Quest for Transparency—Council Meeting Walk Out May 12
Many of you have heard about the last City Council meeting on Monday, and I wanted to give you my take on what happened.
I spend a great deal of time preparing for a council meeting. We never really know what each meeting will be about until sometime on Friday afternoon, when the city sends out an email to the council members with the agenda and the agenda packet. The packet is often over 100 pages—one was 170 page. We get this packet at the same time it’s generally available to the public on the website.
Now fortunately, I’m a fast reader and I enjoy being busy and accomplishing goals. I read through the packet on Friday, then I need to do research. Lots of my research is tracking down past information on agenda items that are not in the packet. I ask questions to get the history of the topic. Sometimes I need to research Wisconsin statutes or read through Kewaunee ordinances and minutes from past meetings. I send the city administrator and the City lawyer questions to clarify issues. There are lots of people who have a long history in Kewaunee, and their information and feedback is appreciated.
As you might imagine, it’s a race to get ready for this meeting. I build a binder for each meeting. Each binder has tabs, and each tab has quotes, law documents and lists of information on each subject on the agenda. Most of the pages are highlighted in yellow so I can quickly refer to the most important facts. And I write down questions. How do I know if we are spending too much? Which residents will be affected? Who stands to gain the most by my vote? And who would lose? If people write me letters or emails, they are in the binder for that week. If someone talks to me, I summarize the conversation and it goes in the binder. I try really hard to have all the information I might need for the meeting.
This last weekend was Mother’s Day. I have five children, along with a mother and a mother-in-law. It’s a busy weekend. My children took me to a ball game on Saturday and made me dinner on Sunday. My oldest is an engineer working for NASA and a track coach for Johns Hopkins University. She flew in to surprise me (and to recruit Hopkins track prospects at a local high school meet). Then I called my own mother who loved the flowers we sent and was having a good day. We called John’s mother, who was also having a good day. In between, I was working on the binder.
On Friday I was enrolled in online courses for three hours, learning about procedures for local government meetings and managing public works activities. Many of the issues brought up in the course explained the meetings in Kewaunee. Others contradicted Kewaunee government lore. Yes, you can have more than one council member on a committee. No, it’s not okay to directly bid for city business while being on the committee overseeing that business. And TIFs generally make everyone’s taxes go up—not down. And city debt goes up too. Oh, and the mayor is supposed to appoint new committee members in April, not May. The Kewaunee city government is in direct conflict with multiple state statutes. But I must pick my battles.
By Monday afternoon I have a binder full of all the recent city press releases. I have printed current Wisconsin statutes which conflict with instructions on procedure that I had recently been given. I have read the agenda, including the appendices. I have asked questions of the lawyer, a member of the fire department and the city administrator, the mayor and other council members. My doorbell has been ringing and my email box was full from residents who also read the agenda and had questions or comments. Their feedback is very helpful—these people support me by caring about their community and local government.
Now it’s Monday at 5pm. I dress, collect my binder and talk to the last resident at my door. Then it’s off to the council meeting. I am prepared. My goal is to represent the second district first, and then the city as a whole. In my campaign I promised to increase transparency, spend the city’s money wisely, support first responders and make the city a safe, happy place to live. I need to remind myself of my campaign promises so I don’t get distracted by someone else’s personal agenda. I am ready.
But last Monday was not what I expected. I had my binder ready and I was prepared to scrutinize every agenda item and to call out hidden agenda topics and misinformation in press releases. But then I became surrounded by, what could only be called, a shit show. And I apologize for this language. The mayor started to belittle people who spoke at Public Comment. Council members left in protest. The mayor then shouted a woman council person into silence when she tried to ask a question about procedure. Other council members returned fire. The gavel slammed down as loudly as I have ever heard it. More council members walked out in disgust.
And there I was, sitting in a room full of shocked residents and fellow council members. I had cut short my Mother’s Day and had worked through the weekend. I am not sorry about this—it is important to me to be prepared for these meetings. I had my binder with facts and counter facts. It had tabs and yellow highlights, statues and press releases, city documents and grants—and it seemed to me that it was all in vain, because nothing could have prepared me for a Mayor going nuts. I just hope my next binder will be worth the effort. And that the next council meeting will be worthy of the city.
Thanks for listening.