Downtown group expands its board but declines to adopt open-meetings law as required by Port aldermen
With $80,000 of public money hanging in the balance, Port Main Street Inc. leaders on Monday tried to placate city officials by expanding the board of directors, but failed to add to the bylaws a clause that it will follow the Wisconsin Open Meetings law — a requirement of aldermen who will decide in the coming weeks whether to fund the organization next year.
The board did, however, informally agree to add a clause that it would abide by the spirit of the law and its requirements of openness and public notice. That proposal was to be reviewed by its bylaws committee Friday.
The board on Monday also reviewed a proposed $135,000 budget for 2014 that seeks not only the $25,000 city contribution to Main Street but also $55,000 in funding from the Business Improvement District.
And following a two-hour closed session, the board fired its executive director, Sara Grover, effective Jan. 1, saying the change is needed to bring the program to “a new level of success and long-term sustainability.”
That sustainability is largely dependent on city funding, and City Administrator Mark Grams said Tuesday aldermen would not even consider the request for funding until the Main Street board adopts the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law as a standard by which it will operate.
“It (the open meeting law) is a very pivotal thing the council wants,” Grams said. “The finance committee is adamant about this. If they want the money, this is what they have to do. These are public dollars.”
At risk are the contributions from both the city and BID, because the Common Council must approve the BID operating plan. If Main Street doesn’t amend its bylaws, aldermen won’t approve a BID plan that funds the organization, Grams stressed.
He said he won’t invite Main Street to the Finance and License Committee’s budget meeting Tuesday unless the change is made.
“We’ll just meet with the BID,” Grams said.
A long-time backer of the Main Street program, John Sigwart, urged the council on Tuesday not to fund the organization.
“I strongly believe in the program, except we’re totally disfunctional,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve proven themselves worthy of handling the funds from the city or BID.”
This was not a recommendation he made lightly, Sigwart said, but one based on “a series of bad decisions by the board.”
On Tuesday, aldermen appointed the 11-member BID board, something it hadn’t done for several years, and set staggered three-year terms for the members. Only two members were reappointed — Mark Schowalter of Port Washington State Bank and Bill Schanen III of Port Publications.
“We’d fallen down on the job a bit,” Mayor Tom Mlada said, noting the city was in violation of its own rules by not making the appointments. “We had a very active body of people who wanted to be part of this.”
New members of the group are Lisa Krier of Duluth Trading Co., Gertjan van den Broek of Renew Port Holdings, Tammy Thompson-Oreskovic of ZuZu Pedals, Brian Barber of Lake Financial Group, Neil Tiziani of Ansay & Associates, Ross Leinweber of Cedar Road Capital, former mayor Scott Huebner, Wayne Chrusciel of Fireworks Popcorn and Ald. Bill Driscoll.
The relationship between the city and Main Street has been strained since the Rock the Harbor Harley-Davidson anniversary celebration in August lost tens of thousands of dollars and put the organization in a precarious financial position.
Rock the Harbor was planned by two members of the Main Street board at the time, Amy Gannon, who was the board president but has since left the organization, and Cathy Wilger, who repeatedly promised not to use any Main Street funds for the event.
Aldermen demanded accountability, with some going as far as suggesting the entire board of directors step down, and transparency after the board changed its bylaws to omit references to the open meetings law.
The clause requiring the board to follow the open meetings law has been part of the Main Street bylaws since the group was created five years ago, a nod to the fact that the program receives public funds.
Jim Biever, president of the Main Street board, said the organization is committed to openness and accessibility, noting the group has always held open meetings except when dealing with personnel matters and contract negotiations. The change to the bylaws was made to simplify things for member unfamiliar with the open meetings law, he said.
But board members on Monday expressed concern that the requirements of the law, such as setting agendas and posting them 24 hours before meetings and limits on e-mail communications between members, would be onerous.
“It sounds to me like it creates a lot more havoc,” board member Dave Didier said, adding it might “take our time and energy away from what we should be doing. Let’s not over-think this. We’re trying to achieve transparency without the complexity of the state law.”
Mlada, a member of the board, said that despite the restrictions imposed by the law, it’s the right thing to do.
“The positives outweigh the inconveniences,” he said. “There’s a legal aspect to this, but then there’s a ‘right’ aspect to it. At all times, what we ought to abide by is the principle we are as transparent as possible.”
Given the conditions attached, board member Marcia Endicott questioned whether Main Street should seek the city funding or instead rely on fundraisers and events to finance operations.
Fundraising is a time-consuming and difficult task, several members said. It took nine months to raise $27,000 to help finance Maritime Heritage Festival, Grover noted.
The proposed budget includes not only the traditional Main Street events such as Maritime Heritage Festival, Kiss of Indulgence and Christmas on the Corner but several new fundraisers as well, including a bloody Mary tasting contest.
Main Street board members tabled the issue, sending it to its bylaws committee. Biever said there are several other issues, such as setting a specific process for nominating and electing board members and clarifying terms, that will also be addressed by the committee.
At Monday’s meeting, the board said farewell to two members, Rob Helm and Maria Kiesow, and elected three new members, Huebner, Karen Poull of Schooner Pub and Jim Wirsching-Neuser of Vines to Cellar.
One of the city’s other conditions for funding is that the board expand its membership, bringing in people who would have different viewpoints.
Whether its decision to fire Grover, who enjoyed support on the Common Council, will have an impact on the budget decision has yet to be seen, city officials said.
“It probably will weigh on some of them (aldermen),” Grams said.
Grover has been Main Street’s executive director since its inception, and previously was the BID executive director. In a statement released Tuesday, the board offered no indication why she was being removed, instead praising her years of service.
“Under Sara’s leadership and as a direct result of her contributions, the city’s downtown business district has become vibrant once again,” the statement says. “Her outreach and advocacy to new businesses, coordination of numerous promotional events and implementation of the Main Street model was impactful and brought the city’s Main Street program state and national recognition.” Grover added little, saying in a statement, “The Port Washington Main Street Board of Directors has decided to take the Main Street Program in a different direction, and as a result we have decided to part ways.”