February: Officials’ behavior is reckless and illegal

2021 Columns

To keep each other safe, we’ve been asked to add barriers  —  distance and masks  —  to our face-to-face interaction. We also have videoconferencing to help overcome those barriers.

Yet to this day, Republican leaders in the state Assembly are holding meetings without requiring attendees to wear masks or offering a video option for those who don’t feel safe attending.

The Assembly Committee on Sporting Heritage is an example. At a joint committee meeting on Jan. 13, chair Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, didn’t allow members to attend by videoconference or phone and didn’t require that attendees wear masks. The Senate committee members were allowed to attend remotely.

One of the Democratic Assembly committee members, Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, objected.

“This is completely unacceptable,” she said. “We are in the middle of a pandemic. Many workplaces and businesses have gone to great lengths to comply with CDC guidelines for their employees and customers. That fact that Republican representatives think health guidelines don’t apply to them is dangerous.”

Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has mandated in-person attendance for all Assembly sessions  —  no remote option is allowed — and has not required masks. (Other states, in contrast, have instituted measures to make legislative sessions safer.)

Freshman Rep. Lee Snodgrass, D-Appleton, was moved to tweet: “The WI State Assembly is a hostile (and now dangerous) work environment. Legislators are having to choose between their health, health of their staff, families and communities or being in person for floor session.”

It is also a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Under Section 19.89, “No duly elected or appointed member of a governmental body may be excluded from any meeting of such body. Unless the rules of a governmental body provide to the contrary, no member of the body may be excluded from any meeting of a subunit of that governmental body.”

But members are excluded, when attending means potential exposure to a deadly virus.

Some local public bodies are also effectively breaking the Open Meetings Law by their reckless conduct.

Last summer, the Menasha Common Council denied an alderman’s request to attend a meeting virtually due to age and health concerns. After an outcry, it changed course, requiring masks at its meetings and allowing people to attend virtually.

Last fall, Wisconsin State Journal reporter Chris Rickert reported on three village boards in western and southwestern Wisconsin that weren’t requiring masks at meetings and didn’t stream their meetings to allow for remote attendance.

That’s not just wrong, it’s illegal. Section 19.81 of the Open Meetings Law says “all meetings of all state and local governmental bodies shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public …”

Making members of the public endanger their health to attend a governmental meeting is not “reasonably accessible.”

No one in Wisconsin should have to put their lives at risk to attend a public meeting.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Larry Gallup is a council member and the digital news director for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.