PREAMBLE: Now that the most competitive Mequon mayoral election in 21 years is over, it is useful to review Mequon’s form of city government. This Blog is in two parts. Part I is based on my research of applicable statutes as to how Mequon's municipal government operates. It is factual to the best of my ability. Part II represents my opinion as to how the governing process can be improved based on my eleven (11) years holding elective offices -- three (3) years as a Mequon alderperson and eight (8) years as a Ozaukee County supervisor with terms as President of the Mequon Common Council and Vice Chair of the Ozaukee County Board.
PART I - FACTS: During the election campaign lots of comments both written and oral indicated that voters did not completely understand the roll of Mequon elected officials within the Statutes that established and operate our municipality. Mequon is governed under Chapter 62 of the Wisconsin State Statutes and certain Mequon ordinances. Mequon is officially classified as a 4th class city based on population althoughits current population would permit it to move to a 3rd class city if Mequon’s Common Council submitted the proper request to the State.
Mequon’s governing form under State Statute Chapter 62 is classified as "Weak Mayor - Council." This form is a product of Jacksonian democracy in the belief that if politicians individually have limited power and many checks, then they can do relatively little damage. Mequon’s mayor is elected at large for a three year term. The eight alderpersons are elected for three year terms from specified aldermanic districts but on a staggered term basis, so no more than three are elected in any election cycle. Elections are considered non-partisan so no political party designation is indicated on the ballot. The mayor and the eight alderpersons make up the Mequon Common Council, in which all governing power is vested.
The mayor’s authority is basically limited to appointments to City Boards and Commission, with approval of the Common Council, and to preside over meetings of the Common Council. He does not have a vote on Council issues except in the case of a four-four (4-4) tie vote. Mequon Ordinance Section 2-30 (a) (14) requires a majority vote of all the Common Council (9 members) for the passage of all ordinances, resolutions and appointments unless a larger number is required by Wisconsin Statutes. So a minimum number of five (5) affirmative votes is always required. Even in the case of the current aldermanic vacancy which reduced the Common Council to eight members, the majority vote requirement remains five (5) affirmative votes. The mayor cannot vote in this instance since there can never be a tie among the seven remaining alderpersons. Even if an alderperson were not in attendance and a three-three (3-3) vote were to occur, the mayor's vote making it a four-three (4-3) vote is insufficient to achieve the five (5) vote level required to approve an appointment. If a stalemate should occur in filling this aldermanic vacancy, the vacancy would remain until the April 2014 election of the following year. If the vacancy is filled by a five (5) vote affirmative vote of the Common Council, the appointee would still have to stand for election at the following April 2014 election for completion of the term in 2016, .
Chapter 62 of the State Statutes does designate the mayor as Mequon’s Chief Executive Officer responsible for enforcement of city ordinances. Every ordinance, resolution, appointment or other matter requires a majority vote of the nine (9) common council members, which is five (5), with the mayor able to vote only if a four-four (4-4) tie ensues. The mayor may also veto any of these actions by the Common Council which can be overridden by a two thirds vote of the nine (9) Common Council members. This, in reality, requires six (6) votes of the eight (8) alderpersons as any vote by the mayor at a four-four (4-4) tie, does not reach the required six (6) vote threshold.
How does the Mequon Common Council carry out their responsibilities? Since Council members are all part timers with compensation accordingly – $4000/year for alderpersons and $9000/year for the mayor, the Council, in 1978, established by ordinance, the position of city administrator. Interestingly, there is no reference to a city administrator position in State Statute Chapter 62 - Cities. The creation of this position was strictly a decision by the Mequon Common Council to assist in carrying out their statutory duties in accordance with the "Weak Mayor - Council" form of municipal government. The position’s purpose as stated in its job description is "manages, plans, directs, and coordinates the activities of the City and related municipal functions." The position reports to the mayor and the common council and basically manages the city’s departments, divisions and offices with the authority to hire, fire and suspend. Annual budgeting and performance to budget are also vital responsibilities. The city administrator is undoubtedly the key position in the City’s day-to-day operations. As an aside, the common council has further designated this position to serve as the city clerk, with a deputy city clerk carrying out the day-to-day duties. Certain Mequon city officials, defined by Wisconsin Statute - Chapter 62, assist the mayor, common council and administrator in carrying out their governing duties. They include Attorney, Clerk, Assessor, Treasurer, Community Development, Public Works/Engineering, Police Chief and Fire Chief.
The aldermanic members of the common council organize themselves by electing a President of the Common Council and selecting aldermanic members to four standing committees – Finance/Personnel, Public Safety, Public Welfare and Public Works -- with three alderpersons per committee. While the mayor always chairs the Finance/Personnel Committee, committee alderperson members select the chair of their other committees. The president of the Common Council stands in for the mayor as the occasion demands including presiding over an agenda item during council meetings when the mayor wishes to speak to that item. This is called "passing the gavel." Robert’s Rules of Order normally govern how council meetings are conducted with the mayor presiding as an unbiased chair without a vote except in the case of a four-four tie. In the event the mayor wishes to speak to an agenda item, he must pass the gavel to an alderperson, normally the president of the common council -- but only if that individual has not spoken to the agenda issue and is willing to accept the gavel. Once the gravel has been passed it cannot be returned to the mayor until the agenda issue has been disposed of. This parliamentary rule is based on the theory that a presiding officer must maintain total impartiality and the mayor after speaking to an issue may be questioned on such impartiality.
In addition to the Common Council’s four standing committees, there are sixteen additional boards, commissions and committees which plan, guide, control, advise, authorize and manage certain City activities in accordance with ordinances and statutes as defined for each body. The list consists of ten (10)boards - Architectural, Appeals, Review, Economic Development, Ethics, Library, Opitz Cemetery, Park, River Advisory, Tree; four (4) commissions - Landmarks, Open Space Preservation, Planning, Police & Fire; plus the Hiram Schmitt Fund and the Joint Mequon/Thiensville Bike & Pedestrian Way Committee. The mayor appoints Mequon resident members and alderpersons to these bodies with the approval of the Common Council. Information on these bodies can be found on the City’s web site www.ci.mequon.wi.us.
Of all the sixteen (16) bodies, the one that draws the greatest interest, attention and perhaps controversy, is the Planning Commission. It was created as a "Charter Ordinance" which was recreated in 2010. A "Charter Ordinance" requires a two-thirds approval vote of the Common Council (6 votes) and is subject to a referendum of Mequon voters, if such a referendum petition, signed by a minimum of 7% of the City’s votes for governor at the last general election, is filed. If approved, it is officially filed with the Wisconsin Secretary of State. The Commission’s purpose is simply stated as "the carrying out planning and oversight for the orderly development of the city." The Commission consists of eight members with the mayor as the designated chair. An aldermanic member and alternate are nominated each April by the Common Council president and confirmed by the Council with five affirmative votes. The mayor appoints six (6) regular citizen members to staggered three (3) year terms, one of which must be a registered architect, plus two (2) alternate members. All mayoral appointments must be approved by the Common Council with five (5) affirmative votes. While the purpose of the Planning Commission may be simple, its duties, authorities, responsibilities and actions are complex. State Statute 62.23 covers more than 30 pages describing Planning Commission activities. Many Planning Commission actions require approval by the Common Council when deviations from the master land plan are proposed. The other fifteen (15) bodies and the four (4) Common Council Standing Committees operate in accordance with their procedures which are normally simpler than the Planning Commission. All actions are subject to review and approval of the full Common Council.
In summary, Mequon is governed under a "Weak Mayor - Council" format to provide the general laws for the operation of the City; assessment and collection of local taxes; preservation of public and private property, roads and bridges; apprehension of offenders; and the manner of conducting elections. On a personal basis, Mequon is governed and runs based on the interest and involvement of our residents. We need a variety of interests, views and positions so that we reach the correct conclusion. A plethora of residents, meeting those criteria now volunteer their time and effort to public service to give back to their community the many benefits this City has provided. However, new volunteers are always needed for Boards and Commissions to keep new ideas, concepts and initiatives continually flowing. Applications are available at the Mequon Internet web site.
Part II - OPINION: :Insofar as Mequon’s elective offices are concerned, we suffer the same fate as do the federal, state and county levels. Far too many elected officials continue in office beyond their ability to contribute. My forty-seven (47) years of management experience in the private and public sector have demonstrated to me, that after ten (10) years in the same position, a person loses effectiveness. Either a new job transfer or a restructuring of the old job is required to restore a new spirit and fervor to re-maximize effectiveness. For this reason, I have been a strong supporter of term limits in the political sector from the federal level down to the state, county, and municipality. In addition, I am persuaded that elective public service opportunities should not be limited by long-term incumbents, but available for others to serve. As Mark Twain so aptly stated: "Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason."
So I supportf term limits for all Mequon elective offices -- mayor and alderpersons. I would propose a two (2) term limit for mayors (6 years) and a four (4) term limit for alderpersons (12 years). Two Mequon alderpersons just completed twenty-seven (27) and twenty-one years (21). Without commenting on their service, I find it distressful that they have kept others from experiencing elective service and making their contributions to our community. I hereby call for the Common Council to repeal and recreate Mequon Charter Ordinance 58-23 to incorporate term limits along with the length of terms. If the Common Council fails to act within a reasonable period of time, I propose that Mequon residents (electors) exercise their rights under State Statute 9.20 "Direct Legislation," to place a recreated Charter Ordinance 58-23 on the ballot for direct vote. If approved, the ordinance will take effect. It is not subject to a mayoral veto and cannot be repealed except by a direct elector vote after a two (2) year time frame has expired. Anyone interested in forming a committee to further this option, if it becomes necessary, should drop me an Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.