Despite opposition, Frederickson moves to second public hearing for financial ‘committee of the whole’
BY NAOMI KOWLES
For the Star Journal
Mayor Chris Frederickson brought forward a proposition Monday night that has the potential to make his tie-breaking council vote the deciding factor in future financial decisions of the city. He introduced the concept of a “committee of the whole” (COTW) replacing the current five-member Finance, Wage and Salary Committee, a form of committee Frederickson said was first introduced to him by alderperson Steve Sauer.
Currently, finance agenda items are first initiated, discussed and voted on by the Finance Committee chaired by Dawn Rog and formed by alderpersons George Kirby, Steve Sauer, Sherrie Belliveau and Ryan Rossing. Frederickson attends all city committee meetings but by ordinance cannot vote on any committee. Votes of the Finance Committee get passed on for approval at the monthly city council meeting for review.
A COTW would consist of all council members and have no voting power, according to Frederickson, although other cities in Wisconsin that utilize such a committee, such as Wisconsin Rapids, do use the committee to vote. Frederickson mentioned at Monday’s meeting that there were several different ways that the committee could be set up.
All financial discussions at the COTW, however, would only be voted on by the full council, which has shown a recent tendency to split evenly on major or controversial issues, giving the mayor the tie-breaking vote. Monday’s motion to set a public hearing for the COTW ordinance change was also tied, with Frederickson providing the breaking vote and alderpersons Rog, Kirby, Belliveau and Tom Kelly voting against the motion. The item will proceed to a second public hearing at the next council meeting on July 9.
City attorney Carrie Miljevich would not comment on the merits of the proposal on Monday, but said that because it changes the fundamental governing structure of the city of Rhinelander, it warranted more discussion at the committee level, rather than being pushed to a second public hearing in July. Belliveau, Rog, and Kirby all provided stiff opposition to the motion.
Belliveau explained on Monday that the tendency toward straw polls was an inherent danger to the COTW, as financial discussions would naturally reveal council member’s positions preceding a council vote. She provided a handout to the council, part of which stated that “The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure” rejects COTWs as outdated.
“Our intent is to make sure our city council is informed on those issues prior to (city council vote),” Frederickson explained. “We’re given a fair amount of information in committee that then comes here…so it’s just giving them the chance to have that information prior.”
Frederickson was asked what currently prevented new council members from attending committee meetings they did not sit on for the sake of information and having a voice. “They’re new,” he replied after a lengthy pause. “This covers that learning curve for our new people.”
Such a committee would require a two-thirds majority quorum according to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, needing at least six of Rhinelander’s eight council members to attend in addition to the monthly city council meeting. A COTW would be an extra cost of about $120 per meeting to the city if eight members replace the current five-member finance committee. City ordinance stipulates a committee meeting per diem of $40 per council member, or $85 for a full city council meeting.
According to Miljevich, a COTW is normally used to replace all city committees in one event at which the council meets and hears all issues prior to an official council meeting. Frederickson provided a handout from Altona, a Canadian city, that utilized this structure. Frederickson’s motion, however, would only rewrite the ordinance for the finance committee, commonly recognized by the council to be the most powerful committee in Rhinelander’s government.
Frederickson confirmed he did not confer with council president George Kirby or finance chairperson Dawn Rog prior to the meeting’s agenda release on Friday. The idea was not passed through the Finance Committee, but rather inserted into Monday’s consent agenda, a grouping of routine agenda items that can be passed in a single vote. Kirby requested the item’s removal from the consent agenda.
When asked why he had not raised the idea of a COTW when he appointed committees two months ago at April’s organizational council meeting, he said that it was due to his lack of familiarity with the meetings and what issues they would affect.
Frederickson was elected to his first public office as mayor in April of this year, following a lengthy write-in campaign in which he did not frequent city committee meetings. The mayor’s position by ordinance is defined as one in which his key functions are to be the face of the city to the public and represent the city at functions and to the press, as well as using his influence to guide city policy.
Belliveau stated in an email to Frederickson that she was “strongly considering” resigning her position on council should the ordinance amendment be passed.
“The mayor’s position is not to seek autonomy from the common council, nor does he have power over council members, but is tasked to work with the common council for the benefit of the city’s constituents and tax payers,” she wrote.