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Smaller committees, not one big one for city
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MONROE - The idea to shift from the Common Council's system from separate committees to a Committee as a Whole was interrupted by a recent ruling by Dane County Circuit Judge Rhonda Lanford which made the formation of such a large committee impossible. Rather than forming one large committee, the council is looking to reduce the size of all its committees.

The decision may also have widespread implications throughout the state. The Green County District Attorney Office has decided to look into how the county conducts itself during committee meetings.

Alderwoman Brooke Bauman said she was disappointed to see the chance at a full council standing committee replace the six separate ones operating currently. She serves on three, and pointed to miscommunication as a daunting obstacle for the council to tackle once members meet in full session.

"Before you vote on something, you want as much information as possible," Bauman said. "A committee as a whole is the best way to do that. Missed discussion causes rifts."

City Attorney Rex Ewald described the change to smaller committees as a cautionary measure due to the decision Lanford made in an open meetings violation case brought against the city. Her verdict, rendered in November, included language which made a decision by a majority of council members during a committee meeting an action on behalf of the entire council that could not be retracted.

The case was brought against the Salary and Personnel Committee by former Utility Director Alan Eckstein. Eckstein claimed four city council members at the time - Charles Schuringa, Louis Armstrong, Brooke Bauman and Reid Stangel - violated open meetings law by making a decision to recommend Eckstein be terminated which exceeded the scope of the meeting's agenda. Alderwoman Chris Beer, Assistant City Administrator Martin Shanks and City Attorney Rex Ewald were also present during the committee meeting.

On Nov. 17, Gregg Gunta, the attorney hired by the city in the case, explained the outcome to the council, and elaborated on the ripple effect of Lanford's decision. He said the verdict will lead to stricter supervision by the state on governmental committees, and he advised against a large number of council members present for committee meetings. Lanford's judgment took law that was previously "ambiguous" and ensured action taken by a majority of aldermen during a committee meeting spoke for the entire council. Gunta said the Monroe Common Council meeting after the committee decision to end the city's relationship with Eckstein "could not rectify actions taken on Sept. 10, 2013" and that the only way to make sure it did not happen again was to limit the numbers in each committee.

Last Monday, the Judiciary and Ordinance Review Committee agreed to an ordinance which will repeal and replace Monroe city code to reduce the size of all committees. New sections outlined that the Finance and Taxation, Judiciary and Ordinance Review and the Salary and Personnel committees will have four members, with three eligible to vote and one alternate in place. The Board of Public Works will have an identical makeup; previously, the BPW had five voting members and one alternate. For Judiciary and Ordinance Review, there were five total appointed. The Salary and Personnel Committee had previously been comprised of six total aldermen and the Finance and Taxation committee had five total members. The License Committee and Public Safety Committee were already composed of only four members.

"I think it's really going to limit the availability of information, and it's hard for the public because of numerous scheduled meetings," Bauman said. "Obviously, we want to make sure we're operating within the letter of the law, but it is disappointing. This decision is definitely going to be bigger than us. It will be interesting to see what happens."

The decision by the Judiciary and Ordinance Review committee was brought to the council Tuesday. The aldermen approved a public hearing on the issue for the Dec. 15 meeting.