Supervisors approve virtual meetings ordinance as County’s emergency order ends
By Jalen Maki
Tomahawk Leader Editor
Lincoln County Supervisors will be allowed to continue to attend meetings virtually, but with certain restrictions in place.
The public will also continue to have the opportunity to attend County Board and Committee meetings remotely.
During its meeting at the Lincoln County Service Center in Merrill on Tuesday, July 20, the Board approved an ordinance amending the County’s general code, allowing Supervisors to attend four meetings per two-year term via teleconferencing technology. However, Board members cannot attend four consecutive meetings remotely.
Virtual attendance will also be allowed for Committee meetings.
Per the ordinance, Supervisors attending meetings via teleconferencing technology cannot participate in closed sessions.
Earlier this year, the County used CARES Act grant funding to upgrade audio and video equipment in the County Board Assembly Room at the Lincoln County Service Center.
Language requiring three Board meetings per year to be held in Tomahawk was removed from the general code.
End of County’s emergency order
The Board’s approval of the ordinance came one day before the County’s emergency order ended.
The order, put in place in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and extended in July 2020, Oct. 2020, and May 2021, suspended County rules, allowing for virtual meetings.
Prior to the votes to approve the extensions, numerous Board members had voiced their opinions that the order should not have been extended solely to continue to allow for remote meetings, and that an ordinance should have been enacted for that specific purpose.
Other Supervisors had expressed support for the extensions, pointing to the protection of Board members’ health and the potentially complicated process of enacting a teleconferencing ordinance.
Board discussion, vote
Supervisors mulled the ordinance for about an hour prior to the vote.
During the discussion, Board Chair Kevin Koth opined that the ability to attend meetings remotely could have cost-saving benefits, saying that driving time would be reduced, leading to the County paying less for mileage.
Koth also noted that numerous other governmental units allow virtual attendance at meetings.
“We’re moving into the 21st century,” he stated. “This is the direction we’re going.”
District 3 Supervisor Elizabeth McCrank proposed an amendment to the ordinance to include language that stated Supervisors could not attend four consecutive meetings remotely.
Koth noted that even if the Board approved the amendment to the ordinance, the Board would have no way to enforce it.
“What if somebody attends all of (the meetings virtually)? What are we going to do? They’re elected,” he stated.
“I have great concern that somebody could spend four months in a row in Arizona or Florida, which I’m sure are lovely places, but I’m concerned about local governance, and the idea of local governance,” McCrank said in explaining her proposed amendment. “If you are 1,500 miles away for four months in a row, you are not accessible to your constituents. … If you’re not here for four months in a row, we might as well be governed from Washington, D.C.”
McCrank noted that, although the Board could not enforce consequences in the event a Supervisor attended four or more consecutive meetings remotely, that Supervisor could be challenged in an upcoming election.
District 12 Supervisor Paul Gilk also voiced his concern about the Board’s inability to potentially reprimand a Supervisor for breaking a hypothetical four consecutive meetings rule.
“If there are no consequences from a legal perspective … I’m not sure exactly what the point of making a symbolic statement is,” he stated, noting that he concurred with the impetus behind the proposed amendment.
“I would suggest that it’s just kind of a code of ethics that you’re holding your Board of Supervisors to, more than anything,” District 5 Supervisor Nathan Peterson replied.
After further discussion, the amendment to the ordinance was approved, and the amended ordinance was passed.