The committee that oversees the city's ethics policy is conducting business by email, according to minutes of the committee's last meeting. The committee voted April 14 to review its annual report to the City Council and the Mayor's office by email.
Chairman Mary Wyant told committee members she will "generate" the annual report and email it to committee members for review before submitting it to the council and the Mayor. The committee, apparently, will not review or vote on its annual report at a public meeting. That's likely a violation of the state open meetings law.
Ethics Committee members at the April 14 meeting included: Wyant, Jay Christie, Diana Valencia and Doug Nicholson. Committee member Russell Missurelli was absent.
Former Alderman Pete Karas, a hawk for open government, brought the committee's actions to RacinePost's attention.
The Ethics Committee isn't the first city committee to conduct business by email. Last year, the city's Loan Board of Review was forced to change its procedures after it was discovered committee members were voting by email.
Here's the full report in the Ethics Committee meeting minutes:
10-4922 Subject: (Direct Referral) Discussion of report to be filed with Mayor and Common Council no later than May 1, 2010 concerning its actions in the preceding calendar year.Update: City Administrator Tom Friedel sent over the following update about the Ethics Committee:
Recommendation of the Board of Ethics on 4-14-10: That the Chairman generate the report and send to the Common Council before May 1, 2010.
Fiscal Note: N/A
Chairman Wyant stated she will generate the report and e-mail to committee members for review before submitting to the Common Council.
Received and Filed
Please add an update that no members of the board found a need to contact the chairman with any corrections to the report. The report, as approved by the board, is attached to the agenda for the next city council meeting on Tuesday. Your statement that, “ The committee, apparently, will not review or vote on its annual report at a public meeting” is misleading. Had there been a need to make corrections or changes, the chairman would have called another meeting before sending the report to the common council.Here's the response I sent to Friedel:
I’m surprised that a veteran reporter like you did not offer the chairman of the board an opportunity to comment on the story before you indicted the board for conducting business by email. Conducting business is a very broad term that, by itself, would not constitute a violation of the open meetings law.
Hi Tom,Update 2: I just got a call from someone not happy with this story. Their point, basically, was the members of the committee are good people who are volunteering their time to take part in city government. It's an absolutely fair point. Volunteer committee members give up their time and effort at little personal benefit and should be thanked for their service.
Thank you for the update. I'll post it with the story.
I'm surprised the city is OK with even the suggestion of a committee doing anything by email. I know this is a minor instance, but it's pretty clear under state law that committee members shouldn't vote or discuss issues by email. If we wouldn't have brought attention to this instance, we would have had no way of knowing if the report was emailed, if changes were requested or if the committee accepted the report. It's the same thing as the Loan Board voting by email. There's no public accountability when actions occur outside of official meetings.
You're free to think whatever you'd like about my reporting skills. But I'm going to keep bringing up these instances, and I may rely solely on the official minutes of meetings to do so.
I'd add that under no circumstance was this a major violation of the Open Meetings Law, if it was a violation at all. We're talking about pretty minor stuff here. But our job is to be hyper-vigilant about city officials governing in the open, and when we see official committee reports being emailed around without final approval from the committee, we get concerned.
That said, all other business the Ethics Committee conducted at its April 14 meetings looks to be on the up-and-up, and we've never heard any other concerns about their actions. It's a good group, I just wish they wouldn't have sent that report out by email.