Great moments in open government … not

It appears as though the Fond du Lac City Council considers public input beneath itself, based on what the Fond du Lac Reporter reports:

New Fond du Lac City Council member Donna Richards raised the ire of some veteran members at the last council meeting when she said city government could do a better job of informing its citizens.

“As our bosses, the citizens need to learn more from us, to decide if we represent them well,” Richards said.

Hoping for change, she extended an offer to members to “initiate discussion,” on how to engage citizens and “let them know what the city is doing,” she said. Council meetings rarely pack the legislative chambers unless there’s some hot topic.

Suggestions include extending the elected terms of council members beyond two years, creating a three-stage decision-making process, adding transparency to closed session meetings and bringing questions to the table that are asked of city staff through personal phone calls.

Council member Catherine Block, the most vocal opponent after hearing Richard’s ideas, said she believes the election cycle brings “new and fresh ideas to the council.”

Block said the council’s job is “not to lecture an apathetic public” and added “if they care, they can approach us.”

“You are new and we have been a cohesive unit and trying to throw a wrench in the cog at this stage of the game, before you actually have a sense of the meetings and how meetings work and how the process works — I respectfully disagree with changing it at this time,” Block said.

Under her plan, Richards said an agenda item up for discussion could be briefly introduced at one meeting, followed by a formal presentation at a second meeting so “there is better flow of information,” she said. A final decision and vote could then take place at a third meeting.

“Citizens should be able to speak both before and after staff presents an item, and before we have our discussion,” Richards said.  Currently, audience members can address the council only at the start of each meeting.

In comparison, Fond du Lac School Board meetings offer audience sessions at the beginning and end of each school board meeting. Fond du Lac County Board offers no open audience sessions, but citizens may ask before the meeting to speak publicly about an issue and will then be given an opportunity to speak.

Richards said she sees council members being too dependent on department staff for information, and says too often questions are answered outside meetings, which defeats the spirit of open meeting laws.

“It seems something comes up on the agenda and it is passed because all the discussion was done in committees,” she said.

Notices for closed session topics should be clearer she said, as the law indicates notices should be as descriptive as possible.

In the future, Richards said she anticipates holding public informational meetings that staff and council members are invited to, for wider discussions of broad issues and agendas with citizens.

Council president Karen Merkel said community participation is dependent on what people are passionate about, and voiced concerns about being able to speak freely with staff.

“In general, I would like to see the public more informed, but the reality is most people don’t have an interest unless it directly affects them,” said council member Brian Kolstad. “They trust us to make decisions on their behalf.”

Council member Greg Giles said “We live in a society so incredibly busy, the more communication we give people, the more it just glosses over.”

Block, taking issue with the majority of Richard’s comments, called to end debate and bring an immediate vote to not change anything about the council structure.

Kolstad said a move like that would be too far reaching and could deny future actions.

Block’s request was voted down, with Kolstad, Kay Miller, Greg Gilles and Richards voting to continue future discussions. Along with Block, Merkel and another new member, Ben Gilles, voted yes to essentially stifle the idea of change.

“I think a year will give you a better understanding of our process,” Merkel told Richards.

I don’t know who on this council could be considered liberal, moderate or conservative. I’m not sure I agree with all of Richards’ proposals. I do know that this level of condescension toward someone elected by the public to represent them, and this level of arrogance toward those who put them office, pay their salaries, and can vote to remove them from office is inexcusable.
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