Editorial: Council, Mayor Clearly Not Communicating Effectively
Left, Alderman Mike O’Meara at committee meetings in December. O’Meara has said he uses his cell phone to follow the meeting agenda- which also sits in hard copy form on the table in front of him. (City-Times photo)
By Patrick Lynn
Stevens Point City Council Members and Mayor Halverson are having obvious communication problems. In a series of puzzling exchanges becoming exceedingly worse over the past few years, Halverson and the Council seem to disagree at times purely on principal, with some parties at times acting like a small child throwing a fit.
The recent denial of a proposed student housing complex on Division Street is just the latest in communication faux pas over the past few years. Council Members were at the 11th hour asking dozens of questions of city officials and project leaders- questions which should have been answered weeks ago within the presentation of the project by the mayor, the community development director and those in charge of the project. Questions which also should have been asked by Council Members but were not.
Consider this: Council Members have day jobs, some of them working more than 40 hours a week. Their elected positions as Council Members, which can take up to 20 hours a week, are in addition to those day jobs. The office of mayor and position of community development director are full-time, and they have support staff at their disposal.
Nearly two years ago Mayor Halverson created a special committee to debate the possibility of changing the offices of city attorney and comptroller-treasurer from being elected to being appointed either by his office, the Council or a combination of the two. The memo relating to that potential change was distributed to Council Members five minutes before the start of that month’s regular Council meeting, something many objected to. That special committee debated in open session for weeks but ultimately decided against moving forward on the potential change, which was introduced by Halverson.
Since then no such diligence has been enforced on any issue. Information isn’t distributed with any kind of consistency which informs the Council- who are consistently left scrambling for answers at the last minute- and at times vote without having all their questions answered.
From the rear of the Council Chambers, this reporter has heard the phrase from members of the Common Council, “I still don’t agree with this but I’m going to vote anyway” too often. So it begs the question: are Council Members doing their due diligence? Are they too tired after a long day at work, or do they feel they don’t have the technical knowledge to understand something they’re being asked to vote on?
Some Council Members, to include Joanne Suomi, Jerry Moore, Mike Wiza and Roger Trzebiatowski frequently solicit the opinions and wishes of the general public, do independent research when they don’t understand something and opine on their findings during Council meetings.
Too many Council Members (though not all the remaining Council Members not listed above) remain silent during committee and council meetings, never divulge their opinion or the wishes of their constituents or never question what they’re told and seem to blindly vote in favor of items introduced by the mayor’s office.
While the communication from the mayor’s office is often presented to the Council in a “need to know” elitist manner, the Council in turn needs to demand a change and set higher expectations for communication. Frequent special meetings, last- minute memos, incomplete information, surprise agenda items, poorly- answered questions and- at times- tantrums and snide or sarcastic remarks, are counterproductive to the process involved in the city’s economic development.
These two entities- the Office of Mayor and the Council- are two sides of the same coin. While the mayor’s office and city staff are more knowledgeable of affairs relating to business, the mayor is still an elected official which must remain accountable to members of the public (whether they voted for him or not), even if that public doesn’t agree with what he believes to be a good business decision.
Council Members are closer to the public on a daily basis but aren’t blameless in recent events. Council Members can be far more proactive and reactive- consider Alderwoman Joanne Suomi who regularly reaches out to her constituents, holding informal town hall meetings and even going so far as comprising a community committee to work on improving parking problems throughout the city.
Whether it’s a parking problem or something with greater consequence, these issues need to be disseminated during committee meetings. Typically full Council meetings have lengthy agendas which tire alderpersons, city leaders and the public in attendance. People can become frustrated, distracted by the numerous topics of discussion, confused or indifferent by Roberts Rules of Order procedures, and verbally irritated. Without fuller discussions on the committee level- with more consistent and complete information given by the mayor’s office as well as a higher set of standards demanded by the Council- the process by which our elected officials labor will continue to be painful for all involved.