RACINE — No one on the City Council questioned the need to change the city’s cumbersome legislative process, but not everyone is happy with the end result.
At the May 7 City Council meeting, aldermen spent 90 minutes debating and passing three amendments. But at Tuesday’s meeting, they found Mayor Cory Mason had vetoed all three amendments.
The vetoes were challenged at Tuesday’s meeting, but were ultimately upheld by a majority of the council.
Killing and reviving proposals
Over the course of two meetings — one March 19, another April 30 — the council’s Executive Committee drafted a set of proposed changes intended to make the legislative process simpler and easier for the general public to follow.
But when those changes were brought before the full council at the May 7 meeting, some aldermen were concerned that the reforms put too much power in the hands of committees and the committee chairs.
The most contentious debate was over changes that state if a proposal does not make it out of committee, it cannot be brought to the floor of the City Council.
Under the new rules, 3rd District Alderman John Tate II’s directive for all first-time marijuana possession offenders under 25 grams to be issued citations would never have passed. The Public Safety and Licensing Committee voted against that proposal but when the recommendation was brought before the full council, aldermen reversed course and voted to implement it.
Regardless of how particular aldermen felt about Tate’s proposal, quite a few were uncomfortable with a system where their proposals could never make it out of committee.
“I don’t think one body should be able to kill things,” said Alderman Melissa Lemke of the 15th District at the May 7 meeting. “If 10 of us want something, I don’t know why five people can kill it.”
Council President Jason Meekma said the intention was to have discussions hashed out at the committee level.
“The point of this is we’re trying to empower our committees to do the work they’re supposed to do, not just address everything on the council floor — that’s the point of committees,” said Meekma. “Not every item has to come back to council if the committee has decided it doesn’t have to.”
Meekma pointed to another proposed change which requires committee chairs to allow anyone, whether an alderman or from the general public, an opportunity to speak on any agenda item. Lemke argued that’s not the same as voting power.
“Everyone can come all day long to every committee, but we don’t have a voice on the committee,” said Lemke. “The way we have a voice is by voting.”
Tate proposed two of the amendments that would have given proposals killed in committee a second chance. One stated that all disapproved proposals would be reported to the City Council.
City Clerk Tara Coolidge told the council on Tuesday that due to changes in Legistar, the online platform used to track all proposals that move through city committees and council, compiling all the failed proposals while keeping them closed would be a manual and time-consuming task.
The veto was upheld by a vote of 10-5. Aldermen Jeff Coe, Mollie Jones, Tate, Jennifer Levie, Maurice Horton, Q.A. Shakoor II, Trevor Jung, Natalia Taft, Meekma and Lemke voted in favor; Aldermen Tracey Larrin, Sandy Weidner, Carrie Glenn, Mary Land and Henry Perez voted in opposition.
Another amendment proposed by Tate stated that the council could discuss a proposal voted down in committee, provided 10 aldermen approve. Mason said he vetoed it because the council should not take up proposals that fail to make it out of committee.
Instead, he offered that aldermen would have to work within the committee to make a proposal that could pass, or send it to other standing committees including the Committee of the Whole.
Jung, who represents the 9th District, defended the new process.
“Because as legislators we’re encouraged to create the best possible product for taxpayers,” said Jung. “This is just about normal government practices and something that you see in every level of government.”
The veto was upheld by a vote of 8-7. Coe, Levie, Horton, Shakoor, Jung, Taft, Meekma and Lemke voted in support; Jones, Tate, Larrin, Weidner, Glenn, Land and Perez voted in opposition.
Committee chairs set agendas
Under the new system, a committee chair can decide when or if proposals will be scheduled on the committee’s agendas. Some aldermen took issue with the fact that committee chairs, who are appointed by the mayor, are being granted those powers.
To balance those powers, one of the provisions states that if a chair does not put an item on the committee agenda within 90 days, the council could vote to require that chair to do so for the next committee meeting.
The original language of the reforms said they needed 10 out of the 15 aldermen, a supermajority. Lemke proposed an amendment that would’ve reduced that threshold to a simple majority of elected members.
“I feel very strongly that we should not require a supermajority for an item to be heard,” said Weidner. “We are closest to the people. We want to be as transparent and as open as we can be. These are our neighbors that we are representing.”
Mason said he vetoed Lemke’s amendment because, under Robert’s Rules of Order, a supermajority is required to suspend the rules, and that practice would mirror other legislative bodies.
The veto was upheld by a vote of 9 to 6. Coe, Jones, Tate, Horton, Shakoor, Jung, Glenn, Taft and Meekma voted in favor; Larrin, Levie, Weidner, Land, Perez and Lemke voted in opposition.
In other news
The City Council approved the city’s recommendation to hire Toole Design Group to redesign Downtown traffic flows, parking and Monument Square for $200,000. The city hopes to have the proposal completed by August so it could be incorporated into the 2020 budget.
The council also approved the bid from Racine-based Azarian Wrecking Company of $34,995 for the demolition of the apartment building at 1045 Grand Ave., which was severely damaged by a fire in January 2018.