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Privacy committee plans private Wal-Mart tour

Scott Bauer
AP Writer

Madison — A state Assembly committee on personal privacy doesn’t want the public to take part in its tour of the Beaver Dam Wal-Mart on Tuesday in apparent violation of the open meetings law.

A meeting notice distributed Friday said that tour and one of a University of Wisconsin research lab were educational and not open to the general public. The tours were for lawmakers to get information about a bill related to radio frequency identification tags.

“It’s not open to every Tom, Dick and Harry on the planet,” said committee chairman Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, on Monday.

Not opening the meeting is a clear violation of the law, said Bob Dreps, a Madison attorney and expert on Wisconsin’s open records and meetings laws.

The state Supreme Court has ruled that even when a governmental body is gathering information, discussing issues or taking informal action, it constitutes a meeting. Those guidelines also are clearly spelled out in a document on open meeting compliance published by the state attorney general’s office.

Open government advocates, including Wisconsin Newspapers Association director Peter Fox, said the meeting should be open.

“It’s the committee on personal privacy, it’s not the committee on political secrecy,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “If the only way they can hold this meeting is to declare themselves exempt, they shouldn’t hold it.”

Schneider said the meeting would go ahead despite the concerns. He said even though there likely would be a quorum, no formal action would be taken so there’s nothing wrong with keeping the public out.

“It is a private facility,” Schneider said of the Wal-Mart tour. “They cannot have everybody under the sun touring through their distribution center, obviously for security reasons.”

A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

It would be logistically impossible to allow the public to attend the tour, said Laura Rose, deputy director of the Wisconsin Legislative Council. The council advises lawmakers on legal issues related to the committee process.

Rose said there is no violation in this case because a notice was published announcing the meeting, even though the public could not attend.

“It’s open in that the public knows it’s happening,” she said.

There is past precedent for closing informational tours to the public for logistical reasons, like when committees visit state prisons or nuclear power plants, where security is a concern, Rose said.

Dreps, the open meetings law attorney, said the law doesn’t have exemption for closing meetings due to security concerns. Simply noticing the meeting, but not allowing the public to attend, also does not satisfy the law, he said.

Rose said there can be a happy medium, such as allowing the media to attend the tour but not the general public. The university believes the meeting should be open and anyone who wants to come to the lab part is welcome, said UW lobbyist Don Nelson.

Schneider said the media was invited to the Wal-Mart tour. A company official coordinating the tour did not immediately return a message.

Even if the media were invited to attend, it wouldn’t satisfy the requirement that the meeting be open to the public, Dreps said.

“The media has no greater right to attend than any citizen,” he said.

Schneider said lawmakers on the committee he chairs are simply trying to gather information related to a bill he introduced that would prohibit the sale of products containing operable radio frequency identification tags. The tags, known as RFID, are used for many purposes by governments and others. Wal-Mart uses RFIDs to track inventory.

The widespread use of the technology has raised privacy concerns.

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