For immediate release:
May 10th, 2022
Scott Grabins [email protected]
For approximately two years, the Dane County Board of Supervisors has used COVID-19 as an ongoing excuse to waive its own rules and hold virtual meetings that keep the public at arm’s length. This practice has flouted the spirit of Wisconsin’s open meetings laws, wrongly depriving and marginalizing the Dane County residents the board purports to serve. Regardless of the original intention, Dane County has had no lawfully declared health emergency since at least June of 2021. No more wiggle room exists on this matter. Yet the board claims it will not return to in-person meetings until at least late June of this year.
Virtual access blunts and potentially negates public access to public officials, public meetings, and the ability to have a meaningful impact on public business. It’s far more difficult to ignore, dismiss, and silence Dane County residents when they’re present in the meeting room, rather than placed in a position where they can be muted, disconnected, or otherwise silenced.
A December 2021 email exchange, uncovered by a recent open records request, strongly suggests that the Dane County Board’s leadership and administrative staff have been keen to keep the public at bay—at least until June. Specifically the email inquires about the possibility of enabling at least some supervisors to assemble in person for meetings, while still relegating the public to virtual attendance.
The exchange further reveals that Gault had serious reservations and cautioned those copied on the exchange: “The justification for only virtual meetings was the Civid-19 [sic] health emergency. That rationale either still exists or it doesn’t…[I]f the governmental body can meet in person without public health risks the public can’t be excluded.”
Gault also wisely cited Wisconsin State Statutes, Chapter 19.81(2) and (3): “[A]all meetings of all state and local government bodies shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public and shall be open to all citizens at all times,” and “the doors of each house shall remain open.”
The Republican Party of Dane County agrees with Assistant Corporation Counsel Gault. The Dane County Board needs to get back to proper conduct and face the public in person during its meetings. Not in late June. Now.