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February 18, 2020

12/31/2019 7:30:00 AM
Council votes to continue Committee of the Whole format
Jamie Taylor and Heather Schaefer
Of the River News

A divided City Council voted earlier this month to continue the current practice of holding two council meetings per month rather than return to the subcommittee structure that was in place until last December.

In December 2018, the council agreed to abolish all subcommittees not required by state law or city ordinance and implement a Committee of the Whole format wherein the group would meet twice a month to do city business.

Reaction to this change has been decidedly mixed. There are a number of very vocal proponents of the new format, both on the council and among those who regularly attend meetings, but there are others who believe the change has been detrimental to the city, particularly in the areas of finance and public works.

The two competing schools of thought clashed again on Dec. 9 when the council was faced with two competing resolutions - one to continue with the new format and another seeking a return to the former committee structure.

Alderman Steve Sauer submitted a resolution requesting that the change to the Committee of the Whole format continue.

"Shifting to two council meetings a month has done wonders for the public engagement and saved considerable staff time in not preparing for a dozen meetings a month," Sauer said. "Regardless of concerns about how late meetings go, realistically, if there wasn't what I'll call stalling tactics, like pulling 21 items off a consent agenda is a stalling tactic, our meetings would be a lot smoother and things would go a lot quicker."

After Sauer made a motion to approve his resolution, alderman David Holt provided the second.

Council president George Kirby, who submitted the resolution requesting a return to the committee system, explained that he prefers the committee form of government because committee meetings offer alderpersons the opportunity to confer directly with the people responsible for the various operations of the city.

"People who give us the information that we need prior to coming to our actual council meetings," he said.

Kirby noted that the change was instituted last year as an experiment and in his opinion it has been unsuccessful.

That said, he acknowledged there was virtually no chance that Sauer's resolution would be voted down.

"I know I'm going to get shot down for this," Kirby said. "I've going to vote against this. I've been against it all the way along."

Alderperson Dawn Rog argued the dissolution of the finance, wage and salary committee caused difficulties during the 2020 budget process and has left at least a portion of the council in the dark as to the status of collective bargaining negotiations with city employees.

"Right now we've got collective bargaining with police and fire, the council has been given no update whatsoever in any of their meetings," she said, noting that the city agreement with the police and fire unions is set to expire on Dec. 31.

Holt voiced his support for Sauer's resolution but suggested the topic could be revisited in the spring after the new council is elected.

"I think that this system has worked fairly well over the past year," he said.

Mayor Chris Frederickson said the efficiency gained from eliminating committees is noticeable.

The council went from having 24 to 30 items that had been through committees that often were sent back by the council for more work or sent to another committee for feedback, to addressing approximately 60 items per meeting.

"Some of our practices that really needed to improve, such as our HR (human resources) practices were handled in committees," Frederickson said, adding that was not the proper place to be dealing with those issues.

"But we've gone up to 125 issues that we handled between the two different council meetings," the mayor added. "In that speed, is there at times some progress that has bad results? Yes."

He said he supports the new system and would not want to go back because the problems with the old system "would duplicate themselves."

Alderman Lee Emmer joined Rog in expressing a desire to revive the finance committee. He also expressed concerned about public works.

"As it stands right now, I think public works is hanging out there in limbo," he said.

The vote on Sauer's resolution was 4-4 with Tom Kelly, Kirby, Rog and Emmer voting nay. Frederickson broke the tie with an "aye" vote and the resolution was approved.

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