In an exercise of social distancing‚ the Wausau Common Council held a special meeting this evening to discuss the ability of members being able to ‘call-in’ for city council or committee meetings during the COVID-19 restriction period.
You can read the ordinance here: https://www.ci.wausau.wi.us/Portals/0/Departments/Council/Archives/Council/Council/2020/COUN_20200318_Packet.pdf
One feature of Wisconsin’s open meeting laws is that all governmental meetings must be open and available to the public. Of course there are exception for closed sessions when items that include contract negotiations‚ personnel‚ or legal matters to name a few are discussed. But generally meetings are to be held in an open and transparent manner.
Now with the COVID-19 pandemic this becomes a sticky issue. The governor has declared a State of Emergency for the crisis and restricted the congregation of 10 or more people in closed spaces. While government meetings are exempt from this rule- the fact that we should maintain a ‘social distance’ becomes tricky; especially with council members seated at the dias and the public gathering in the council chambers. Moreover- if any number of council members or city staff must isolate for a period of time; this could cause a problem with the council unable to hold meetings due to a lack of a quorum.
The solution is to invoke some technology into the council meetings. City-County Information Technology (CCIT) has come up with a solution of using the Webex meeting platform that allows members and staff to call-in for the meetings when necessary. But in order for this to happen the council’s rules would have to be changed in order to facilitate an online meeting. Hence the special meeting.
The proposal would give Council members have a choice: they can attend the meetings live and an in-person in the council or use Webex or a telephone to ‘attend’ the meeting. The online member’s streams or calls would be viewable in the council chambers and the whole meeting would be viewable online via cable access and the online media streams.
The sticking point to the proposal would be accessibility and public comment. The public would be able to view the meetings online or in person but comment would be tricky. The best solution the council and CCIT came up with is that comments could be emailed in advance of a meeting and entered into the public record or the public could attend the meeting as long they are able to maintain proper social distance guidelines.
While this isn’t a perfect solution I feel it is a workable one. I spoke at the meeting stressing the need to balance the access and openness of a meeting with the public with the need to maintain a level of safety for the health and staff. If the council is unable to make a quorum‚ they are unable to do the city’s business. I think we have a contingency plan with safety in mind‚ keeps the city moving‚ and gives the public access.
The ordinance passed 8-2. The dissenting voice was from Alder Smith that felt that the pandemic didn’t meet up to the level of hype that it was receiving so he voted no.
We’ll see how this works. The plan will automatically sunset upon the termination of the State’s public health emergency declaration with regard to COVID-19. But maybe lessons learned with this trial can could be used in future government meetings.