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  • Writer's pictureAletheia

Dane County Board to Public: "KEEP OUT!"

QUESTION: Why are the Dane County Board of Supervisors and its myriad committees still not meeting in person…?

In an email exchange recently captured through open records, we get a view into some very troubling answers.

On December 7th, 2021, Legislative Management System Specialist and Policy Analyst for the County Board Lindsay Menard contacted Assistant Corporation Counsel David Gault:


We wanted to reach out and ask if Corporation Counsel’s opinion has changed in regards to having members of the public and staff attend meetings 100% virtually while some board members meet in person. As we are still in the midst of a pandemic rather than at the end or back to “normal” (i.e. a non‐emergency world) would it be permissible and in compliance with open meeting laws to have Supervisors together for a meeting with members of the public only attending virtually? There are some Supervisors that want to return to in person meetings as soon as possible while others don’t. We are trying to figure out how to proceed, especially as the return to work plan has been pushed back to June. I would imagine that once the building is opened and staff are working their hybrid schedules, the meetings would then shift to 100% in person, 100% virtual, or hybrid with members of the public and staff attending either in person or virtually.

Sun Prairie and MMSD are currently holding public meetings in this format and wonder if it would be an option for us.



Catch that? Menard wants to know if those BOARD MEMBERS who wish to could gather in the same room for public meetings…BUT STILL KEEP THE ACTUAL PUBLIC OUT. (And she cites the Sun Prairie City Council and the Madison Metropolitan School District as government bodies that were already leveraging this option!)

Copied on the email is the principle party on whose behalf Menard had undoubtedly reached out to Gault: County Board Chair Analiese Eicher. Also copied are County Board Chief of Staff Karin Peterson Thurlow, Board Policy Analyst Lauren Kuhl, and—for good measure—Deputy Corporation Counsel Carlos Pabellon.

What we see here are indications of an ugly brand of elitism known as technocracy, which the New Oxford American Dictionary defines as: "the government or control of society or industry by an elite of technical experts." The definition paints a perfect picture of the way most Dane County officials and governmental bodies have thought about and conducted themselves for most of the last two years. Government that Wisconsin State Statutes insists should be open, transparent, and accessible has become anything but.

To operate, technocracy must establish for itself distance from those over whom it governs. And COVID has provided all kinds of justification, however poor, for establishing such distance. A lot damage gets done in two years when the governed don’t have direct and meaningful access to those they elect or who have been appointed in their name.

Now let’s reflect on another important set of points for a moment…

  1. There has been no properly declared county emergency in Dane County since at least June of 2021.

  2. The last of Janel Heinrich’s “emergency orders” lapsed more than a month ago on March 1st.

  3. Yet, with no emergency in sight, board leadership says virtual meetings will continue UNTIL THE THIRD WEEK IN JUNE, more than two months from now.

If you think there’s no excuse for not granting the public access to the meetings of their own elected officials by beginning in-person meetings immediately—hybrid option or no—I suspect Assistant Corporation Counsel David Gault might well agree with you. Serving as Dane County's assistant corporation counsel, he might not tell you that if you asked him, but we happen to have his reply to Lindsay Menard and company, sent less than half an hour after he received the initial query:

My previous opinion did not address this issue. I discussed hybrid meetings where the meeting would be held in a physical location, but the public and members would have the option to participate virtually. If I understand this question correctly, you are asking whether the board or a committee (or a part thereof) could meet in a physical location but the public could only attend virtually. There is no legal authority directly on this issue, but I have serious reservations. Remember the intent of the Open Meetings Law is to give the public the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government. To that end, “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.” Additionally, the county board “shall sit with open doors.”

The justification for only virtual meetings was the Civid‐19 [sic] health emergency. That rationale either still exists or it doesn’t. If the board or a committee can meet in person, then it is my opinion that the public must have physical access to the location. I don’t think it is permissible for members to meet in person but exclude the public. Reasonable restrictions could be imposed, social distancing, some kind of plexi‐glass barrier, masks, etc. But if the governmental body can meet in person without public health risks the public can’t be excluded.

David R. Gault

Here’s a PDF of the email exchange, should you wish to download and view it for yourself:

David Gault Response on Hybrid Mtgs
Download PDF • 245KB

For those who would argue that conducting public meetings virtually or telephonically is just as good as in-person meetings, that it achieves all the same purposes, I have another question:

Would Jerry Halverson have felt quite so comfortable cutting off public comment via a procedural technicality during the December 1, 2021, Board of Health meeting he chaired had the public been in actual attendance? It’s one thing to ignore 699 registration slips and silence 40+ individuals registered to speak in favor of a resolution you personally and politically detest, when you’re accomplishing these things in a room all by yourself during a virtual meeting. It’s quite another to do so with hundreds of those people physically in a room with you.

Or how about the December 16th and January 6th County Board meetings? Had those meetings taken place in the City-County Building with a large contingent of Dane County voters and tax payers in the chamber, would so many supervisors have openly bad-mouthed and voted down a resolution directly pertaining to obtaining the consent of the governed?

The answers to these questions are not hard to discern. It’s a lot harder to dismiss the will of the people you claim to serve when they’re right there in front of you—when they’re not just meaningless names on slips of paper, virtual faces on a computer screen, or disembodied voices coming through a phone line.

So, no. Meeting virtually is NOT the same as meeting in person. Because they distance government officials and bodies from the people they are meant to serve, virtual meetings facilitate government's ability to act in direct opposition to the will of the people.

For the last two years, we’ve essentially ceded our right to confront Dane County officials in situ—on terms advantageous to us. We didn't make a stink about keeping meetings in person the way we should have. This reality grows more troubling still in light of now strong evidence that COVID was never the crisis it was made out to be in Dane County. In fact, it seems more and more that COVID has been little more than a convenient vehicle for county leadership to do whatever it likes while increasingly ignoring us and moving beyond any actual accountability. Hey, never let a good crisis go to waste, right...?

Well, the Dane County Board certainly didn't let the COVID "crisis" go to waste. Digital technology and the wonders of the virtual meeting have been the dream come true of a governing body with technocratic ambitions. But we need to end that dream pronto, because the technocrats’ dream has been, and remains, everyone else’s nightmare.

I'm not talking about ending the dream in another month. I'm definitely not talking about the dream ending on the technocrats' own terms at the end of June. I mean insisting that the board return to in-person meetings NOW.

While state and local law both have provisions for foregoing in-person meetings temporarily in the face of certain types of extraordinary situations, there is NO loophole to continue holding virtual meetings while the county board farts around trying to establish a hybrid option or itself. The hybrid option is in no way a prerequisite to holding in-person public meetings. We all got along just fine without hybrid in the past. And make no mistake...once that hybrid option is in place, it can be used more easily to shut us all out again the next time there's a convenient "crisis." So, no one should stand by any longer and allow this insidious excuse for the Dane County Board of Supervisors not meeting IN SITU and IN PERSON.

The rest of Dane County is finally face-to-face again and has been for more than a month. It is well past time for the Dane County Board of Supervisors to be face-to-face again, too—with each other and, far more importantly, with US.

While Dane Undivided hopes you will contact your own county supervisor very directly about this matter, we would also strongly urge every Dane Undivided reader to send an email to ALL county supervisors, letting them know in no uncertain terms that you expect them to start meeting in person IMMEDIATELY, and EXACTLY WHY.

You can conveniently email all board members simultaneously, using the following address:

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