Superior City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle may vote on the city budget, even though it contains her husband’s salary and benefits, without violating Wisconsin law, according to an informal opinion by Wisconsin Ethics Commission staff.
The Superior City Council sought the opinion in February at the request of Councilor Craig Sutherland, nearly four months after Van Sickle married Mayor Jim Paine.
The city ethics code allows any official who has doubts about any of the provisions in the code to apply to common council for an advisory opinion, prompting Sutherland to ask the council to have the city attorney seek an opinion from the state’s government ethics agency.
“This opinion settles the manufactured concern regarding the budget,” Van Sickle said. “I encourage those overly preoccupied with my marriage to end their rudderless pursuit of nothing.”
The opinion, dated Monday, March 15, draws from past Wisconsin Ethics Board and Government Accountability Board decisions and concludes that Van Sickle may take official action related to the annual budget if those actions affect her husband’s financial interest is remote and speculative.
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“So, for example, preliminary discussions and deliberations that set the general parameters of the budget, but do not specify any impact on salary or benefits, may be permissible as the impact on Councilor Van Sickle’s spouse’s salary and benefits would be merely speculative,” the opinion stated.
In 1996, the Ethics Board opined that a city council member, a retired city employee who received health insurance through the city, could vote on the annual budget as a whole as long as the member did not participate in discussion or votes on amendments affecting the council member’s health insurance. A 1997 opinion concluded that while a school board member, married to a teacher in the district, could not act in contract negotiations and votes to set the teachers’ salaries and benefits, the board member could act on the budget.
“If similar facts are present when considering the city’s annual budget, Councilor Van Sickle may be eligible to participate in official action,” the WEC opinion states.
“As expected, this opinion contains no surprises,” Paine said. “Councilor Van Sickle, just like other public officials before her, may continue to act on behalf of her constituents and work on our city budget. Like all public officials, we will have conflicts that arise from time to time. We will recuse ourselves as necessary from any potentially conflicting votes, but we expect those to be rare and minor issues. While we will collect further advice from the city attorney, this opinion largely establishes what most of us already knew: That this was merely a personal attack from a councilor with personal grievances. We are happy to see it resolved.”
Sutherland said it was not a personal attack and he would want others to do the same for him if he was in a position to have a potential conflict of interest.
The mayor’s salary is set by ordinances but it includes an annual increase equal to the percentage approved for full-time nonunion positions, and Van Sickle is on the committee that usually sets that, creating a potential for a conflict, Sutherland said.
The opinion states Van Sickle should avoid participation in any discussions, deliberations or votes regarding the salary paid to her spouse or the benefits he is eligible to receive.
Sutherland said the Council is better informed of what potential conflicts may arise for having sought the opinion.
“We will, as we always have, uphold our commitment to our community with a diligent eye toward caution and the laws that guide us,” Van Sickle said.