Area residents continue their efforts to have the Rusk County Board return virtual access to government meetings since cutting off video and teleconferencing to the public last fall.
Erin Webster and Nanci Mertes have waged a phone call campaign and petition drive with little success, yet they refuse to give up. The county board is scheduled to consider a new resolution this week that could restore public access with a few conditions, but that’s only if it passes as currently written.
Mertes points to county resolution 20-09, originally adopted by the county board in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The resolution that has a paragraph that allows virtual access to open meetings should the need arise, stating “in-person attendance may not meet health and safety objectives” as the county tries to “ensure the health and safety of the Rusk County staff, residents and those traveling throughout Rusk County.” Directly after the passing of this resolution, virtual access instructions were placed on all agendas allowing the public to telephone in to listen to elected officials in action during open meetings.
While the resolution is vague as to specific details of virtual access to meetings, Mertes believes the actions of the county directly after the passing of this resolution are clear.
“Our elected officials through this resolution thereby authorized virtual access to meetings for all, which created a bridge with the people thereby creating safety for those that needed it and transparency of government proceedings to all in a day and age of virtual access to just about everything,” Mertes said in an email.
In the last year, health concerns about COVID-19 have waned. Many governments have lifted emergency actions taken during the pandemic.
Virtual access to Rusk County government meetings continued until about October of 2022, when this access was abruptly suspended, according to Mertes. She believes the decision was made administratively without explanation to the public or without explanation of who on the county board authorized the suspension.
The resolution states in lines 47 and 48, “Be it further resolved that this resolution will remain in effect until rescinded by the Rusk County Board of Supervisors.” As of now, it appears the Rusk County Board has not voted to rescind Resolution 20-09, leading Mertes and Webster to question why virtual access to county meetings was halted.
Mertes, who said family health issues prevents her from attending meetings in-person, has filed open records requests with Rusk County asking for copies of meeting minutes that authorized the administrative coordinator to suspend virtual access and the minutes where the county board authorized the suspension of virtual access.
“As resolution 20-09 clearly says, any items in that resolution could only be ended by a vote of the full county board. Looking at this, I would think that only the county board could suspend virtual access. It would not be the authority of just a small committee to make such a huge decision. All elected officials should of been included in the decision,” Mertes said. “Again, I have to stress that being that we are unable to attend meetings virtually, and like myself, many of us cannot attend in person we have no idea what is happening in our government proceedings. We are told to look to the minutes.”
Mertes also questioned the lack of meeting minutes available on the county website.
In their review of county government proceedings, they reported the following on Jan. 11:
Personnel - Missing Minutes for 11/8, 12/1, 12/12, 12/13, 12/21, 12/29.
Finance - Missing Minutes for 11/17, 12/15, 12/20.
Highway - Missing Minutes for 12/12, 12/27.
Property - Missing Minutes for 12/9.
Zoning - Missing Minutes for 12/13.
“Having the minutes would certainly be very helpful but even then, being that the minutes are quite white-washed these days, having virtual access gives us the understanding we need to see how our elected officials are conducting our business when we are unable to attend meetings in person for many different reasons, including the safety of all,” Mertes said.
Mertes and Webster say they have reached out to county officials with little success.
On Dec. 1, the personnel committee met and one of the items on their agenda was electronic meetings, according to Mertes.
“I assume this is virtual access/telephone access to official open meetings. It does not appear to me at this point that any sort of decision was made at this meeting. It’s hard to determine what is going on in regards to the personnel meetings as there have not been any minutes posted for the personnel committee meetings since November 8, 2022. So, using my best judgement it seems that the personnel committee is continuing to block the taxpayers virtual access to county board meetings,” Mertes said.
“I am requesting today [Jan. 11] via open records the minutes showing where [Rusk County Coordinator] Ashley [Heath] was given authority to send out an e-mail notifying all employees who prepare agendas for the county that virtual access should not be placed on the agenda any longer and that virtual access would no longer be available. I am also requesting open records of the minutes that show the motion that officially ended virtual access to county board meetings,” Mertes said in an email.
Last November, a petition drive was launched to urge Rusk County government officials to livestream meetings. Rusk County government has decided to eliminate all virtual access to its meetings; both at the committee or full board level, according to Webster, who launched the petition drive. The petition now has 79 individuals that have signed with a goal of 100 signatures. It is at https://petitions.sumofus.org/petitions/re-implement-virtual-rusk-county-board-committee-meetings?share=12dac4c6-ae50-4032-a7b0-d8b825aeeb94&source=email-share-button&utm_medium=&utm_source=email.
“It is 2022, and virtual access should be considered an essential service to allow all people access to the process of running the local government and all decisions that are made,” organizers state on the petition website. “This petition does not try to put one form of virtual access over any other. Nor does it need to be a free or paid service. There are many options out there.”
Organizers believe virtual access should be considered essential because transparency in government is essential to have it run effectively. Transparency doesn’t only come by allowing people to attend meetings in person.
Webster also is requesting information about why the county shut down virtual access to government meetings. In a Jan. 11 email to all county board members and Rusk County Clerk Connie Meyer, Webster wrote, “In order for the board, not Ashely [Heath], to make a good decision to end virtual access, one must know what it cost in the past to provide virtual meeting access to the public and what it will cost in the future.”
“Who gave Ashely the authority to write the October 11th email telling departments to keep the link off their agendas? What action from a meeting precipitated this action? I was not making an overly broad request. It is a reasonable request when it appears that Ashley has overstepped her authority to end something she can’t end,” Webster said.
There are many counties that offer live meetings and record every meeting and post them online for anyone to view in the future, according to Webster. She has contacted the 72 counties in the state and drafted a spreadsheet about how each handles virtual meeting access for the public. All but five to nine counties in the state have some form of virtual access, and at least 38 post recordings, she said.
Rusk County government does not provide virtual access to meetings, but surrounding Barron, Chippewa, Clark, Price, Sawyer, Taylor and Washburn counties do. Chippewa County archive meetings to Youtube. Sawyer and Washburn counties archive meetings to their county websites. The rest do not archive meetings for the public.
The new resolution as now written states the county recognizes resolution 20-09 is no longer in effect, but realizes teleconferencing is valuable for both the public and the county government and is important for transparency. It states the county shall allow teleconferencing into all full county board meetings or any of it committees, boards, or commissions as long as the electronic meetings policy is followed.
It also states the board realizes there may be times when for various reasons it might be in the interest of the county to temporarily freeze electronic teleconferencing access while the county works on a solution. As a result, the county board chair or administrative coordinator can do so at their discretion, if deemed necessary, but only lasting for 30 days maximum unless approved by the county board that it is necessary to suspend for a longer period of time.
On passage of the proposed new resolution by the county board, the previous Resolution 20-09 will be rescinded and the public health emergency is declared to be over.
Mertes is hopeful the county board will adopt the new resolution, restoring virtual public access to meetings.
“During the pandemic months when teleconferencing was allowed I believe all of us found that this was a platform that worked for the good and benefit of the people of this County on several different levels,” Mertes said. “I for one, and I know many taxpayers will agree with me, when watching tonight to see who of our elected officials votes for re-instating virtual access/teleconferencing thereby opening that door once again to allow transparency and open government for the people will most certainly play a role in how we shall vote in the next elections for county board.”