for legal notices. If you do not have control over the Internet site, you will be in no position to guarantee its appropriate operation in the posting of your legal notices. I am aware that some counties are hosting Internet sites on behalf of towns. It would take an appropriate intergovernmental cooperation agreement per § 66.0301 for such an arrangement to satisfy this “maintained by” language from the Act.
Just as the town board determines whether the town has an Internet site, it also maintains the town’s posting boards and decides where those will be. At this time a town should retain its three posting boards as some statutes such as the ones mentioned above will still require them.
Also bear in mind that the open meetings law requires that meeting notices be by communication from the chief presiding officer of a governmental body or such person's designee to the public; to those news media who have filed a written request for such notice; and for towns and villages, to either a designated official newspaper or if none then to a news medium likely to give notice in the area. § 19.84(1). Use of a newspaper, three posting places or now one posting place and an Internet site only satisfies the notice to the public element: do not forget the other two.
The open meetings law also requires that every public notice of a meeting of a governmental body shall set forth the time, date, place and subject matter of the meeting in such form as is reasonably likely to apprise members of the public and the news media thereof. § 19.84(2). A key here is that use of your Internet site for these notices must be reasonably likely to apprise the public and news media. I interpret that to mean that any legal notices on your Internet site ought to be prominently displayed and/or very easy to find and access. Second, any time that a municipality decides to alter its method of providing open meetings law notices it should take care to accompany that with some public relations activity, such as utilizing your old method for a few extra months in order to draw attention to any new method. Something extra is prudent when making a change in order to accommodate the spirt of the open meetings law. § 19.81.
Attention legislators: bill opportunity
There are still several notice statutes that could use modernization, such as the ones mentioned in this article: §§ 10.05, 60.80(2), 65.90(3)(a)1 & 70.47(2).