Politics weren't even a consideration when Mayor Jim Paine and Councilor Jenny Van Sickle decided to get married Oct. 17, 2020.
For two political wonks with an interest in serving the community, they were a match, and it was the natural progression of their relationship.
“I am a councilor some of the time, but I have a whole life,” Van Sickle said.
“We would never let politics be the reason we chose not to or put it off,” Paine said. “When you’re ready to be in a family, you’re ready to be in a family.”
Before they got married, however, Paine said they looked into what possible implications there might be, and they didn’t have to look very far to see that it’s not uncommon for families to serve together.
'Not that unusual' for family members to serve together
Philip Freeburg, an attorney who teaches local government law at the University of Wisconsin-Extension Local Government Center, said the issue comes up frequently with school boards. In fact, as an attorney, Freeburg represented a city where the mayor was the father of one of the alderpersons.
“So this issue, not that unusual,” he said.
The nature of the family relationship, particularly where spouses are concerned, can pose challenges under Wisconsin’s ethics law and Robert’s Rules of Order, Freeburg said.
Paine said he doesn't believe the marriage could be considered a conflict of interest.
“It really doesn’t even come close to meeting a conflict of interest,” Paine said. “The fact is that you need two interests to have a conflict, so a conflict of interest between your public duties and a private interest. So if her or I had a conflict say with a private contract or awarding money to her employer or something like that, or a family member of mine, if one of us had to recuse ourself, we would both have to recuse ourselves.”
Van Sickle has recused herself when matters involving Northwest Community Services Agency have come up on the agenda because she works for the organization, and the mayor has recused himself a couple of times when businessman Fred Paine, his uncle, had matters before the plan commission and city council.
“It’s fairly rare,” Paine said.
Freeburg confirmed that a conflict for one is now a conflict for both under Wisconsin’s ethics code, but he said there are degrees of conflict when it comes to issues like dealing with the city budget.
Councilor Craig Sutherland has asked the city attorney, Frog Prell, to look into whether Van Sickle should recuse herself when it comes to voting on the city budget because they contain her husband's salary and benefits, things that could directly impact her.
"I just want to make sure we're not setting ourselves up for something down the road, because there are state statutes and it's very gray to me," Sutherland said.
Prell said he hadn't had a chance to begin researching the issue after receiving the request from Sutherland last week; he declined to comment further because of the complexity of the issue.
In circumstances where compensation is being considered, Freeburg said a family member would be disqualified from taking action, but an ethics opinion concerning a school board determined that it is permissible to act on a budget when compensation is just one small part of the budget. The opinion was originally rendered by the Wisconsin Ethics Board and reaffirmed by the Wisconsin Ethics Commission in 1997.
“You’re just clerically filling in what the ordinance provides,” Freeburg said. “Normally, the council wouldn’t be voting on the mayor’s salary because they can’t raise or lower it during his term.”
In Superior, the mayor’s salary is established by city ordinance and state law prohibits local elected leaders from changing salaries during an existing term.
Robert's Rules, residency could pose challenges
The issue that could be a challenge isn’t a legal matter, but a matter that relates to how meetings are conducted, Freeburg said. Under Robert’s Rules of Order, the guide the city uses to conduct orderly meetings, it's required that all members of the body are treated equally.
“If I was that mayor, and I had three alderpersons that were seeking recognition at the same time, I would probably call on my spouse last,” Freeburg said.
Paine said he believes he called Van Sickle "out of order" two meetings ago after she interrupted another councilor who had the floor.
Van Sickle noticed a lack of favoritism after the rebuke during a recent debate on a special-use permit for Superior Water, Light & Power.
“I don’t get any special treatment, and I have to work really hard for the people I represent,” Van Sickle said.
Another issue the couple will have to face at some time is residency. Van Sickle, who represents the city's 2nd District, said she still lives in Allouez, despite the mayor owning a home near Hammond Park and the university.
When they do combine their homes, Paine said it would likely involve each of them moving from the places where they live now.
Until then, they're making it work, Van Sickle said.
“We have separate houses; we have separate finances; we have separate jobs — just a lot of shared goals," she said. "I don’t know that we’ll be able to combine our houses anytime soon, but for now, this works for us.”