The coronavirus pandemic has vastly complicated numerous aspects of daily life, not least of all the function of local government. To avoid the potential for spreading the virus, most governmental bodies in Price County have turned to telephonic or electronic meetings for at least a period of time.
For the past several months, an unlikely victim of this change seems to have been the public comment section of the agenda for Price County Board of Supervisors’ meetings.
Prior to the pandemic, public comment was routinely included on county meeting agendas, yet in recent months, the vast majority of county board and county committee meetings have not granted citizens this opportunity.
It is important to note that while citizens have the right to observe, or in this case listen to, public meetings under Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law, their participation is not guaranteed unless members of the governmental body choose to allow it. Even when it is allowed, the law grants the governmental body the right to set parameters on public participation — such as setting time limits.
Some issues require governmental bodies to hold public hearings, which is the only time allowing public comment is mandated.
Between March and September, the Board of Supervisors held seven meetings, three of which included public comment on the agenda. One was a public hearing, and thereby was required under law to allow public comment.
In the same time frame, the Executive Committee met eight times, including public comment on the agenda twice. The Administration Committee met six times, including public comment twice. The Health and Human Services Committee met four times, allowing public comment once. The Highway and Transportation Committee met four times, allowing public comment once. The Law Enforcement Committee met twice and the Forestry and Parks Committee met three times, and did not allow public comment at any of them. The Land Use and UW-Extension Committee held public hearings and allowed public comment at all meetings within that time frame.
The cities of Park Falls and Phillips have also held predominantly telephonic public meetings during this time period. Public comment has routinely appeared on their agendas.
The lack of public comment at county meetings has been attributed to the complication of orchestrating those calling into public meetings held telephonically due to COVID-19 precautions.
Due to varying phone qualities, callers and even members of the county board have been quite difficult to understand at times — sometimes resulting in confusion.
Yet, regardless of technical difficulties, allowing public comment demonstrates local government’s willingness to accept public feedback from citizens. To forgo public comment for so long without a clear plan to address the issue sets the county government up for criticism.
Even some county supervisors have pointed out the lack of public comment at meetings.
At the Sept. 15 meeting of the Price County Board of Supervisors, supervisor Ginny Strobl voiced her opposition to limiting public comment, saying: “Whether the laws allow us to restrict public comment or not, I feel it shows we don’t really value hearing differing opinions. We are giving the perception that we care nothing for the input of taxpayers of this county.”
At the meeting, Price County Board of Supervisors chairman Bob Kopisch responded that each individual committee’s chairperson can determine whether public comment should be included on the agenda, which is in accordance with Wisconsin Open Meetings Law. If public comment is not included on the agenda, Kopisch recommended citizens direct their comments to their district representative outside of the meetings.
In response to an email from the Review last week, Kopisch wrote: “We have been having some problems with connections via phone to our county system which cause the callers to not be able to communicate clearly or hear all of the conversations at the meetings. We are aggressively working on solutions to the problems.”
Since the Sept. 15 meeting, the vast majority of county meeting agendas issued for October have resumed including public comment, including the Board of Supervisors, the Executive Committee, the Health and Human Services Committee, and the Highway and Transportation Committee.
According to the minutes issued by the county for each of those meetings, no members of the public made any comment despite being allowed to do so.
The Land Use and UW-Extension Committee agenda did not include public comment on their Oct. 22 agenda, which Kopisch told the Review may have been an oversight. Supervisor Alan Barkstrom serves as the vice chair for that committee as former supervisor and committee chairman Bill Teeters has since resigned.
County administrator Nick Trimner told the Review that, while he cannot speak for the committee chairpeople, public comment can be allowed in principle as long as callers can be managed.
“I will encourage all committees to make sure public comment is an agenda item going forward,” Kopisch wrote to the Review.