Plain Language Reigns – “certification” required, but there is substance beneath the plain language surface formality!

In a recent unpublished decision, Johnson v. Washburn County and Town of Spooner, the Johnsons had applied to the County to rezone a parcel they owned from forestry to PUD (planned unit development). The County forwarded the request to the Town and the Town sent back the form the County had provided with the word “denial” on it, but with no reasons stated for the denial. Although it was signed by the Town Chair, the two Town Supervisors and the Clerk, there was no showing that there had been a public board meeting or resolution passed. The County approved the rezone anyway, but only then did the Town pass a formal resolution disapproving the rezone and supposedly invalidating the County action. The County then told the Johnsons that the rezone was effectively invalidated by the Town. The Johnsons sued. The circuit court held that although the Town had not given the County a “certified” denial, that the substance of the form they had submitted was sufficient. The Appeals Court said no – a certified form was required. The reason that the certified form is required is to insure that the Town held a proper public meeting and passed a formal resolution. Reading between the lines, one might say the Appeals Court noted that open government is required in Wisconsin, and that the certified form was the way the public could be ensured that the local board acted in an open and impartial manner.

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