By Kevin Boneske
BROWN COUNTY – The way governmental bodies meet noticeably changed in recent weeks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Social distancing has been put in place to separate those in attendance by at least 6 feet.
Technology is also being used for video and phone conferences so not all members of a body and its support staff have to be physically present.
However, with boards and committees subject to the state’s open meetings law, remote meetings or those limiting the number of people physically present must remain open and accessible to the public with the advance notification of those meetings also taking place, for which at least 24 hours is typically called for in the law.
In addition, the governing body’s own rules for holding meetings must also allow for the participants to not have to be physically present.
Those rules are now undergoing revisions as local units of government put in place precautions to deal with the pandemic.
The Ashwaubenon school board, which had a policy in place limiting a board member’s presence at a meeting via telephone or another manner of remote access to two months in a row, had a recommendation on its agenda Wednesday, April 8, to change the policy’s wording to allow for additional remote meeting attendance by a board member under situations like the COVID-19 outbreak where social distancing is encouraged.
The March 18 board meeting used teleconferencing with one member, Treasurer Michelle Garrigan, appearing remotely, and the total number of people physically present limited to 10.
The West De Pere and Howard-Suamico school boards approved policies Monday, April 6, for conducting meetings in emergency situations.
The policies define the procedures for calling, noticing and conducting technology-facilitated meetings involving remote participation by board members and/or the public’s remote access “in situations where conditions exist that make it potentially dangerous for the board to convene in person or in the typical setting that is established for the board’s public meetings (e.g., where a number of people would be in direct proximity to one another).”
To conduct what’s defined as a “virtual meeting,” the policies call for at least the board’s presiding officer and the district administrator, or an administrative-level designee, to “normally be physically present at the meeting location identified in the public notice of the meeting.”
Though the preference and goal would be having at least a quorum of members physically present, the policies would not strictly require that in all circumstances.
Suamico Village Administrator Alex Kaker said the village is now required to have a quorum physically present for village board meetings, so a code change would have to be made to hold a remote meeting with fewer board members physically present.
Suamico made use of teleconferencing at the March 23 village board meeting when representatives of Five Bugles Design, architect for the Fire Station No. 1 project, appeared remotely.
In the Village of Howard, where the village board held its first remote meeting March 23, Village Administrator Paul Evert said approval two weeks earlier of an emergency management ordinance made it possible for the board to hold meetings and vote remotely.
“During any attack, quarantine, absence due to travel restrictions imposed by federal order, or in the event of village-declared emergencies, the village board shall have at its own discretion the ability to carry on a voice vote via telecommunications,” the ordinance states. “This includes but is not limited to telephone, secured e-mail, video conference and video phone.”
At the March 23 meeting, Evert said about half of the nine-member board was physically present at the village hall with the others participating remotely.
The Village of Ashwaubenon held a special board meeting remotely Thursday, April 2, and also had a remote setup Tuesday, April 7, to hold the Site Plan Review Committee and Plan Commission meetings.
Remote meetings have also recently become the norm elsewhere in Brown County, such as with the city councils in Green Bay and De Pere and the school board in Green Bay.