EAU CLAIRE — The City Council could decide to continue holding its meetings via videoconference in November, even if Eau Claire is no longer operating in a full-fledged state of emergency.
On Tuesday the council voted 11-0 to adopt a charter ordinance allowing virtual meetings when its members say it is a necessity due to an ongoing emergency situation in the community.
City meetings have been held using the Webex online videoconference program since spring while Eau Claire has been operating under an emergency declaration due to the coronavirus pandemic. That declaration was renewed for another month on Tuesday by the council, extending it to Oct. 27.
The newly approved virtual meetings ordinance is intended as part of the community’s transition from a state of emergency to a “new normal” brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, City Attorney Stephen Nick said.
“It gives you a little bit of flexibility in how you get from here to there,” he told the council before its vote Tuesday afternoon.
The charter ordinance approved on Tuesday will take effect in late November. At that point, the City Council could vote whether continuing to meet virtually as opposed to in-person is necessary for public health and safety.
Health orders talk
Acknowledging controversy over a proposed public health ordinance, two council members are urging the city to create opportunities to speak with residents.
Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said the city has a history of community engagement and asked staff to do what they can to share information with the public about the proposal and hear feedback.
“It is imperative we do all we can to maintain our trust,” she said.
Eau Claire city and county officials have said the proposed ordinance does not give additional powers to the local public health officer beyond what the state already allows and adds legislative oversight to orders put in place to address the spread of communicable diseases. Protesters at recent public meetings have argued it is a government overreach.
Councilman Andrew Werthmann said people are speaking out about the proposed ordinance, and he also wanted their voices heard in weeks leading up to a scheduled Oct. 13 vote of the City Council.
Per standard procedure for ordinances, the City Council will hold a public hearing on the night of Oct. 12. Like other city meetings held for the past six months, it will most likely be conducted online with people able to speak to the council using computers or smartphones.
While the “ultimate eye-to-eye” meetings aren’t currently possible due to public health precautions for COVID-19, Emmanuelle encouraged virtual town hall meetings before next month’s vote.
A local business group has already scheduled an opportunity for the public to hear more about the proposed health orders ordinance.
City Manager Dale Peters said the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce is hosting a free virtual town hall meeting at 10 a.m. on Friday.
Representatives from the city and county government and the local health department will answer questions posed by chamber staff members, according to an online description of the event.
For more information on attending the virtual town hall, go to the chamber’s website at eauclairechamber.org.
Eau Claire residents have begun casting absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 election using four drop-off boxes spread around the city.
About 500 ballots were collected Monday from the boxes, Peters said.
The red containers similar to mailboxes are outside City Hall and the three Festival Foods locations in Eau Claire where they are all kept under video surveillance and regularly checked for ballots.
Absentee ballots were sent out starting Thursday to voters who requested them for the Nov. 3 general election.
For Eau Claire residents who want to vote in person prior to Election Day, the city will begin drive-thru voting on Oct. 20.
The drive-thru voting operation will use the City Hall parking lot and equipment bays in the neighboring Fire Station No. 2, Peters said.
Expecting 12,000 to 16,000 voters to use this option, the city is staffing the drive-thru operation with 40 employees.
Along with the early voting options, all 20 Eau Claire polling sites will be open on Election Day.