City Declares State of Emergency, Calls for Election Delay

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By: 
Cameron Bren
Attendance at the Middleton City Council meeting was sparse on Tuesday night, and the gathering was held to 10 or less people required by the state in hopes to curb the spread of COVID-19.

MIDDLETON–The City of Middleton Common Council declared a state of emergency in response to the Covid-19 outbreak with measures including closing public buildings and some services and conducting virtual meetings. The council is also called on Governor Tony Evers to delay the April 7 election.

City election staff are concerned the election will be impacted by the Governor’s orders not to gather in groups larger than ten and social distancing. 

City administrator Mike Davis said he can’t imagine how the election will be conducted. He noted that there has been a surge in absentee ballots that are overwhelming staff. 

“Lining people up in public places where we are already banning ten people from gathering is just somewhat ridiculous,” Davis said. 

Council president Dan Ramsey called the idea asinine.

“I think we need to make it clear to the governor, all of us, that if you are going to ban more than 10 people in a spot at one time, how in the world can you expect an election to go on,” Ramsey said.

March 17 the city sent a statement to the office of the governor urging Evers to use executive authority to postpone the April 7 election. 

“Most of the state’s election workers are over the age of 60 and many have underlying health conditions as well.  Polls in Middleton will be under-staffed, and this will likely create longer lines and more potential for spread of the virus.  If our own elections’ staff become ill, we will be without trained employees to supervise the election,” the statement reads. "This could be a huge lapse in service that threatens the sanctity of the vote in our state.  Other states have already postponed their primaries, so there are ample reasons for the governor to do the same in Wisconsin.  In the meantime, perhaps our residents could continue to vote absentee, and perhaps almost all of the vote could be processed in that way.”

The governor’s office responded through deputy outreach director TR Williams in an email that stated: 

“Thank you for reaching out regarding the April 7th, 2020  election. We hear you and understand the challenges.

“We are working through all options regarding the elections.

“Thank you again for reaching out and for everything you do to ensure the safety of our elections and for your efforts to keep people safe.”

Davis said adopting the declaration of emergency will allow the city to receive federal and state funds that may be available in responding to Covid-19.

City attorney Larry Bechler said he discussed the legality of moving to virtual meetings with other attorneys throughout the state, league of municipalities and governor’s office. 

“There is a divergence of option among people about having online meetings,” Bechler said.

The circumstances are unprecedented, Bechler added. He said he was strongly opposed to the idea of presence counted for quorum be online rather than physically.

“I am very opposed to that because that could mean that every governing body of a municipality in the state could disappear from being live and clearly that is against public policy,” Bechler said.

Adopting charter ordinance is an option but would not take effect for 60 days. Bechler says the best legal route is an emergency declaration because of the health risk put to alders and city staff.  

“I think this is a solution that will work, do I have any ability to tell you 100 percent that this is guaranteed that someone isn’t going to sue us over it, of course not, Bechler said, “This is unprecedented, but I think this is the best we can do under the circumstances.”

Bechler said they still must include public participation and must hold public hearings. if they are required.

The city’s video service provider Jeremy Crosby said they were already testing a live stream of that meeting and it was working great. He said the city could implement streaming the meetings immediately, but video steaming in public comment may be a challenge. Crosby said they could have public comments on the Youtube stream or telephone call-in.

Davis pointed out the change will be in effect 60 days, then need reauthorization if necessary. 

Davis informed the council the Madison Metro is cutting service to route 72 which serves the north and west side and commuter traffic down University Ave, because Metro is assuming a lot less traffic. He said the cost will be cut back as well.

All public buildings are closed including city hall. Davis said there will be some staff at city hall including clerk processing absentee ballots.

There will also be a few staff in offices taking calls, the public works department, while all other full-time will be staff taking calls and emails working from home. Most part-time staff will not be scheduled or receive pay, Davis said.

Ramsey asked about people residents getting building permits. Davis said customers can pay online otherwise they could meet at the door. Ramsey said Madison is not doing building inspection in occupied buildings at all. Davis said he had not considered that, but would talk with building inspection staff.

Davis recommended the council continue to pay all full time employees their regular wages. He also recommended any employee who contracts COVID-19 would have two weeks paid time off.

The council approved all of the recommendations for city staff. 

Davis also asked that contingency funding could be used to provide materials and technology for staff to work from home. The council authorized finance chair Mark Sullivan to review and approve any purchases.

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