Superior’s City Council ratified a declaration of a state of emergency Tuesday, March 17 and took measures to ensure city business won’t be halted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Council adopted a resolution that would allow the Common Council and its committees and commissions to meet using technology rather than in-person to accomplish the city’s business during a declared emergency.
“This came in very quick,” Mayor Jim Paine said. “This situation is developing very rapidly.”
Monday, March 16, Gov. Tony Evers restricted social gatherings to fewer than 50 people, but with new cases of COVID-19 revealed in southern and central Wisconsin, the governor amended the order Tuesday to gatherings of fewer than 10. The order exempted state and local government facilities.
Paine said the resolution adopted by the Council is intended to prevent congregations of people whenever possible and take advantage of technological resources to conduct city business and respond to the emergency.
Under Wisconsin’s open meeting laws, the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information concerning government affairs and requires meetings of governing bodies to be reasonably accessible to the public. The law does not require that all meetings to be held in public spaces, but it does require reasonable access to members of the public, according to Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul. Telephone conference calls and video conferences are acceptable as long as the public has a means to monitor the meeting.
“In accordance with the law, we will still be providing access to the press and the public,” Paine said.
Large telephone conference calls are an option for the city, he said.
City Attorney Frog Prell said there may be a cost and what those charges might be were uncertain.
“Obviously, we need to connect the policymakers and decision-makers with each other, the Council or whatever committee is convening, but obviously to satisfy the spirit of the law, we need to equip the citizenry to monitor the meeting,” Prell said. “Participation isn’t a requirement.”
However, the Council has historically accepted comment from the public during the course of its meeting on specific issues and to talk about issues that are not on the agenda.
Prell said conducting those meetings may be a challenge because of the city’s inability to mute callers on its end. He said councilors may have to listen to people coughing into the phone, yelling at the kids or telling the dog to get off the couch unless they mute the phone on their end.
“There are some things that are going to be present that are going to be inconvenient, and less than perfect … I saw this as a better option then simply canceling meetings until we know when we can meet again,” Prell said.
“I like this a lot,” Councilor Brent Fennessey said. “Hopefully we’ll never have to use it, but at least we’re prepared.”
Councilor Dan Olson said that government buildings are exempt from the declaration for now, but that could change.
“I think the most important thing is the safety of everybody … and following all the rules and (regulations),” Olson said.
“The purpose is to protect the health of the public, our members and our staff,” Paine said. “We’re going to limit meetings to necessary business. If it can wait a couple of weeks, we’re going to make it wait.”
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