Council debates voting structure for financial issues
The Stevens Point Common Council repealed the two-thirds majority vote requirement for financial issues such as appropriating funds or passing the annual budget in favor of a simple majority vote structure at its regular meeting Monday, Nov. 16.
Previously, the council required two-thirds of its members to pass anything relating to the city’s funds. That voting structure had been in effect for several decades. The discussion to change the structure was prompted by a general review of the city’s revised municipal code.
Stevens Point Mayor Mike Wiza said the repeal of the ordinance came from a regular review of the city’s ordinances aimed at keeping everything current.
While doing the review, city officials thought to bring it before the council because it could potentially cause problems in the future, although it hasn’t yet.
Potential problems a two-thirds vote structure could cause include a certain number of dissenters – in Stevens Point’s case, four out of the 11 council members – have the ability to collude to essentially hold the council hostage and stonewall a budget or a large community project involving the transfer of funds.
However, the suggested change was not met without opposition.
“Starting in 1995 on the Common Council, I can’t recall any issue any issue that has ever come up that this doesn’t work,” said Mike Phillips, District 10. “What we have now works, it’s proven. Why change something that isn’t broken?”
The first motion at the Monday meeting was made by Denise Mrozek, District 2, who said she did not think it should be changed.
Mrozek said she asked John Moe, Stevens Point city clerk, to check records on when the two-thirds vote ordinance was created. He checked back to 1917 and couldn’t find exactly when it was created.
“It’s pretty safe to say that this has been in effect for decades, if not over a hundred years,” she said. “So, for decades, the Stevens Point Common Council has been held to a higher standard with regards to the spending of taxpayers’ dollars.
“For decades, this process has worked without exception passing a timely city budget and appropriating city funds,” Mrozek said. “We are now being asked by city staff to change a procedure that has worked without issues or problems to instead lower our standards on how we vote to spend our taxpayers’ money.”
Some alderpersons expressed concern that there was an ulterior motive to bringing up the proposed changes.
“In addition to the request to repeal the ordinance, the timing of the request have people on this council questioning, ‘why now?’” Mrozek said. “We publicly heard this is an ordinance cleanup, that we are operating as an anomaly and the comptroller/treasurer is afraid we could have issues passing a city budget. We publicly heard council members on our standing committees push to publicly speak out about what’s really driving this.
“(After) doing my research, I know we are not the only municipality out there using the two-thirds vote. We’ve never had an issue passing a city budget and it’s questionable that this ordinance, out of the thousands we have, were randomly selected for cleanup at this time,” she said.
“I believe more than anything, fear is pushing the repeal of these ordinances instead of trusting the process that hasn’t let us down,” she said. “There is an undertone of fear that projects and approval of the budget could be delayed, fears that aren’t justified.”
“The theory this is coming before you for a specific reason is untrue,” Wiza said. “Periodically we go through sections of our revised municipal code and our ordinances to look for things that might need to be updated. A good example would be our garbage ordinance we just passed (an agenda item three before the two-thirds vote item at Monday’s meeting) with little or no discussion which has been in place for decades, but it was seen as outdated and could potentially cause problems. Staff recommended a change and we brought before you.”
The vote to keep the two-thirds vote failed 4-6-1.
Mrozek, Phillips, Tony Patton, District 8, and Jeremy Slowinski, District 6, voted in favor of denying the requested change and George Doxtator, District 1, Heidi Oberstadt, District 4, Brian Van Stippen, District 5, Mary Kneebone, District 7, Mary McComb, District 9, and Shaun Morrow, District 11, voted against denying the repeal. Garret Ryan, District 3, was excused.
“There is a lot of rumors on why this is up and why it should or shouldn’t be, but as a taxpayer and a city constituent – one of your constituents – I believe in the Common Council as a whole. I believe as a group, you guys can make a decision and I think the majority decision should be what stands,” said Barb Jacob, a local businesswoman. “I don’t think four people should be able to control what happens on the Common Council.”
“I know that all of us trust all of us here (on the council) not to misuse what is a big loophole, but what’s going to happen in the future?” said McComb. “I think Barb Jacob represented citizens well. It could put a minority in control of something and our country is built on a majority rule. I strongly think we should get rid of it.”
Shaun Morrow, District 11, also encouraged repealing the two-thirds vote for operational reasons.
He said when he lived in Missouri, the state of Missouri moved to a two-thirds vote system and the government came to a grinding halt.
“That amendment has been in for more than 25 years now and it’s hard for the state of Missouri for them to raise any money, spend any money and it’s driven the entire state backwards,” Morrow said. “I would urge we would go with a simple majority, because it could be a small group that could hold back the will of the whole.”
On a second motion, by Kneebone, the council voted 6-4-1 to repeal the ordinance.
Doxtator, Oberstadt, Van Stippen, Kneebone, McComb and Morrow voted to repeal the two-thirds vote and Mrozek, Patton, Phillips and Slowinski voted against the motion. Ryan was excused.