Earlier this month, Rhinelander mayor Chris Frederickson asked the Common Council to consider creating an independent ethics board to assist with the often thorny issue of resolving citizen complaints. Frederickson brought up the idea during the council's Oct. 14 meeting under the "introduction of new business" portion of the agenda.
"This was brought forth by myself as the mayor to (city clerk) Val (Foley) earlier this week, after some discussion with ethics and legality of our council, the best way to handle what we do and how we do it with regards to our public, our citizens and the people of Rhinelander," Frederickson said, adding that he also broached the subject with new city attorney Steve Sorenson who suggested the city consider creating an ethics commission. (The River News has previously referred to Sorenson as a former member of von Briesen & Roper S.C., the law firm that stepped in to provide legal services for the city after the termination former city attorney Carrie Miljevich at the end of May, however we have since learned Mr. Sorenson remains a shareholder with the von Briesen firm while also serving as Rhinelander city attorney. We've reached out to Sorenson and city leaders for further clarification but they have yet to respond to our messages).
"The concept of an ethics board is to have a group of independent individuals that have no policy-making influence within the city, and certainly not city employees, but have a background in what we call, for lack of a better word, ethics, which is how do people behave," Sorenson explained. "Not necessarily legally because legal is different. You can legally do something and be very unethical. That's a reality of life."
He went on to explain that an ethics commission usually concerns itself with issues related to how one should act or react in a particular situation.
"For example, if someone would come to me and say 'why don't you skip that meeting because they're going to ask you a legal question at the meeting. If you're not there they'll probable go ahead and vote for that thing, but if you're there you have to answer that question, then they'll probably not vote correctly.' And I would say, 'Well, there's no obligation for me to be here. I'm not under contract to be here. I'll just not show up.' That's not illegal that's unethical and that's the kinds of things you need a sounding board to handle, like citizen complaints."
An ethics commission or board can hear complaints, discuss them amongst themselves and "offer to the governing body what they believe to be the appropriate conduct or course of conduct," he said.
"Understand that they (the members of the ethics board) have no power, they can't come in and say "you shall not" but generally when an ethics commission makes a decision that does become grounds and can involve people like a district attorney or some other ethics enforcement entity in the State of Wisconsin," he continued. "You could create an ethics board that would have power to remove or recommend removing municipal employees. Remember this isn't just council members, this is employees of your municipality. The good news is it lets you not get embroiled in those issues as a council and lets people that are there with the singular obligation to look at conduct, look at behavior and do the investigation and come back with a well-reasoned decision."
Alderman Steve Sauer immediately endorsed the idea.
"I really like the idea," he said. "It bothers me that the City Council is the jury of the City Council. I do not feel as though, especially in the past, that has worked out for anyone who had a formal complaint that they filed, because we are essentially the judge and the jury. But if there's something being held against us we can't be the defendant and the judge and the jury."
Sauer also expounded on a key challenge in empaneling a truly objective ethics commission.
"The key, at least for my understanding, is getting some individuals together that don't care about politics, don't care what anyone in particular thinks about one issue or another, but in fact only care about making sure that we remain and are consistent with the oath of office that we took," he said.
Alderman David Holt also expressed support for the idea, noting that it bothers him that the council does not have a mechanism to hold itself accountable.
"I'd like to voice my support for exploring this," he said.
The discussion ended with Frederickson asking the entire council to give the idea additional thought.
Posted: Monday, October 28, 2019
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Having an ethics committee is an understatement, especially with the way some of the elder alderman conduct themselves at meetings and on social media
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