Sun Prairie resident Jeanne Gilbertson shows up at city meetings regularly voicing her opinion on issues, but since COVID-19 moved city meetings online, she’s had to make do with listening in on the radio.
It’s not by choice.
As soon as the city opens up to in-person city meetings, Gilbertson said she will be there. But until then she’s concerned that her voice and her advocacy for other residents in her senior living complex will be muted.
As municipalities navigate the COVID-19 restrictions, some are finding virtual meetings are working, and for some, it’s not.
At a recent Monday Town of Sun Prairie plan commission meeting, residents patiently waited their turn outside to keep within the 10-person limit to inside gatherings. With an eight-person plan commission board, the quota can be reached pretty quickly, but Town of Sun Prairie clerk Kay Weisensel says she doesn’t hear any grumblings.
“They all understand and wear their masks because now they are so used to it,” Weisensel said of the residents who come to the town hall.
There are monthly board and plan commission meetings, in the Town of Bristol with a population of just over 4,300 residents. Now with the pandemic, if a resident wants to listen or weigh in on zoning issues, town bills, or liquor licenses, they can do it from the comfort of their own home. Town clerk Brandon Bledsoe said he’s heard that it’s easier for people.
“We are probably getting more of a response,” Bledsoe said of the reaction to virtual meetings.
With 21 virtual July meetings in the City of Sun Prairie, things are a little more complex with development, budget, and street issues coming up in the growing suburb.
Longtime District 4 Alder and current Council President Mary Polenske admits she’s still getting used virtual meetings, and a recent swap out of her iPad for a city-owned laptop will allow her a better view of all the ZOOM participants. She said alders are adjusting to the virtual meetings.
“I would say about 95 percent of the time it is going really good,” Polenske said.
Polenske misses not seeing residents in-person at city council meetings but said District 4 residents are still contacting her, especially on the Thompson Road development.
“The folks in District 4 have been very active, so perhaps not having the ability for the face-to-face with the city council has brought people more in-tune with their alders,” Polenske said.
Distrcit 3 Alder Mike Jacobs said getting public input on city agenda items has been an issue.
“We had over 50 people who wanted to put in public comments (on the Thompson Road) development during a recent meeting and we didn’t get to see public input before the developer gave their presentation,” he said. “That is unacceptable.”
Jacobs showed interest in hybrid meetings after chairing the Sun Prairie Task Force on Sustainability meeting this month—one was in-person with the majority of members showing up and the second one a few people showed up in person. Plexiglass separated committee members to keep them safe from COVID-19 that has killed nearly 1,000 people in Wisconsin so far.
But Jacobs’ attitude on holding hybrid meetings has shifted with rising positive COVID-19 numbers in Dane County.
“The nation and Wisconsin have taken a slide in the wrong direction and I don’t think it would be prudent to do so now, even though I prefer in-person meetings,” Jacobs said.
A test to the virtual meeting system is coming soon with 2021 city budget discussions set to start in October. It’s a time normally when residents usually show up in greater number to city hall to speak out about budget cuts, initiatives, tax levies or to advocate for projects.
City Administrator Aaron Oppenheimer says the city council will re-evaluate virtual meetings in September, in advance of the budget discussion.
Oppenheimer said under the Dane County Emergency Orders there is no guidance specifically on how city meetings should be held because there are exemptions for government to do essential business—but Public Health Madison & Dane County safety protocols would still be in place.
“There is a concern about the budget discussions and if we should return to in-person city council meetings but we don’t know what the health situation is going to be like in October,” Oppenheimer said. “It is a challenge, no doubt about it.”
City residents with computer and internet access can join city meetings on ZOOM. Oppenheimer doesn’t know how many people have done that. Residents can also use Survey Monkey to comment on an agenda item—and the feedback is supposed to be read at the meeting.
City meetings are also available on live stream and archived on KSUN.
But residents without access to technology are having to fall back to calling city alders by phone or dropping off letters at city hall to share feedback.
Sun Prairie resident Gilbertson is not shy about contacting her District 1 Alder Steve Stocker with her opinions, but in these challenging times, she said it’s even more important that every resident gets involved in their government.