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Staff can remain on city panels

City employees can continue to serve on city boards, committees and commissions. The majority of the city council denied efforts by Council President Ed Anderson and Councilors Bob Finsland and Nick Milroy to change city ordinances so city employ...

City employees can continue to serve on city boards, committees and commissions.

The majority of the city council denied efforts by Council President Ed Anderson and Councilors Bob Finsland and Nick Milroy to change city ordinances so city employees could only serve on such committees in an advisory capacity. The change would have removed the city employees as voting members of city committees.

"I don't know why you would want to exclude city employees from voting participation on any city commission, board or committee," said City Attorney Frog Prell, who questioned the legality and constitutionality of such an ordinance. "I think that is getting very close to disenfranchisement. I frankly don't understand why we would exclude upwards of 280 employees from having a voice vote in local government by virtue of their employment status ... that baffles me."

Prell said the ordinance would exclude, for example, an employee interested in the well-being of the library would be excluded from participation if they worked for the fire department or the wastewater treatment plant.

"I think this gets real close to unconstitutional, illegal, based on categorizing a group of people by virtue of their employment status," Prell said.

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Anderson, Finsland and Milroy brought the idea to the council because of the potential for employees' positions as city staff members conflicting with their role as an employee or the potential for a supervisor to bring retribution because of the way they vote.

"The whole purpose of this is to protect employees," Milroy said.

Councilor Chuck Hendry, who favored eliminating employees from city committees, questioned the ability of the mayor to appoint someone who would act as his representative on a city panel.

While the mayor has had the power to appoint people to the various city committees, the council confirms those appointments. Prell likened the appointments to the president's prerogative to appoint members of the Supreme Court. While likely to appoint someone philosophically similar, he said that doesn't mean the appointee will be strong-armed by the person making the appointment.

Anderson said the ordinance would only affect panels established by state statute or city ordinance. It would have allowed staff to serve in an advisory capacity.

"If there's no incompatibility, city employees can certainly serve," Anderson said. However, he said incompatibility, which could include result in employee retribution or one office conflicting with another should be addressed.

However, no one could cite examples of employees suffering retribution because of their vote on a committee or participation conflicting with employment.

"I would love to hear it if there are specific examples,'' Council Vice President Kevin Norbie said. "Let it be heard and dealt with."

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Norbie joined Councilors Tom Quick, Tom Bridge, Jackie Stenberg and Esther Dalbec to defeat a motion to refer the issue to the city attorney to draft an ordinance and seek an opinion about the legality of the ordinance from the state attorney general.

Bridge said the checks and balances are certainly in place in the event conflicts or incompatibility became an issue. He said he didn't see the proposal as an issue.

Quick agreed. After all, the council has final say on any policy considered at the committee level and has confirmation rights over appointments to city boards, committees and commissions, he said.

Anderson, Finsland, Milroy and Councilor Chuck Hendry favored referring the matter to the city attorney to draft an ordinance.

Councilor Dennis Dalbec was excused from Tuesday night's meeting to attend the League of Municipalities annual meeting.

Dalbec said city staff bring a level of expertise to the panel, which only makes a recommendation to the council. The council doesn't always accept those recommendations, as was the case when the Redevelopment Authority recommended earlier this year developable property on Barker's Island should be sold to Jack Culley.

Mayor Dave Ross said he was pleased the council rejected the proposal that would have taken away the administration's voice in public policy making. He said the reason city staff, particularly department heads, serve on committees is to represent the administration's perspective and implications of retribution were out of line.

"This would have been a big step backwards," Ross said. "I hope we don't go back to this bogeyman mentality we had a few years ago."

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Shelley Nelson can be reached at (715) 395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com .

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