City of Fitchburg City Hall March 2020

The outside of Fitchburg City Hall.

Through Dec. 31, participation in City of Fitchburg meetings will continue to have a virtual option – something that prior to the pandemic, they hadn't done at all.

The Common Council approved the extension of its virtual meetings rule at the Tuesday, Aug. 24, meeting, which allows virtual participation over Zoom to take place through Dec. 31. The council put in an ordinance in June that allowed virtual meetings, because Dane County’s March 2020 emergency declaration put in place for COVID-19 had granted municipal and school governing bodies the right to participate virtually, and it was set to expire at the end of June.

Fitchburg’s ordinance allows both participation over Zoom and telephone for alders and other citizen members of commissions, boards and committees. While it’s not explicitly stated in the resolution, the ability to appear virtually would also stretch to members of the public who would like to register for comment, since FACTv is planning to run Zoom meetings to correspond with the in-person option.

Normally, alders or members of commissions or boards who are not physically present in City Hall are not considered to count toward quorum, or the number of people from the governing body present to conduct city business. But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has seen a resurgence with the Delta variant of the disease has prompted the council to renew its ordinance permitting virtual participation.

“Obviously COVID-19 isn’t going away, so we’re extending it again,” mayor Aaron Richardson said during the Aug. 24 meeting. “If at the end of the year, we’re still in this situation – and frankly, we probably will be – we can extend it again at that point in time.”

But for there to be any kind of long-term virtual option going forward outside of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state legislature would need to act on permitting virtual meetings to be a permanent fixture. The city’s ordinance to permit virtual participation isn’t illegal, but it doesn’t align with a state statute like many of its other ordinances.

While not having a state statute behind the virtual option ordinance makes it a riskier move because its legality can be questioned within current state open meeting laws, it’s at a lesser risk than others within Dane County because of the availability of an in-person option.

While at one point, almost all of the Fitchburg alders have participated in a virtual format at least once since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an in-person option has remained available since March 2020, even when there were limits on room capacity. On the other hand, the City of Madison’s Common Council has been meeting with a virtual-only option, for example, as has the Dane County Board of Supervisors.

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kwethal@wisconsinmediagroup.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.​

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