New ordinance gives officials the ability to vote virtually, post-pandemic

By Dave Fidlin

Correspondent

In a sign of what a post-COVID-19 environment could look like, Union Grove officials have gone on record in support of letting members of the elected Village Board and other appointed boards, commissions and committees participate and vote virtually in perpetuity.

Citing guidance from the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Village Administrator Mike Hawes presented the Village Board with an ordinance, “authorizing meeting attendance by electronic means” at a meeting May 10. It was subsequently approved.

Mirroring what occurred in many communities, the Union Grove Village Board and other appointed bodies abruptly pivoted to a virtual meeting method last spring to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

In-person meetings resumed last summer, but again were switched to virtual when the number of positive COVID-19 cases within Racine County was trending upward. Early this year, officials resumed meeting in-person.

During the wide-ranging discussion, board members said they prefer sticking with the tried-and-true traditional method of meeting in-person, whenever possible.

But in a year when technology was put to the test, and unknowns still loom, Hawes and the board agreed having a formal means of allowing for participation virtually is practical in the road ahead.

Speaking to the ordinance, Hawes said, “It just allows us to have board members and committee members join by telephone so that their votes or their participation is considered legal. This at least allows that flexibility to have virtual meetings.”

Trustee Jan Winget acknowledged the new ordinance is a change in meeting protocol. With few exceptions, in-person attendance was required for a Village Board or committee member to cast a vote or participate, pre-pandemic.

“Basically, it’s been, if you weren’t here you couldn’t vote,” Winget said. “But we have had times where someone had knowledge (and had to vote or participate virtually) and we needed that knowledge.”

Handling deliberations behind closed doors also was a question that was discussed at length at the recent meeting. Unless extenuating circumstances warranted a completely virtual meeting, board members agreed in-person participation would be ideal in such circumstances.

“If we were in a situation where we were all virtual, obviously business has to continue,” Hawes said. “We’d want to allow a closed meeting in that case.”

From her vantage point, Winget said she believe the onus was on board members to ensure no one within a household or any other setting was listening in on sensitive deliberations.

“The only thing I’ll say about closed sessions is you have to monitor yourself,” Winget said. “If you’re at home, and there’s someone that shouldn’t be hearing that, it’s your responsibility to make sure they don’t hear it.”