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Natural Resources Board

Natural Resources Board Chairman Terry Hilgenberg, left, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp and other board members listen to public comments on the DNR master plan for the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area on Dec. 14 in Madison.

The Department of Natural Resources policy board will gather for a social hour followed by an informal dinner meeting in a Downtown Madison pub this month despite promising in October to end the practice amid complaints such meetings were shutting the public out of decision-making.

A DNR spokesman noted that this month’s meeting is different from previous ones that are now the subject of a lawsuit because it has been announced publicly.

“They are expected to avoid DNR or NRB (Natural Resources Board) business discussions during any purely social gathering,” spokesman Jim Dick said Friday.

In contrast, there was no public notice before a Jan. 26, 2016, “social dinner” that drew a lawsuit and forced the board to vote a second time to approve controversial plans for snowmobiles in Blue Mound State Park, which had been known for silent sports like cross-country skiing.

State law requires public bodies to announce meetings and the official business they will discuss or decide.

On Oct. 20, after Madison attorney Christa Westerberg filed a complaint with the Dane County district attorney alleging the state’s open meetings act had been violated, Dick said the DNR would stop having social dinners with NRB members without distinguishing between announced or unannounced dinners.

“While the DNR believes there have been no violations of the open meetings law, we have decided, in a desire for utmost transparency in all Board actions, to no longer schedule social dinners with Natural Resource Board members for the night before (publicly) noticed board meetings,” Dick said in the Oct. 20 statement.

Dick also said then that the NRB might vote again on the snowmobile plan “based on additional significant public interest and concerns expressed over opportunity for public input.” He didn’t respond when asked for specifics about the concerns. The board re-approved the plan in January of this year.

The DNR recently released the agenda for the board’s May 24 public meeting. It includes a notice that the board will meet on May 23 at the Great Dane Pub, with “social at 5:30 p.m.” followed by “an informal meeting with the Wisconsin Conservation Congress executive council at approximately 6:30 p.m.”

The agenda doesn’t list topics for either gathering.

“Non-(publicly) noticed social dinners of the Board were canceled in a desire for utmost transparency, even though they were purely social gatherings,” Dick said in a statement Thursday. “This (May 24) is a (publicly) noticed social event, giving full notice that the board is intending to meet at the location for you and other media or the public to attend if you desire.”

Dick called the May 23 gathering a “meet-and-greet opportunity for everyone to get to know each other better as individuals and professionals to foster collaborative relationships.”

In a Jan. 7 letter, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne indicated the DNR had offered a plan to address alleged open meetings violations, and if it was followed he wouldn’t take further action on Westerberg’s complaint. Meanwhile, Westerberg’s lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court alleging open meetings law violations is pending, along with her lawsuit contesting the snowmobile plan.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.