Essential Meeting?

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By: 
Michelle Phillips

Several citizens, none of whom wanted to publicly be named in the paper, have contacted me in the past week concerning the decision of the Plan Commission to hold a public hearing to discuss future projects at the Middleton Airport/Morey Field. 

Since no one wanted to have their name printed in the paper, I have decided it is best to address these concerns and the process I have been going through to get information on the topic.

First, let me say, I think it is odd for a board or a commission to hold a public hearing for something that is not under deadline or time sensitive. This was my thought when I saw the plan commission scheduling public hearings at their meeting last week as if nothing in our world had changed. 

I first received an email on the matter by a resident who questioned all of the hearings, but specifically that for the airport improvements. Then the next day I received a phone call about the matter, and finally another email. 

All of these folks were questioning why it was necessary to hold the hearing during a time when the city has said they will only hold “essential” meetings. They also pointed out that previous public hearing pertaining to the airport had seen a high attendance, and saw this measure as a way to avoid many public comments during the hearing. 

Prior to receiving the second email, I decided to call the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Legal Hotline to determine exactly what the law states regarding public hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is what I learned:

As long as the meeting is properly noticed and made accessible to the public via telephone of live web meeting, the city is perfectly within its rights to hold the meeting. 

A remote quorum is legal via Internet or call in so long as it does not violate the city’s own bylaws. 

The ethics of holding a public hearing on this matter is another issue, and two of those that contacted me as well as the attorney used the word “irresponsible” to describe the seemingly “non-essential” public hearing. 

I emailed both Middleton City Administrator Mike Davis and City Planner Mark Opitz to allow them to address the concerns I had been hearing. 

I was, in turn, forwarded an email chain between Opitz and one of those who had contacted me via email. He had sent an email to the city regarding the topic, and at the time I was told the city had not addressed the email. This was my initial reason for contacting the city, to find out if it had been addressed, which it had.

In the email, date April 1, the resident points out that if will be difficult for people to attend in person due to social distancing measures. He also states that he does not want to use Zoom until they iron out security concerns. In addition, he questions the content of the public hearing.

Opitz responds with the following, taken directly from his April 2 email:

• The Airport Commission set in motion the City's petition process on February 6, with a motion endorsing the list of projects that is the subject of the hearing. 

• The public hearing will be held before the Plan Commission, which authorized scheduling the hearing. 

• The city administrator determined (and the Council confirmed) that Plan Commission meetings are among the City's essential services, so city staff are continuing to handle matters that are reviewed by that body.

• By making meeting participation available online, there are more ways than ever to participate in this hearing.

• Although only five (maybe six) people can be in the Council Chambers at one time due to current public health / physical spacing guidelines, City staff will of course accommodate any person who shows up in person.  If more than five persons choose to attend, they can enter the room as other speakers leave.

• Anyone who wishes to participate in the meeting is invited and welcome to do so, either in person, via computer, or by phone. Instructions can be found in the hearing notice and will also be included on the Plan Commission meeting agenda (as was done for the March 24 meeting). I did specifically notify the clerks of the Towns of Middleton and Springfield last Friday so that they were officially aware of the City's hearing plans, and I sent the notice to "Airport Commission" and "Public Hearings" subscribers via the City's Notify Me service.

• To maintain eligibility for Federal and State funding assistance for eligible projects, the Bureau of Aeronautics requires the City to update its project list every six years or less.  Here is the full list:  

Prepare a Undertake Wildlife Site Visit/Assessment; Install VHF radio coverage to ground (RCO); Acquire Snow Removal Equipment; Purchase Mowing Equipment; Purchase Terminal Building; Replace and upgrade runway lighting, including Precision Approach Path Indicators (PAPIs) and Runway End Lights (REILs); Sealcoat and Crackfill airport pavements; Clear and maintain runway approaches as stated in Transportation Administrative Code Chapter 55; Make drainage improvements; and any necessary related work.

• The list of projects intentionally does not include any projects that are being studied as part of the airport master planning process, which remains ongoing with no definitive schedule for completion. The most urgent of the items above is the City's need for funding to obtain a replacement snowplow dedicated to the airport--those are really expensive.

• The City has not submitted a petition to the Wisconsin Secretary of Transportation for Airport Improvement Aid since 2014, and I'm not aware of any cost estimates and funding applications developed in conjunction with the petition resolution that is the subject of the April 14 hearing. (Bureau of Aeronautics staff work with the FAA to prepare reports such as the one to which you referred.)  That said, I'm forwarding separately a message from last November that should provide the information you're seeking. 

• I will of course continue to use the City's Notify Me service for airport master plan-related communications, as I have done in the past. 

The April 14 hearing notice and proposed petition resolution can be found here:  https://www.cityofmiddleton.us/93/Airport.  

Davis points out that the meeting will be live streamed on the city’s YouTube channel. YouTube livestream does not allow interaction from the public.

I don’t think anyone has a problem with a council or board holding a public hearing that is absolutely necessary. As an example, the school board will have to hold a public hearing to meet deadline requirements for state waivers. It has a deadline, so this meeting would be “essential.” 

In spite of the airport improvements not being linked to the master plan, the timing of the hearing certainly raised suspicions with more than one citizen. In my opinion, this in and of itself should be reason to reconsider the hearing. I, too, think it is irresponsible, and further leaves a shadow of doubt and distrust surrounding the airport and the city’s decision making in regard to airport projects, transparency and disregard for citizen concerns.

To participate in the meeting online, use the Zoom app or go to https://zoom.us/j/, then specify Meeting ID: 109 850 450 and Password: 556672. If your computer does not have a microphone and you wish to speak during the meeting, call (312) 626-6799 and reference the meeting ID. If you experience technical difficulties while trying to login to the meeting, call or text: (319) 594-2013.

To get public notices, including those of meetings and login information, go to the city’s website cityofmiddleton.us and click Notify Me. It will prompt you to sign up for the notices you want to receive from different departments. 

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