Both the city of Janesville and Rock County could be looking to start holding in-person meetings again this year, although it appears Janesville City Hall might host a return sooner than the courthouse.
City Manager Mark Freitag said Wednesday he is advising the city council and other major committees to decide for themselves whether to resume holding in-person government meetings at City Hall as early as June 14.
Rock County, on the other hand, hasn’t decided whether it would return to in- person meetings, although last week the county board discussed a rule change that would allow board and committee members to attend meetings virtually even after the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic calms.
Not enough board members voted in support of the proposal last week, and the county meanwhile seems to have forestalled discussion of when it might try to return to in-person meetings at City Hall. One board member in a discussion last week suggested the board might want to wait until this fall to make a run at in-person meetings.
The topic of when governing boards should begin meeting together in public comes amid a shift last week in public mask-wearing guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a ruling last Friday by the Rock County Health Department to suspend its public mask-wearing mandate.
Both the county and the city of Janesville have been holding meetings remotely for months during the pandemic, with the city council, the county board, and various city and county committees holding meetings over video chat apps livestreamed on the internet.
County board Chairman Rich Bostwick said Wednesday the board hasn’t discussed the topic of exactly when it might return to gathering for meetings at the county complex.
Although Freitag said Janesville’s city council could opt to return to in-person meetings by mid-June, Bostwick said it’s not likely the county would move that quickly. He said no discussion on in-person meetings is set for an upcoming county board meeting next week.
He said the issue is complicated because it balances personal circumstances of board members with committee structures that include dozens of members and county officials who would attend meetings.
“My big concern is we’ll go back when everybody feels safe to do so,” Bostwick said. “We looked at that (electronic attendance) resolution, but it was struck down. That took away a tool that might be helpful in getting us back in person sooner.
The resolution, which county Supervisor Yuri Rashkin brought last week, asked the board to allow its members to attend meetings virtually.
Bostwick said it’s likely the county could devise a technology setup that would allow public broadcast of hybrid meetings—meeting in which some board members attend in person while others attend virtually.
Some board members during a discussion last week said they think the county should return to in-person meetings exclusively. Those members argue that the public and the board itself needs to be operating government meetings in the flesh to discuss county business effectively and transparently.
Other county board members said they view a hybrid approach as allowing flexibility for board members who have tricky work schedules or must attend some meetings while they’re out of town.
County board Vice-Chairman Wes Davis said he views a hybrid approach for the time being as a reasonable and “responsible” approach to assembling a board of more than two-dozen people for meetings during an ongoing pandemic.
It could take a while before all members feel comfortable meeting together again, Davis told The Gazette. He pointed out there’s no way board members can know whether their colleagues have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
“A number of people on the board have health issues. I know one who’s had a heart replacement. I myself had triple bypass,” Davis said. “So I’m reluctant to attend in person at this point, although I do go to some smaller (committee) meetings that are isolated and are far enough away from people that I feel safe and socially distanced. I think that’s the key to operating at this point.”
On Wednesday, the city of Whitewater announced its city council would return to in-person meetings with a “virtual attendance option” starting June 1.
Freitag said he would prefer Janesville’s council and the city’s subcommittees didn’t use a hybrid approach. He said the city’s technology infrastructure could have trouble broadcasting meetings in real time if some people are attending in person and others aren’t.
Freitag said about 66% of city staff are now vaccinated against COVID-19. He said the decision of whether city government meetings roll forward in person as early as June ultimately is up to the council and the committees’ leaders.
It’s not clear how many council members might be vaccinated, but the city is preparing this week to lift mandatory mask-wearing policies inside its own departments, a move Freitag indicated is in part a response to the county lifting the public masking order last week.
Freitag and city council President Douglas Marklein said the city will continue to take written public comments from residents, and he is still not sure whether the council would immediately allow the public to attend in person.
Marklein said the seven- member council and city officials at the meetings likely would be seated spread out in the room initially, similarly to how in-person meetings were run earlier in the pandemic.
“We’ll probably have to try a meeting and brainstorm afterwards, ‘How did this go?’ Have I heard directly from any council members that they’re uncomfortable with it? No. But I have a little hunch that one or possibly two (council members) might be a little bit squeamish on it,” Marklein said. “We’ll just have to see how they feel.”