The Ladysmith Common Council organizational meeting Tuesday following the Spring Election included a city administrator proposal to influence the council’s committee system. Typically, a committee makes a recommendation to the council for consideration in making the final decision.
At the council’s organizational meeting in each year following the annual election, the mayor shall appoint three aldermen to the following standing committees with council approval: finance, legal affairs committee, public works, personnel, property, youth and recreation and community development. In addition the Mayor may at the organizational meeting appoint an additional alderman to serve when one or two regular committee members are absent.
City Administrator Alan Christianson handed out a document titled, “Elimination of Standing Committees.”
He said doing so will reduce meeting per diems of$150-200 per meeting, paperwork, duplication and repetition and time spent on agendas and minutes. He added it will provide more transparency and involvement for the public as media is usually at council meetings that has regular standing dates and offer full involvement from the entire council throughout the decision-making process.
The city had 24 council meetings and 49 committee meetings last year. The cost of these 73 meetings was $16,215.
Christianson said the proposal is modeled after the city of Bloomer, where he called standing committees optional and instead have discussion start and end with their city council. He said he often hears people compare Ladysmith with Bloomer.
“This is something that has been kind of on my mind since taking office myself back in 2019,” he said. “The proposed ordinance I put out changes the wording to match Bloomer.”
The proposal still retained the standing committees.
Christianson argued three committee members discuss topics at length during committee meetings, there are still four council members who “are not up to speed.”
Christianson called this a “flaw” in the committee structure that could be remedied if every matter could be debated by the full council. He added standing committees now can be called with only 24 hours advance notice, and often there is little public involvement.
Christianson added most people know the council routinely meets on the second and fourth Monday of every week.
“The newspaper is going to be here to keep a record of what happened,” Christianson said. “This ordinance certainly doesn’t eliminate the possibility of having the standing committee but it does create the possibility.”
The council has been reducing the city meeting load from a few years ago when there were council meetings and All Committees meetings on alternating Mondays in addition to standing committees.
Christianson estimated a $10,000 savings by reducing committee meetings. “I think there are substantial savings and efficiencies to be had by considering that option,” he added.
City resident John Pohlman II spoke from the audience calling the advantage of a standing committee is there are assigned people keeping up to date on specific topics like personnel and finance. He added it was tried decades ago to do away with committees, and the result was council meetings “running 5 or 6 hours” and not adjourning “until close to midnight.
“All of a sudden you are going to have seven people trying to be experts in seven fields,” Pohlman said. “I do think you need that expertise, somebody keeping up on each of those areas. Even if you get rid of the standing committees you still need those standing committees. You still need to have that expertise being brought to the table and not expect all seven of the council members to be instant experts in all seven of those areas because it just doesn’t work.”
Ald. Marty Reynolds noted city officials typically “blow off’ Ald. Bill Morgan for comparing Ladysmith with Bloomer, and now Christianson’s proposal does just that.
“Bloomer is not the example that anyone every buys into,” Reynolds said. “Maybe if we start doing the other things Bloomer does, then maybe it makes sense. But this one, I don’t think it does.”
Committees allow members to “chew to death” specific topics, according to Reynolds. He noted there were numerous handouts at that evening’s council meeting and questioned where savings would be on copies if committee meetings were reduced.
“Mr. Pohlman is absolutely right. You are going to sit here for six hours trying to chew through some of this stuff, and it still isn’t necessarily going to guarantee you are going to get the best decision,” Reynolds said.
Mayor Kalvin Vacho backed those opposing the proposal. He said the city needs more direct council involvement on certain issues rather than a broad overview.
“It saves money, but with the committees you can dive deeper into the certain subjects that would just get glossed over if you do everything at council meetings,” Vacho said.
No action was taken.
Also last Tuesday, the meeting included a heated exchange between the city attorney and an audience member over council table seating arrangements and closed sessions.
Morgan questioned why city employees sit with the elected council members at the front of the room, believing the council table should be reserved for city officials and not staff. He also asked why city hall staff are allowed to sit in on executive sessions when the rest of the audience must leave. He added the need for closed sessions should be determined by the mayor, council president and city administrator, saying sometimes the subject matter is “trivial and not necessary.”
City Attorney Al Kenyon told the council there was a time when the city clerk sat with the council, and he could not recall a time when the city’s public works director did not sit with the council. He noted these employees work for the council, unlike the police chief who works for the Police and Fire Commission and the library director who works for the Library Board.
“The public’s business is done in public but there are a number of specific exemptions,” Kenyon said.
City resident Rick Nash from the audience commented, saying Morgan’s questions were not answered.
“Well wait a minute,” Kenyon argued. “Wait a minute. What did I not answer? I am not going to put up with you. If you are going to be that way, I can be that way. I can be just like you. I can be just like you, and you know it, and you know it. If you want me to get closer, I can get closer.”
“Good for you. Give it a shot. Give it a shot,” Nash said.
Mayor Kalvin Vacho pounded the gavel. “Please stop,” he said.
Kenyon asked what questions he did not answer.
“Did you answer why city employees are sitting up here every week? No, you didn’t,” Nash said.
“It is not for me to decide,” Kenyon said.
Nash said he has heard over many years why the public works director sits with the council, and people should not get mad when Morgan asks this sort of question. He also asked why Kenyon sits at every meeting.
“Because the council asks me to,” Kenyon said.
“They ask you to. Maybe [the council] should re-evaluate why [the city attorney] has to sit at every meeting,” Nash said.
Christianson said city staff is needed at council meetings as this is the point of these meetings, adding city staff on hand are immediately available to answer council members’ questions. He added county staff sits at county board meetings.
“The council is directing the staff to carry out different policies and undertakings the council wants acted on. Could the staff get that dictated to them by the mayor after the meetings. Well, maybe, but why not have that open dialog at the meetings and get things squared away right there so you are not using the telephone and lose something in the translation.
Nash called Christianson’s response “a nice answer.”
Ald. Jim West said the seating structure leads the public to wonder who is running the city.
Ald. Gerard Schueller said he has no problems with the seating. He added staff is needed at meetings to answer the council’s questions.
No changes were made to meeting attendance.