A proposed rule change that would prevent Wausau City Council members from chairing multiple committees failed on procedural grounds Wednesday.
During a meeting of the city’s Rule Review Committee, a majority of those who spoke on the proposed change deemed the proposed move unnecessary. Under current rules, each committee elects its own chair and there is no limit on the number of committees that one elected official can lead.
Dist. 10 Alder Lou Larson, who proposed the rule change, pointed out that one alder is now chairing half of the six standing committees, and thereby “exercising too much power on the council.” Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen chairs three: Finance, Public Health and Safety, and the Capital Improvements and Street Maintenance committees.
“I think we have enough experience to go around,” Larson said. “It brings a level playing field.”
Dist. 4 Alder Tom Neal, who chairs the Economic Development Committee, disputed Larson’s assertion that standing committee chairpersons wield undue power.
“There is no power per se,” said Neal who at the beginning of the meeting said there were no special perks or happiness that came with the added responsibility. He added that committee members are a democratic group – “in philosophical sense, not partisan sense” – and suggested retaining the existing practice.
Committee chairpersons have a great deal of influence in what appears on each committee’s meeting agenda and the language about how it is presented.
Rasmussen, who is not a member of the Rules Review Committee, said the practice has worked well. Until 2014, she pointed out, it was the mayor who selected the chair of each committee.
“There is some precedent here for a member to chair more than one committee,” Rasmussen said. She further said that not everyone wants to lead a committee due to the added responsibility and media glare.
Chair of the Rules Review Committee Michael Martens (Dist 2) agreed with Neal and Rasmussen that a chairperson had no special perks and also had to face the media spotlight and was reticent to change the rules.
“What happens if somebody does not want to be the chair?” Dist. 5 Alder Jim Wadinski asked. He added that although it seemed an “unusual anomaly” to have a single alder leading three committees, he would not like to change the practice.
During the discussions Mayor Katie Rosenberg said the committee work provided mentorship opportunities for vice-chairs.
“When you are chair…often you are trying to get it done by the deadline and all that, and maybe there is an opportunity to be a little bit more collaborative with the vice-chairs,” Rosenberg said.
Sarah Watson, who represents Dist. 8, agreed with the mayor, saying even though it was her first term, she wanted to be a vice-chair as it provided an opportunity to serve without being in the spotlight. Watson, who is the vice-chair of the Economic Development Committee, added that she is prepared to step into the leadership role if she were chosen.
Soon after, Michael Martens, who chairs the Rules Review Committee, declared the proposed change dead since there was no motion to put it up for further action.
The other proposed change on the agenda – amending the rules to eliminate the Coordinating Committee as a standing committee of the Common Council – met the same fate as there was no motion by any member to take it forward. That group hasn’t had a meeting in years. City Attorney Anne Jacobson said the committee was formed in 1978 but there have been no recorded meeting minutes since at least 2017.
Wadinski said since the Coordinating Committee could also call the meeting of a Committee of the Whole (COW), it was good to have the option if the mayor or City Council president – the other two people who can call a COW meeting – did not agree to do so. COW discusses matters that might not fall under a committee or if the members felt the issue was important enough to be discussed by all City Council members. His suggestion that other members should be asked to represent their committee met with nods.
Before the amendment failed due to the lack of motion, the members agreed to discuss it more in the future.
Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.