One on council calls 100-year-old requirement a “loophole”; others worry removing standard eliminates important safeguard for voters
By Brandi Makuski
In what city leaders call a “random cleanup” of local ordinances, the Stevens Point City Council has repealed a law requiring a super-majority vote to approve spending resolutions.
City ordinance requires only a simple majority vote to approve borrowing funds; but two-thirds, or eight members, of the council must approve spending. The high standard has been on the books, city leaders say, since at least 1917.
But Comptroller-Treasurer Corey Ladick, who requested the ordinance be changed, said that high standard was worrisome for his office. There were “several scenarios”, he said, which could potentially stall various projects reliant on grant and design dollars, which are often time-sensitive.
“You especially don’t want something to get cluttered at the last minute, because that does have potential to make the city look bad,” Ladick told the council on Monday. He said he also believes local government is “more divided” than in the past, and noted two council members were absent for the city’s vote adopting 2016 budget appropriations earlier that night.
“We still needed eight votes; [under the super-majority rule] two people could have stopped that,” he said. “My position is pretty simple on this; the only reason I brought this up is, sometimes we just need to make a decision, one way or another, and carry it out.”
The council was closely divided on whether to repeal the ordinance, which brought strong debate from each side.
The Minority Dissent
Councilwoman Denise Mrozek, who represents the city’s second district, was one of four council members who disagreed with the change. Mrozek said she wasn’t convinced Stevens Point was “anomalous” in requiring a two-thirds vote for spending- something Ladick told the council at last week’s finance committee as he proposed the change.
Mrozek said she reached out to more than 30 surrounding communities and found at least six required a super-majority vote for spending.
“The Stevens Point Common Council has been held to a higher standard with regards to the spending of taxpayer dollars,” she said. “For decades this process has worked without exception in passing a timely budget and appropriating funds. We are now being asked by city staff to change a procedure that has worked, without issues or problems, to instead lower our standards of how we vote to spend our taxpayers’ money.”
Mrozek also said the timing of the proposed change was curious, prompting her and others on the council to suspect an ulterior motive.
“It’s questionable that these ordinances, out of the thousands that we have, were randomly selected for cleanup at this time,” Mrozek said. “I believe, more than anything, fear is pushing the repeal of the ordinance, instead of trusting the process that hasn’t let us down. There’s an undertone of fear that projects and approval of the budget could be delayed…it concerns me that more focus has been placed on what might happen without looking at how positively and effectively this ordinance has worked in safeguarding our taxpayer dollars.”
Wiza said Mrozek’s “theory” of a hidden motive behind the ordinance change was untrue, but she wasn’t the only council member who voiced concerns on Monday.
Alderman Tony Patton said he also disagreed with changing the ordinance, but he went a step further, questioning whether some on the council weren’t trying to clear a path in altering the future Country Club Drive overpass/grade separation construction. Patton said changing the ordinance would allow some on the council to successfully delay the project until it met their personal criteria.
“I was led to believe the reason this was brought forward is there were three alders [who] were going to try to deny funding for the grade separation so they could get their pedestrian and bicycle [plan] built into that grade separation to the tune of $500,000,” Patton said. “That’s why, from the beginning, I’ve been against changing this because you could have four people block the grade separation [project], which we know probably 99 percent of the people in Stevens Point want.”
While Patton declined to name the council members he suspected, Mrozek said she believed his claim had “truth to it”, as she said Ladick specifically referenced the overpass project as a concern during a discussion on the ordinance amendment in his office.
Wiza denied any knowledge of alders trying to stack the voting deck, and repeatedly asked department heads to come forward immediately if they had information on the soft accusations from Mrozek and Patton.
“If there was any indication of collusion between the alder-persons, I need to be aware of that,” Wiza said. “That would be a violation of open meetings [law]. If anyone has substantive, first-hand knowledge of this going on, I need to know about it.”
No one from the various departments offered any response to Wiza’s query.
“People can read all they want into the timing of things, but if you are ever uncomfortable, ask your questions, ask for a postponement, before you vote,” Wiza told the council. “I’ve tried to act in the most transparent, honest and open way that I could; I can only give you my word that there is nothing, no ulterior motive behind this.”
Wiza said the city regularly updates or amends ordinances to reflect changes in geography, technology or state law, or as they become outdated.
“That’s all this is,” he said.
Council members Shaun Morrow, Mary McComb, Mary Kneebone, Bryan Van Stippen, George Doxtator and Heidi Oberstadt all voted to repeal the super-majority rule.
Voting against the repeal were Council President Mike Phillips and council members Tony Patton, Jeremy Slowinksi and Denise Mrozek.
Alderman Garrett Ryan, whose wife was in labor at the hospital, was absent.
Other comments from council members:
Mike Phillips: “Starting [on the council] in 1995, I can’t recall any issue that’s ever come up where this didn’t work. Why change something that isn’t broken?”
Shaun Morrow: “When I lived in Missouri, they required a two-thirds vote, and government just grinds to a halt. It was hard to spend any money, and it’s driven the entire state backwards. I would urge we go with a simple majority because it is a small group that can hold back the will of the entire group.”
Mary Kneebone: “If it only takes a simple majority to approve the budget, by approving it you’re implying you agree with the expenditures listed in the document. [With a super-majority requirement] money doesn’t get spent, people don’t get paid, the city gets a black eye…one only needs to look at what’s going on in Washington [D.C.] now to understand the evils of partisanship. I think this opens up an opportunity for partisanship to arise.”
Mary McComb: “I know all of us trust all of us here not to misuse this big loophole, but what’s going to happen in the future? I think this is a loophole and could cause a lot of trouble, and we need to repeal those. It could put a minority in control of something, and our country was built on majority rules.”