An obscure paragraph in the Superior’s 1971 ethics code prompted a sometimes heated, 50-minute debate Tuesday, Feb. 2, by the Superior City Council.
At issue was whether the council would support obtaining an opinion from the Wisconsin Ethics Commission after Councilor Jenny Van Sickle married Mayor Jim Paine in October 2020. The council unanimously approved the request.
Councilor Craig Sutherland asked City Attorney Frog Prell if Van Sickle could vote on city budgets going forward because they would contain her husband’s salary and benefits. By state law, public officials can’t act in an official capacity on measures that would benefit the private interest of officials or their families.
The city ethics code allows any official who has doubts about any of the provisions in the code to apply to the common council for an advisory opinion. Sutherland said he requested the opinion based on that guidance.
“I want to make one thing clear here,” Sutherland said. “I am not bringing this up to drag anyone’s name down. I was advised to go on the council agenda because of the ordinance … I’m abiding by our own ordinance.”
Paine said he hoped to end the debate before it began by asking councilors to allow Prell to finish work on the opinion. Prell doesn't need the council's permission to confer with the WEC on it.
“It isn’t in anybody’s interest to stop him from working on that opinion, so this should be dispensed with fairly easily,” Paine said. “Does anyone object to the attorney continuing his work on the opinion related to Councilor Sutherland’s letter?”
Councilor Brent Fennessey objected. He accused the mayor of leading the discussion astray, because Sutherland’s request was for an opinion from the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, not the city attorney.
After a motion was made by Councilor Jack Sweeney and seconded by Fennessey to approve the request to the WEC, Paine relinquished his role as meeting chair and asked council president Ruth Ludwig to step in so he could participate in the debate.
Typically, if a councilor believes they might have a conflict of interest, they would privately seek advice on the matter, Paine said.
Van Sickle agreed.
“I have to say that I am so touched by Councilor Sutherland’s repeated concern on my behalf,” Van Sickle said. “But to insinuate that I do not have the authority or integrity to request my own opinion of the ethics and talk about me like I’m a second-class elected representative is offensive.”
Councilor Esther Dalbec asked why Paine was fighting the council on the measure.
“If we want to have an opinion one way or the other, get it out in the open — whether they say it’s right or it’s wrong — let us get that opinion. Why are you fighting us on this?" she asked.
“Councilor Dalbec, I don’t have to fight you,” Paine said. “I recommended the council approve this unanimously at the beginning.”
Prell and Paine both said they were skeptical the commission would issue a new opinion because the matter has been addressed before.
Van Sickle provided the council with WEC opinions issued in 1997 and 2005. In both instances, the commission determined public board members could not act during discussion, negotiations or votes to set salaries or benefits, but could act on broader policy issues and vote on budgets when a board member’s family member is an employee of the entity they serve.
The mayor’s salary is set by an ordinance that hasn’t changed since 2006.
Prell doesn't have experience working with the WEC, but he said he was certain the process would require him to do the legal research and analysis if the commission rendered an opinion.
“I’ve written a lot so far, and I’ve got to be honest with you,” Prell said. “It’s not a lightning rod. It’s not all that interesting. It’s grounded primarily in common sense with a smattering of ethics code, Robert’s Rules and case law.”
Still, councilors wanted the matter resolved. They voted unanimously to approve the request, first by voice vote, then by roll call.