By Lee Reinsch
DE PERE – The De Pere Common Council may add in-person back to its menu of meeting options.
The board voted 6-2 to change the in-person meeting resumption guidelines from Phase II, which was to be when Brown County is designated a low-risk community for the spread of COVID-19, to Phase I, which is where Brown County has been for many months.
The new language says meetings can be held in-person as well as virtually in Phase I, whereas they’ve been solely virtual since last March.
The upshot is meetings will be held in-person whenever a quorum of the board – six members – can gather in person, and when that happens, the public will be allowed to sit in once again.
The measure affects De Pere’s city commissions and committees as well as council.
Alder Dan Carpenter initiated the measure.
He pointed to funding the city received to equip council chambers with Plexiglas shields, new microphones and otherwise facilitate social distancing.
“If we weren’t going to use it, we shouldn’t have maybe taken it,” Carpenter said.
He said he’s not a fan of virtual meetings, and with the many new variants of the virus being discovered, it didn’t look like in-person meetings would be deemed safe until the end of this year or possibly into next year.
Alders Mike Eserkaln and Jonathon Hansen voted “no,” with Hansen speaking up for science.
“With the new variants (of COVID-19) that are even more contagious, and with us being so close to the end of the vaccine tunnel, I’m up for keeping the status quo for the foreseeable future,” Hansen said.
Wisconsin and Illinois reported cases of the U.K. variant of COVID-19, and this week, Minnesota reported it had the Brazilian variant.
With the board’s quorum at two-thirds (six of the eight-member board), it means only two board members can attend remotely for the meeting to be held in-person.
“Having six of the eight of us attending in person is a high bar, especially if someone isn’t comfortable going in,” Hansen said.
He said it would put undue pressure on board members to attend in person.
Alders Casey Nelson and Amy Chandik Kundinger expressed concern about encouraging large public gatherings but ultimately voted “yes.”
Alder Shana Defnet Ledvina said getting child care during a pandemic is no longer the simple matter of calling the kid down the block and indicated she could have to attend some meetings remotely.
However, she voted “yes.”
Alder Dean Raasch said he’s worked face-to-face throughout the pandemic, moves freely about the community to various sites for his job and doesn’t have the slightest fear for his safety or anyone else’s when it comes to in-person meetings.
Mayor James Boyd shared his personal COVID experience, saying he still has lingering effects after four months.
“It’s a horrible thing, and I would not want anyone to go through it,” he said,
Boyd said he would respect any board member who didn’t feel comfortable going to a public meeting.
While meetings have long been broadcast online and on some local television channels, it’s only been since the coronavirus era the public has been able to participate remotely.
That won’t change; the public will still be able to speak virtually if it wishes.
The audience could be limited to about 15 in the council chambers.
In the event of a high-interest issue drawing a large in-person crowd, people might have to be placed in other rooms with screens.
If they wanted to speak at a large meeting, they could be ushered into the main chambers to speak.
If the board can’t get a quorum together in person, it’ll hold the meeting online.
For members of the public who want to show up in person, this means it could be harder to predict when a meeting will be held in-person than it was pre-COVID.
Circumstances change at the last minute, which means public notices could change at the last hour.
“It’s not at all uncommon to have (board members) who say they’ll be there the following week and over the weekend, they find out they need to be quarantined, and you won’t have a quorum,” said De Pere City Manager Larry Delo.
The open meetings law states that notice must be given at least 24 hours prior to a public meeting, but in the event of a valid reason, a shorter notice is permissible.
It must be at least two hours in advance of the meeting, according to the Wisconsin Towns Association.