Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau City Council on Tuesday eliminated a phone dial-in option for meetings, a move that drew sharp pushback from one alder in the group.

The council on Jan. 11 reintroduced the virtual option for Wausau’s meetings – including allowing members to attend by phone – because of the ongoing pandemic. City Attorney Anne Jacobson said the amendment would ensure the group maintains a quorum and complies with state law.

“I think we need to clarify that you need to be on video and audio so that we can see we are maintaining a quorum and complying with the open meetings law and so that we can hear your voting and see you while you are voting,” she said.

The amendment was passed by 10-1. Dist. 11 Alder Debra Ryan opposed the move after a series of back-and-forth with other council members. Before the vote, Ryan demanded that Wausau pay for a high speed internet connection at her home if the phone option was eliminated.

“Other people have city equipment that gives you access at higher rate,” Ryan said. “And I am using my own laptop.”

Ryan said she a has low internet connection at her home and she had no intention of doing it differently. “It’s about allowing people to go ahead and appear in the meeting,” she said.

Dist. 6 Alder Becky McElhaney, who chairs the Transit Commission, and Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen, who chairs the Finance Committee, said they find Ryan’s use of the phone disruptive while at the same time forcing them to verify it is Ryan attending each meeting. Ryan is a member of both groups.

Ryan responded by saying “I feel like you need to get a clarification from the ADA because we do have visually and hearing impaired in our community. And I do feel like you are violating their rights.”

Those comments appear to refer to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which “outlaws discrimination against individuals with disabilities in State and local government services, public accommodations, transportation and telecommunications.” 

All council members have been offered an Apple iPad with a pre-installed Webex feature that allows them to attend meetings virtually if they cannot attend in-person. Residents can attend by phone.

Ryan said the “procedures of law” allow her to exercise her right to choose the option she prefers, which is her personal laptop with a full-size keyboard and screen. 

Rasmussen then suggested that Ryan could attend in person if the technology is an issue or if she has access problem. Ryan refused that, too.

McElhaney, who is also City Council president, suggested the amendment be considered by the council. She told her colleagues that she noticed frequent interruptions during a recent Transit Commission meeting when a member kept coming in and out of the meeting, prompting her to question whether the meeting quorum was maintained throughout its duration. When she checked with Jacobson, McElhaney said, she found there were potential issues with meeting the state’s open meetings law.

“So this (amendment) has to be done. We have offered Webex and in-person option and you don’t have to appear virtually at all,” McElhaney said.

McElhaney told Wausau Pilot & Review that it was Ryan who attended the Jan. 20 Transit Commission meeting by phone and appeared to be moving in and out because she and other members could hear beeps. She added that Ryan was also using the chat feature and that too was in violation of the state’s open meetings law as others outside the Webex connection cannot see what is being discussed. Attorney Jacobson advised that the chat violated the law as it was neither recorded nor archived.

“You just need to click on the Webex feature to attend the meeting,” McElhaney said. “She is demanding something extra special.” 

Ryan did not respond to questions from Wausau Pilot & Review by press time.

(To read the amended ordinance, click here, and go to page 16.)