By Brandi Makuski
An ordinance proposal creating a new standing committee at the city level turned into an hour-long debate over transparency in existing city protocol, mired with accusations of elitism and other verbal thrust-and-parry between members of the City Council and the mayor.
The idea, according to Council President Meleesa Johnson, was simple: create a new committee, comprised of five council members, where they could “kick the tires” on new ideas before those issues head to one of the city’s standing committees — Public Protection, Board of Public Works, Finance, or Personnel, for discussion and possible approval.
“The genesis was really, how do we have these discussions that are now occurring between an alder and a committee chair, or an alder and the mayor behind closed doors, in a public setting,” Johnson told the Public Protection Committee on Monday.
Under the proposal, the new Common Council Executive Committee (CCEC), would be comprised of a quorum of sitting council members elected by the council itself.
Johnson said she believed the mayor, and committee chairs, had too much authority, arguing she felt the public was likely unaware that alders had to ask committee chairs to place a discussion topic on a meeting agenda — a process she believes “circumvents public participation,” and felt it did not align with a true democratic process.
The CCEC would be able to discuss projects of interest for each alder before it reached a more formal committee meeting, Johnson said, also noting it would give the council a chance to agree upon and announce its position on various issues at the state and federal levels affecting the city.
The CCEC would also propose “general policy position” of city government — she cited an example of prohibiting dark stores in city limits — and noted how well the committee worked in Marathon Co. government, where she is employed as a department head.
But city leaders were deeply divided on the issue, with almost all voicing concerns on one side or another.
“It seems to me the committee would create another layer of government,” said Mayor Mike Wiza, who arguably had the most to say on the issue. “If you want to make it easy for the public to know what we’re doing, we’re just adding to the confusion by creating a committee that talks about committee things before it goes to committee.”
Wiza said a new committee would create more work for city staff via extra research, state-required creation of additional meeting agendas, and scheduling.
Most concerning, Wiza said, is the appearance of a power grab by some of the council, and the opportunity for walking quorums and other violations of the state’s Open Meeting Law. Duties outlined for the proposed committee, he added, already existed within standing committees, but were not always carried out by the alders.
“I want to make sure all the alders, all the community members, are involved,” he said. “I don’t want five or six people talking about what our community wants. It seems like a smaller group is trying to garner support and control what the larger group is doing.”
Wiza also pointed out the proposed committee’s structure was specifically altered from every other committee in the city, and that was concerning.
“Why are you changing the appointment process, for just this committee?” Wiza asked
Johnson said the mayor and committee chairs were elitist positions in city government, arguing her proposal made things “less elite because the members are elected by the council…that’s the essence of democracy.” A public forum where citizens, and alders, can become aware of what each council member is working on would “strengthen the legislative branch” in the city, she said.
Wiza said Johnson’s argument was moot, saying city ordinance required all mayoral appointees — including committee chairs and members — to be approved by the City Council.
“That’s your checks-and-balances,” he said. “I think this is creating a whole lot more government than we need.”
Wiza added the process used for identifying new agenda topics was, during his 12+ years in city government, well-established and, until now, utilized with almost no confusion: alders with concerns or ideas should first approach the appropriate department head to gather information and vet ideas. After that, he said, additional meetings may be held between the department head, the alder and the mayor, to further flesh out ideas before they are placed on an agenda.
“The difference between my proposal and what you just said is, the tires get kicked in public, not behind closed doors,” Johnson said, adding she believes council members feel they need the mayor’s approval, or a committee chair’s support, before an idea can be placed on a committee agenda.
“Nobody has to come to me for permission,” Wiza argued, saying that as far as he can recall, no topic has ever been denied from a committee agenda during his time in city government.
Others on the council agreed.
Ald. Jeremy Slowsinki, a longtime representative of the city’s 6th District and a former Council President, said he also doesn’t remember any topic ever being denied from a committee agenda.
“I just can’t wrap my head around this,” Slowinski said. “From hearing the remarks, it sounds like this [committee] is going to be a hang-around-the-coffee-table discussion…it just doesn’t make sense to me. We’re discussing this right now, and we’ll be discussing this next week at council. I have no agenda whatsoever as far as trying to get power, I just don’t get this.”
“It’s a bunch of bologna,” said Ald. Mike Phillips. “This [proposed] committee is doing the same thing we’ve hired people to do — (Community Development Director) Michael Ostrowski, (City Treasurer) Corey Ladick, (Wastewater) Director [Joel] Lemke…we’re paying them big bucks to do this. It’s utterly ludicrous. To me, it’s a power struggle by a few people.”
Cathy Dugan, alder for the city’s 8th District, agreed.
“It appears to be creating an elite group that could do all the things first, and maybe pass them on and maybe not,” she said. “I’m not in favor.”
Ald. David Shorr said he believes some of the more controversial topics taken up by City Council may have become so simply because they weren’t understood by the public.
“I don’t know about the totality about everything that’s in [the ordinance], but the ‘kicking the tires’ idea, I think, does speak to something we’ve been running into,” Shorr said. “It’s all about how wild and willy the discussion on some of these things get, and how they don’t need to get.”
Councilwoman Mary Kneebone said she favored the new committee, adding she’s had trouble getting certain items placed on a committee agenda quickly. If she could be guaranteed an item would be on a agenda within a certain period of time, she said, the proposed committee might not be necessary.
“The committee chair has an awful lot of power here; the person who appoints the committee chair has an awful lot of power to control agendas; and if it’s not one the agenda, we can’t speak of it,” she said.
Kneebone added she wanted a forum where the council members could discuss “concepts, ideas…where do we want to go from here? What’s your dream for Stevens Point? We could do something like that on this [proposed] committee. It allows for discussion before it becomes formal. We need a place where we can take personalities and politics out of it and talk about stuff.”
Ald. Cindy Nebel, who was elected to her first term in April, said the new committee would help her, as well as the public, better understand aldermanic proposals.
“I’m just new at this; I’m definitely not an expert on the process; the process has been confusing and sometimes frustrating for me,” Nebel said. “It’s very important we have the ability to talk about stuff, even if it would be still in the public [sic], then it wouldn’t get so misconstrued; and then it gets in the news [and] that can easily be misunderstood.”
Ald. Tori Jennings sided with Johnson on the issue, but also took direct, if not unclear, aim at Wiza.
“The mayor’s defensiveness over this, and his prepared statement, shows that he’s threatened by this. And that’s the very reason we need this,” Jennings said. “We have a lateral system: the executive and legislative branches are even. And there is a history in this city, a very long one, of this city not operating that way. I take exception to many of the claims you made about anyone at anytime can do anything — that’s simply not true. The insistence with which you just made your statement from your seat is similar to other times I’ve seen you operate, most recently, you yelling at business leaders downtown. So, I have real problems with that. I have a lot of problems with the authority that is determined from your seat, and this is not why this came up: I see it as a mechanism to balance the power.”
Mary McComb said the new group would actually assist city staff by helping “share responsibilities for keeping track of what’s happening at the county, the state, and even the federal level for [issues] that might affect the city. That way this committee can keep oversight of that.”
Wiza countered by saying that was already a responsibility of each council member, adding the city also paid dues for membership in the Wisconsin League of Municipalities so it could be, in part, kept appraised of state and federal issues.
He also pointed out that the CCEC would be subject to following the same agenda and open meeting rules as existing committees.
Committee Chair Heidi Oberstadt said the very fact that so much discussion was going into the proposed committee on Monday shows that alders do in fact have an opportunity to discuss issues of concern within the existing process.
“I’m not convinced creating a new body should be the first step in this,” she said. “I’m not convinced this is the best thing for us in the city right now.”
The proposal was denied by a vote of 3-2, with Alds. Meleesa Johnson and Mary McComb voting in favor, and Alds. Cathy Dugan, Heidi Oberstadt and Mike Phillips voting against.
The issue will come up again at the Nov. 20 City Council meeting, held at 7 PM in the courthouse.