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Wisconsin City Slowly Returns to In-Person Meetings

Madison, Wis., is slowly moving from online to in-person committee meetings after two years of nearly exclusive online remote municipal sessions due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Town Meeting
(TNS) — Madison, Wis., is slowly moving from online to in-person committee meetings after two years of nearly exclusive online sessions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the City Council hasn’t decided when to return to in-person or hybrid meetings once the appropriate technology is in place to keep an option to participate online. The city and Dane County are awaiting completion of technology improvements to allow hybrid meetings.

The county will have initial training over the next two months and expects to resume in-person sessions and start hybrid meetings in mid-June.

Hybrid meetings are those that will be mostly in-person but allow some participation using video technology.

This week, the multi-jurisdiction TIF Review Board will meet in person at noon Wednesday in Room LL-110 of the Madison Municipal Building, 215 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and the Madison Public Library Board will gather in person at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Alicia Ashman library branch, 733 N. High Point Road.

Still, just seven of 56 city committee meetings scheduled for April are listed as in-person with the rest online. In March, only four of 89 meetings, plus a retirement party for retiring Fire Chief Steven Davis, were held in person.

In mid-March 2020, as the pandemic took hold, the city initially canceled all meetings and slowly began to restart some online by the end of that month. By mid- to late May 2020, most meetings resumed online with only a light smattering of in-person meetings during the rest of 2020 and 2021. The county also moved meetings online in March of 2020.

On March 1, Public Health Madison and Dane County lifted its latest mask mandate as the omicron surge ebbed and case rates and hospitalizations decreased.

Panelists choose

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has told committees they can vote on whether to continue meeting virtually or online — with sufficient notice for any change in format — and the panels have been making their own decisions.

“In general, it’s important if members of a committee get to know each other in a way that’s difficult to do on Zoom,” Rhodes-Conway said.

The city, which has more than 100 boards, committees and commissions, will likely be able to equip only six to eight rooms for hybrid meetings, the mayor said, adding, “It’s going to be a bit of a scheduling dance.”

City Council President Syed Abbas, 12th District, said he expects the council to discuss a return to in-person meetings at its April 19 or May 10 meeting, meaning the council could return to in-person sessions as soon as late May. He said bringing the council back to in-person meetings can help establish rapport among members and that having an online option for the public makes sense.

“This council has never had a meeting in person and it has really hampered their opportunity to build relationships with each other and their relationships with staff,” Rhodes-Conway said. “I think it’s long past time to meet in person.”

Abbas said he thinks hybrid is “ideal,” preserving benefits realized from online sessions such as access and convenience.

The county sees the same advantages.

“We have seen a marked uptick in community engagement with the ease of access that virtual meetings provide, and we do not want to lose that,” said Karin Peterson Thurlow, chief of staff for the County Board. “(But) the expectation will be that members of a body be present in person, unless noticed otherwise.”

Currently, Dane County’s COVID-19 community level is ranked as “low,” with levels calculated by looking at hospital beds being used, hospital admissions, and the total number of new cases in an area. The CDC’s recommendations for people living in areas of “low” transmission include staying up to date on COVID vaccines and getting tested if experiencing COVID symptoms.

“We of course encourage everyone who takes part in these in-person meetings to make decisions based on their own comfort level when it comes to COVID precautions, such as masks and social distancing,” said Morgan Finke, spokesperson for Public Health. “We are glad that we are in a position as a county to see these opportunities to come together and discuss issues that are important to our city coming back in person.”

The county first adopted a mask order in June 2020, following a statewide order that was eventually struck down by the state Supreme Court. In early June 2021, when cases of COVID-19 declined dramatically after vaccines became widely available, the county lifted its order. In mid-August, when the delta variant of the coronavirus surged, the department reinstated the mask requirement, lifting it on March 1.

The BA.2 — a sub-variant of Omicron, BA.1 — was first detected in the county on Jan. 28. As of March 24, a total of 163 cases of BA.2 had been identified in Wisconsin, Public Health says.

© 2022 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.