Our Views: How not to go about making a law

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Gazette Editorial Board
Sunday, March 19, 2017

The process of churning out laws is sometimes described as sausage making because it can be so difficult to watch.

But City Manager Mark Freitag and Janesville City Council member Jens Jorgensen seemed to have taken this ugliness to a new level with their handling of a proposed ordinance aimed at spending on consultants.

Our view shared in an editorial two weeks ago that Jorgensen's proposal is unnecessary still stands, though we hope the council now draws lessons from the experience, focusing on how it could have prevented the dispute over whether Freitag's office should have drafted the proposal as Jorgensen requested.

Freitag appeared to be withholding his cooperation because he views Jorgensen's proposal as micromanaging City Hall and doesn't believe the majority of the city council supports greater controls on consultant spending. Freitag even suggested four city council members should back Jorgensen's proposal before Freitag's staff invests the time to draft it.

There are a few problems with Freitag's position.

By asking that four council members support a proposal before agreeing to use his office's resources to draft it, Freitag would be inserting his office into the council's legislative role, erecting an arbitrary barrier for any proposal that doesn't have at least four votes.

Furthermore, such a requirement would encourage council members to violate the state's open meeting laws, which prohibit government bodies from meeting without proper notice. For Jorgensen to get four members to sign onto his proposal, he might feel pressured to call or email them and debate the proposal's merits out of public view, which could constitute what's known as a walking quorum, a violation of open meetings law.

If councilors want to get a proposal on the council's meeting agenda, the threshold should be low enough as to encourage the council to debate ideas—even bad ones—in a public setting. By setting up roadblocks, Freitag would be stifling public discourse, although we don't believe stifling public discourse is Freitag's intent.

As Jorgensen explains it, the council has traditionally allowed individual members to get proposals drafted if at least two members support it. In this case, council member Carol Tidwell joined Jorgensen in asking that a consultant proposal be drafted. Even so, Freitag declined.

The two-member minimum apparently is only a tradition, not a formal procedure. The council might save itself future grief by adopting procedures spelling out the roles of the city manager and city council in drafting ordinances or other policies.

Finally, there are lessons for Jorgensen, too. His relative inexperience was showing in this recent dispute. He could have communicated better with Freitag so Freitag better understood what Jorgensen wanted.

As Freitag explained it, Jorgensen wasn't providing his staff with necessary information. A conversation with the city manager before launching into a fact-finding mission likely would have gone a long way in preventing a public spat.

Nobody expects council members and Freitag to agree on every issue, but good communication is key when disagreements arise to prevent them from turning into something even worse than the typical sausage-making fest.



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