Oconto County Board Room due for a makeover

Even before COVID, the board’s chambers were crowded
The Oconto County Board Room, shown in 2015, demonstrates the “can of sardines” relationship among supervisors during a meeting.
File | NEW MediaThe fellowship hall at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Oconto has served in place of the County Board Room at the courthouse since last spring because of social distancing concerns. County officials are mulling a makeover of the board’s original cramped chambers before they move back.
Warren Bluhm | NEW Media
Warren Bluhm

More than a year has passed since the Oconto County Board last met in the courthouse, and its meeting room is likely to get a complete makeover before supervisors return to their familiar meeting space.

The board has been meeting in the cavernous Holy Trinity Catholic Church fellowship hall a block from the courthouse because seating in the County Board Room does not allow for the social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 era.

Chairman Paul Bednarik told the board April 22 he had been talking with County Administrator Kevin Hamann about a remodeling project even before circumstances dictated the move to Holy Trinity.

“I always thought our board room was very un-handy to get in and out of, and as a result not very safe in case someone would have a health emergency and we would have to evacuate very quickly,” Bednarik said.

The Public Property Committee reviewed five options for remaking the room and shared its preferred drawing with the full board. Bednarik said if supervisors supported the idea, they would go ahead and prepare a design plan to present next month.

Hamann noted that the proposal also brings the room into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, removing two walls and using what is now Extension and conference room space — which would be reallocated to vacant space elsewhere in the courthouse.

Supervisor Doug McMahon, who chairs the Public Property Committee, said the proposal is partly because of distancing needs and partly in response to the experience a couple years ago when a supervisor had a medical emergency during a meeting.

“The main thing is to make it more EMS-friendly,” McMahon said. “The way it’s set up now, if someone would have a heart attack, it’s a can of sardines up there for EMS to come in and do what they have to do.”

Bednarik added that he wants to make the area more of a multipurpose room, with removable desks and chairs, so that it can be used for more than the 50-60 hours a year that the County Board is in session.

Because the remodel is in part a response to the coronavirus pandemic, Hamann said the county can hopefully fund the project with some of the approximately $7.35 million it has been allocated through the federal American Rescue Plan.

Supervisor Donna Nichols said she likes the multi-use, ADA-compliant aspects of the plan, “and the fact that we supervisors don’t have to fall over our seats trying to get in and out to our seats anymore.”

Supervisor Guy Gooding was concerned because the drawing shows 6-foot distancing side by side, but the rows of supervisor desks are only 5 feet apart.“As much as we think we’re family, we’re not family as far as the COVID restrictions go.”

Hamann responded that he expects that by the time the remodeling is completed, the 6-foot requirement will be reduced. But Gooding commented, “I don’t see that coming.”