The Ladysmith Common Council went into executive session Monday night and after coming out from behind closed doors, it approved a $2,500 donation from the Council Grants and Aids budget line to the Rusk County Rodeo.

The state statute the council cited when voting 6-0 to meet privately is 19.85(1)(e) that reads, “Deliberating or negotiating the purchasing of public properties, the investing of public funds, or conducting other specified public business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session.”

A donation to the rodeo appears to be none of the above, so what is so secret about a relatively small amount like $2,500? Why did the council need to confer in private at the meeting with a rodeo organizer? After already giving the rodeo room tax money this year (and last year), why is the city being asked to cough up even more? How many more investments will the city be asked to write from its blank checkbook?

Last year Rusk County Rodeo received $10,000 from Room Tax and another $3,000 from Council Grants and Aids to sponsor a soldier’s jump with a U.S. flag from a helicopter. This year, $12,500 already has been approved by the Room Tax Commission and another $2,500 had been requested to sponsor an appearance by the Wisconsin Rodeo Queen.

It is presumed this week’s $2,500 donation from the city council, far short of the “investing of public funds” allowed exemption to the state’s open meeting laws, is meant to fund the Wisconsin Rodeo Queen appearance. It will be interesting to see how much applause the city will receive in return for this investment. When the applause fades, will this investment be worth it?

Elected officials at recent city meetings seem to concur that it is nice to see the benefit traffic increases of 20-40% the rodeo brings to local businesses, and that residents enjoy it. However, city leaders wanted more and better documentation of what the rodeo expends. Unfortunately, city leaders do not feel the same about extending the same level of openness and transparency to its electors as it seems to require from the rodeo.

Last week, within a closed session, the council voted to expend $9,000 to have Wipfli conduct a “Market Snapshot Study” of selected housing types in the city. The reason given for meeting behind closed doors was the discussion included identification of private providers and their plans.

Earlier this month, Ald. Brian Goothousen advocated shifting available city funds to Ladysmith Industrial Development Corporation to construct a new farmers market as the LIDC has pledged considerably more money to it than the city, and Ald. Marty Reynolds concurred.

Public dollars have strings attached, usually in the form of more rules and regulations. If groups are willing to ask for public money, they should be willing to accept greater public oversight.

Closed sessions and closed meetings are common practice, but whatever is convenient for elected officials and those wanting to do  business with a government entity, is not among the exemptions Wisconsin Statutes allow on open meetings of governmental bodies. City leaders have a responsibility to be open with those who elected them, not seeking out ways to keep electors in the dark when it comes to spending their money.

Ladysmith News editorials are written by news staff.

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