City Council Discusses Plan to reopen City, Hybrid Meeting Model

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Cameron Bren

MIDDLETON–The Middleton Common Council discussed a plan to reopen city buildings to the public and provide services and hold meetings in-person and continue a virtual option. The council directed staff to open city hall on June 7 and open all other city buildings by July 6. 

The council did not approve a resolution to end the emergency order which allowed the move to virtual meetings at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mayor Gurdip Brar and some council members called for moving to a hybrid model of meetings continuing the use of Zoom to allow alders, committee members and the public to engage in meetings while not able to attend in-person.

City Attorney Larry Bechler explained there are differing legal opinions on whether a city can continue using remote access for meeting participants and the public. Bechler said his legal opinion is that when the COVID-19 emergency order ceases to exist, and the city could be violating open meetings law allowing remote access.

Bechler pointed out the alternative opinion of the state Attorney General.

“The Wisconsin Attorney General has come to a totally different viewpoint,” Bechler said. “They've said as long as you provide access to the meeting as we've been doing during the entire COVID process there's no reason to ever go back to meeting in person again.”

Bechler noted it is also his personal opinion the council should return to in-person meetings, and he warned the council about continuing to allow the possibility of meetings without a physical quorum being present.

Finance Director Bill Burns told the council that city staff felt comfortable with opening city hall on June 7 and the rest of the city buildings by July 6.

He pointed out the city may have an interest in creating a hybrid model of participation maintaining the option for meeting participants to use Zoom to video call. He said during the pandemic the city saw broad participation including many who had not attended city meetings in the past. Burns added it is also an alternative for council or committee members who are not able to attend. 

Burns noted the hybrid model could likely only be implemented at the Common Council and a few high level committees because it would require someone on site to operate the live sound and video.

He stressed the importance of the city remaining vigilant in light of the ongoing pandemic.

“We've made tremendous progress in the last few months and that's great, but the pandemic is not over yet,” Burns said. “Dane County with rescinding the public health orders doesn't mean the pandemic is over. There are people that are not vaccinated, some that are not able to get vaccinated, some that may have immunocompromised issues and having an immediate return to in-person meetings especially if there isn't an effective hybrid meeting option for people to attend from home may not be something that we want to rush into.”

Burns recommended the council consider a phased approach with a timeline over the course of the summer or fall.

Ald. Robert Burke said he supports returning to in-person meetings as soon as possible. He said he is weary about beginning with a hybrid model right away because of the technical complexity.

Ald. Susan West stated she errs on the side of safety and would support having a hybrid model.

Ald. Katy Nelson commented that now is a moment for the city to progress with the times by moving to a hybrid meeting model. She recalled the previous phone call-in system alders and committee members sometimes used which was hard to engage with.

Ald. Dan Ramsey said he supports retiring to in-person meetings. Ald. Emily Kuhn said she is also happy to return.

Brar said he is holding the next Plan Commission meeting at city hall using the hybrid model.

Ald. Kathy Olson supports the hybrid model and would also like to keep the livestreams and recorded Zoom meetings going, she said.

Ald. Luke Fuszard incuded he has seen people have good experiences with virtual participation and would support a hybrid model.

Ald. Mark Sullivan said it seemed the city was moving to a hybrid model and he is fine with it.

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