County board won’t offer virtual meeting option
By Heather Graves
BROWN COUNTY – The Brown County board shot down a request to amend county ordinances to allow supervisors to appear in a virtual format and be considered present for voting purposes at a recent meeting.
After holding meetings fully virtual for a few months last spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision was made in June 2020 for the county board to resume in-person meetings with no virtual option.
During that time, because of health concerns surrounding the pandemic, District 14 Supervisor Joan Brusky did not attend any in-person meetings.
“I have not missed one county board meeting prior to the pandemic,” Brusky said. “I wanted to go. I felt like a cat on a screen door clawing to try and get to these meetings. I wanted to come to these meetings. But my background is health, and now I feel wonderful without a mask. The CDC, who are experts, are educated and have experience. They have said now is the time you can take off your masks. I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable to myself and my husband. We could have had safe meetings for everyone.”
She listened to the meetings via telephone, but because she wasn’t physically present, she was not able to participate in discussions or vote.
Brusky brought forward the communication in April as an option for supervisors going forward for unforeseeable incidents.
“Let’s be reasonable, let’s help each other out,” she said. “I’m looking at those incidents where it is out of anybody’s control. It’s been said over and over again, we have the technology, let’s use it. I think there is a lot of potential.”
The Executive Committee sent the communication to the full board May 19 with a recommendation to receive and place on file.
A motion was made to send it back to committee for further discussion but failed 14-11.
“If you kick it back to Executive Committee again for further discussion, unless you are going to show up and try to massage this or convince people to go in a different direction it is going to come right back here next month in the same fashion it is right now,” District 17 Supervisor John Van Dyck said.
If a virtual option is offered, Corporation Counsel David Hemery said the board would need to change its code.
“State statutes do not require in-person, it is a choice of the board,” Hemery said. “But our county board has certain rules that we have in our code – one of them being that we adopted Robert’s Rules, and Robert’s Rules require in-person. So going forward, if we don’t have a code change, everything would have to go back to normal. We can no longer use COVID-19 as a justification to go against our code. You can no longer use COVID to say we must have these meetings virtually.”
Some supervisors stressed the importance of in-person meetings.
“There is definitely something, and I’ve learned that from the start coming into the county board here running into a pandemic, there is much more power and communication when we are together,” District 21 Supervisor Randy Schultz said. “Undeniable. I think we have to reserve the power of communication when we are all together, because it is definitely different.”
District 16 Supervisor Dave Kaster said a virtual option would likely be abused.
“Whatever way you set this up, it will be abused,” Kaster said. “I don’t care what you say, it will be abused. No doubt about it. I’ve been on this board for probably 15 years. I think I’ve missed one meeting. I believe the third Wednesday of every month, you should have your butt in that chair and that’s it. You had an obligation when you ran for the board, that you were going to be here in person. I believe you have an obligation to be here. There is nothing like being here in person. I’m not interested in changing it.”
Those in favor of a virtual option said life happens.
“The only comments I’ve heard about in-person meetings from supervisors is people really like having in-person meetings,” District 4 Supervisor Lindsay Dorff said. “Those are literally the only comments I’ve heard. And that people like that in-person interaction. To take those accommodations, that would probably be used pretty rarely, and go to the worst-case scenario that everyone is going to start abusing it, seems like a not well supported argument to me. Because life happens. People get sick, we don’t know what is going to happen with COVID-19, we just don’t know. And as people pointed out, in the 21st century, we are lucky to have the technology available that we can oftentimes be able to make this accommodation, so why don’t we make it accessible to people for extenuating circumstances so they can still represent their constituents.”
Ultimately, the board voted to receive and place on file.
However, several supervisors submitted late communications at the end of the meeting to revisit the topic in more specific ways at future committee meetings.