Virtual reality – Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway is ready for the Common Council to start meeting in person again after convening virtually for more than two years. Nearly half of city alders have never participated in an in-person council meeting.

“The members don’t know each other. They don’t know city staff. Because they’ve literally never been in the same room,” Rhodes-Conway tells Isthmus. “The result is a degradation of how [alders] treat each other and staff because they don’t know each other as human beings.”

All city committees and boards transitioned quickly to all-virtual Zoom meetings when the pandemic hit in March 2020. The mayor pushed in December for the council to alternate between in-person and virtual meetings. That was just as the Omicron variant was starting to spread and alders voted in January to keep virtually meeting through May 2022.

But in-person council meetings could still be months away. Council president Keith Furman says alders are waiting on city IT staff to implement the technology needed for alders to meet in person while also making it possible for the public to give testimony virtually.

“I believe there’s total agreement that the public should always have the ability to give comments virtually,” says Furman. “We want to strive to continue to have that public input virtually increased because it really has increased engagement and engagement is fantastic.”

Furman and the mayor say hybrid meetings could happen by late June, but it could take longer. Rhodes-Conway isn’t convinced that engagement has increased since city meetings went all virtual, but she agrees it’s important that a virtual option continues for the public permanently. But should city staff be able to attend council meetings virtually? Should alders have that option?

Ald. Brian Benford doesn’t think the council has reached a consensus on that yet.

“I actually think virtual meetings have been quite successful. I’m also proud of the diversity on the council right now. We need to think about council members with young kids, who have full-time jobs, or are seniors, or have disabilities. Those folks should have the opportunity to serve and if attending some meetings virtually makes that easier, it should continue,” says Benford. “In the short term, the pandemic is still happening. I’m a father of a nine-year-old and a cancer survivor. An alder shouldn’t have to risk their health especially when there is a proven alternative.”

Benford says when he served on the council from 2003 to 2007 alders used to go bowling and attend other events that weren’t about policy.

“I don’t disagree that camaraderie is harder to build when all the meetings are virtual,” says Benford. “But I think we can have the best of both worlds here.”

While the mayor thinks it’s important the city council get back to in-person meetings as soon as possible, she’s okay with some flexibility for the dozens of other city committees and boards that include citizen members.

“But at least some of the time, city committees should meet in person,” says the mayor. “I believe an initial face-to-face meeting for any committee has great value in just establishing how to work together efficiently and effectively.”

For the time being, city committee decides themselves whether to meet in person or virtually. Only a handful of committees — the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center Board and the Library Board, for example — have elected to meet in person in 2022, so far. That could change once the hybrid meeting format is up and running.

Whether the elected members of the city council should meet in person, virtually, or something in between, Furman says that decision shouldn’t be “handed down from on high.”

“What is not helpful is for leadership council or the mayor to say this is the way it’s going to be,” says Furman. “The council is a collective and we need to make these decisions as a group while working with city staff.”


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