Town of Waukesha Board continues to clash over use of videoconferencing

Published on: 2/18/2014

Just as it has been so many times in the past year, the use of videoconferencing for Town Board members was a hot topic at last week's board meeting.

Supervisors spent almost 30 minutes debating how often board members should be allowed to use videoconferencing to tune into meetings when they can't physically be in attendance at Town Hall.

But in the end, despite plenty of banter, nothing changed in the current ordinance.

"It would be a waste of town taxpayer money for us to try to work this out if there isn't some form of agreement," Supervisor Joe Banske said of sitting down with Town Attorney John Macy to bring a final draft of a new ordinance to a future board meeting.

Banske supports allowing supervisors to have the option of tuning into meetings with Skype videoconferencing, but proposed limiting how often supervisors could use the technology.

His new ordinance would have limited the use to three times a year and only if the supervisor was more than 50 miles away.

While supervisors clashed over those numbers, Banske said the figures weren't as important as it was to try to find "a middle ground" for those who are against supervisors attending meetings in this manner.

"I'm trying to strike a balance between people who agree with me and people who disagree with me, and I think this strikes a balance," Banske said.

But Waukesha Town Chairman John Marek and Supervisor Brian Fischer didn't go along with Banske's proposal. The two don't want supervisors to use videoconferencing at all.

And since a change in the ordinance would require a two-thirds vote of the board — or four of the five members — Banske told Macy to drop his request.

As a result, supervisors can still attend meetings as often as they want using videoconferencing.

"I've made it abundantly clear that I am opposed to this type of attendance at Town Board meetings," Marek said. "Not once, not twice, not three times. I think the numbers of 50 miles away are arbitrary. I think it's a bad idea to begin with."

This is not a new position for Marek. He voiced his opposition to supervisors using Skype to attend meetings during last year's campaign last spring and again after getting elected.

His request to eliminate the practice, however, was shot down by Banske and Supervisors Larry Wolf and Mike Laska at a meeting last June.

Marek has targeted Laska's use of Skype since Day 1.

Laska uses the device to attend meetings while he is at his vacation home in Texas during the winter.

Laska, who used this method during last week's meeting, is not running for re-election this spring.

In response to Marek asking him if he was now opposed to Laska attending meetings by Skype for consecutive months, Banske said "without any hesitation, no."

"Mr. Laska has performed his duties very well; he has an outstanding attendance record," Banske said. "I know the technology has allowed him to be engaged. He has received his information through email, as do we. The response to this ordinance change is largely a response to people in the town who disagree with that practice.

"A number of residents have voiced a concern, and I'm trying to find a middle ground, a mediation point that says I think there's a value to this tool. Many Fortune 500 companies and businesses use this type of technology; many governmental agencies — including the Governmental Accountability Board here in Wisconsin — use this technology with full voting rights, so I don't have a problem with Mike being gone. However, residents have voiced a concern and feel differently.

"When you write an ordinance I don't think you can write an ordinance with one human being in mind. You have to write an ordinance with situation in mind."

While Fischer used videoconferencing to attend a closed session meeting once when he was in a different state in the past, he said Skype is "pretty cheap audio, videoconferencing" and added the town has had interruptions when Laska uses it.

"I did not feel as though I could fully participate in the meeting," Fischer said of using it the one time. "It was an absolute cheap second to be here, to try to interact with the people in the room, to try to basically get recognition to speak. For me, it was a big disappointing disaster."