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Virtual participation allowed for Superior's special committees

Ordinance change allows virtual attendance for special committee meetings.

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Government Center in Superior, Wisconsin. Jed Carlson / 2019 file / Superior Telegram
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Superior is building in flexibility for residents serving on special boards and committees for the city.

The Superior City Council adopted an ordinance Tuesday, Nov. 16, that will allow members of special committees to attend and fully participate by phone or videoconferencing in most circumstances. The only exception is when a member’s physical presence is required to make observations about a witness or to examine evidence or exhibits that have not been previously reviewed by the member.

A physical presence is not required to make quorum, but committee chairpersons are required to be present in the meeting room.

During the city’s pandemic-driven state of emergency, a physical presence wasn’t required to achieve the two-thirds of committee members present to conduct a meeting. When the state of emergency ended in May, the council revised its ordinance on how meetings could be conducted. Those changes included allowing audio and videoconferencing participation but requiring a physical presence of two-thirds of the members for a meeting to occur.

“We’ve had a lot of problems with the boards and commissions that are primarily staffed by citizens,” Mayor Jim Paine said. “A number of them struggle to make quorum for a number of reasons that we really have to accommodate. Some of them have actual disability-related reasons where they can’t come in. And for many others, it’s just the most convenient way to get here.”

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Paine proposed relaxing the quorum requirements to make sure the business of the city gets done and the city can still attract residents who want to serve.

The changes don’t apply to the city council or the council’s six standing committees, which are staffed by members of the city council.

“Because we have to provide reasonable access to the public, we will always have a physical meeting space … that people can attend, and we’re going to ask that the chair be physically present,” Paine said.

If the chair can’t be present, the responsibility could be shifted to someone in the room to chair the meeting.

“Fundamentally, I like this,” Councilor Brent Fennessey said.

However, he proposed sending the ordinance to the communications and information technology committee to review what investments the city could make to improve the technology available in the building.

“We need to get our technology in place first,” Fennessey said, adding that just last week Councilor Craig Sutherland was unable to attend a meeting virtually because the technology in the room didn’t allow Sutherland to hear the discussion.

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Councilor Tylor Elm, chairman of the communications and information technology committee, said the technology and quorum requirements were two different issues, and his committee will address the technology.

“I do think we need to update equipment, but I don’t think that we should postpone our decision on this amendment based on updating equipment,” Councilor Ruth Ludwig said.

Ludwig recently chaired a meeting where five members were available with two able to attend virtually. She said the meeting had to be rescheduled because of the quorum requirement. When the board concluded its business at the next meeting, there were fewer members present.

“It’s inefficient for our staff who have to waste time and effort rescheduling meetings,” Ludwig said. “It’s inefficient for our citizen members who volunteer their time … they end up giving more volunteered time coming to a rescheduled meeting.”

After a motion to refer the matter to the technology committee failed, the motion to adopt the ordinance passed by unanimous voice vote.

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