PRESS EDITORIAL: Hope for a new era of open city government

Citizens of the City of Port Washington should feel good about voting in the April 3 mayoral election, because their vote, regardless of which of the two candidates gets it, will likely result in a more open city government in which participation by the public is encouraged and respected.

Both candidates for mayor, Marty Becker and Adele Richert, spoke clearly and persuasively at a recent League of Women Voters forum in support of restoring transparency in city government and giving the public a greater voice.

Richert criticized the practice of holding closed meetings and said she would hold town hall meetings as forums for the public to be heard.

Drawing attention specifically to the repeated exclusion of the public from government meetings at the Port Washington City Hall, Becker declared to the forum’s standing-room-only crowd: “We have way too many closed sessions. The more you have closed sessions, the more people question what’s going on. There’s no need for most of these closed sessions.”

City officials earned that accurate assessment with a dismal record of shutting the doors to the public for dozens of meetings in the last several years, including an astonishing 22 closed sessions in the 15-month period from January 2016 through March 2017.

Many of the closed meetings were about the Blues Factory, the commercial development on public lakefront land opposed by many residents. Some of the most crucial decisions concerning that proposed harborside building were made in closed meetings and then quickly ratified by votes in public session with minimal discussion, which further stoked resentment over the already controversial development and undermined confidence in the city government.

In asserting the legality of these questionable meetings, City Attorney Eric Eberhardt gave the mayor and aldermen the justification they sought by parsing the text of the state Open Meetings Law for an exemption for “bargaining reasons.” 

In doing that, he, as well as the elected officials who had no excuse to not be well versed in the Open Meetings Law themselves, ignored the perfectly clear language of the statute’s Declaration of Policy, which states that the law “shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of government business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”      

The commitment by both Becker and Richert to a more open city government also bodes well for change in the management of Common Council meetings, which have become overlong and disorganized to the point of discouraging public engagement. Last week’s council meeting was typical of that state of affairs.

The agenda was lengthy and packed with important city business, including a public hearing concerning one of the biggest developments in the city’s history, the Newport Shores lakefront building. Many in the audience were there for that hearing, but had to wait until well past midnight for the council to act on the matter. Some, facing early-morning work obligations, left before the council dealt with the issue that brought them to City Hall.

The meeting dragged on for the usual reason, the regular agenda item that has become infamous for rhetorical excess— “mayor’s business.” 

Open government is not served by the practice of making meetings so long and tedious they discourage public attendance.

The March 20 council meeting went so long, in fact, that even the aldermen couldn’t take it any more. After Ald. John Sigwart pointed out, referring to an agenda item concerning yet another Blues Factory issue, “It’s kind of important, and we’re talking about it at 12:30 in the morning,” the council tabled the matter for a future meeting. 

Authorities on good government are uniform in their instruction that agendas for government meetings should be scrupulously followed and completed in a timely fashion and that presiding officials should not dominate the discourse with speechifying. 

Port Washington voters should expect that advice to be followed by the mayor they choose next week in keeping with the candidates’ mutual pledge to preside over a more accessible city government.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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