City debates if aldermen should have more appointment powers for committees

Ordinance debated several times despite being tabled

Pat Fribis

Pat Fribis

By Lucas Irizarry, Staff Reporter

A Sunset Hills ordinance granting the Board of Aldermen nomination powers for committees was tabled but still the topic of contentious debate at a meeting June 14.

The ordinance would allow both the board and mayor power to nominate members for all committees outside of parks and planning boards. The current ordinance only allows the mayor to nominate each member, with approval voted on by the board.

The ordinance was tabled at the beginning of the meeting by Ward 1 Alderman Joe Stewart and a board vote. Stewart said with this meeting being his last, he didn’t feel it was “right or fair” for him to vote on it. Stewart submitted his resignation as alderman effective June 30 since he is moving out of the city.

Despite the preemptive tabling, the board still argued the merits of the ordinance during public comment and general discussion. The discussion featured two arguments — keep the current ordinance and rely on the checks and balances in place, or adopt the new ordinance.

Public comment

The first mention of the ordinance came during public comment, with several citizens and Mayor Pat Fribis arguing against the change. 

Anne Jesse of the Sunset Hills Historical Society said the current ordinance has existed since 1957, and the “occasional misfire” doesn’t warrant changing the ordinance. She said the board and mayor should attempt to work together for nominations before changing the ordinance.

Sunset Hills resident Marie Davis, in a submitted comment, said the ordinance seems to undermine the April election for mayor, which Fribis won over Board President Ward 2 Alderman Christine Lieber.

“With the Board of Aldermen being presided over by the mayor’s opponent in the recent election, this does not abide by the people’s choice. As a Sunset Hills citizen and business owner since 1984, I say no to the suggested change,” Davis stated. “This proposed change of power certainly gives the appearance of an under-the-table removal of the valid votes of people like me.”

Fribis followed up the comments with her own public comment, much to the ire of some aldermen. Fribis said the ordinance “frustrates the intent and will of a majority of residents of Sunset Hills.”

“Sadly in my opinion this new ordinance overrules 65 years of the city’s method and procedure for appointing board and committee members. (It) not only frustrates the democratic principles of separation of powers, but also reflects contempt and disrespect of the election results,” Fribis said.

Ward 3 Alderman Randy Epperson took issue with Fribis’ use of public comment. He said the comment shouldn’t qualify as such when it was a “soapbox as a mayor.” He said the mayor’s comments and editorial in the Horizon Newsletter were misleading about the effect of the ordinance — the editorial stated the ordinance would remove appointing power from the mayor, when it would actually just add the power for the board.

Ward 4 Alderman Fred Daues later revisited Fribis’ public comment usage and the newsletter. Daues said he didn’t like the precedent of using public comment as an elected official since it doesn’t leave room for rebuttal. 

“There was never a movement … where the Board of Aldermen was looking to take away authority from our mayor. That certainly is not my intention,” Daues said.

This is not the first time an elected official has used public comments to make their own comments. Last year, Ward 2 Alderman Casey Wong submitted comments as a member of the public against an ordinance that would repeal the unanimous vote required to suspend the rules for a second reading.

However, he did not give his comments himself. His were submitted to the city administrator and read into the public record during the meeting by the mayor. 

Attendance policy

The ordinance was discussed for a second time during the original planned agenda spot before the tabling. Instead of focusing on the ordinance, the board looked at implementing a different attendance policy for committee members.

One of the original reasons the ordinance was called for was the attendance record of some of Fribis’ nominees in May. Daues passed out a copy of another city’s law regarding attendance. He pointed out that four park board members have been on the board for seven years or more and of those four, three are the most absent over the past year.

“The point there is not to say they haven’t been terrific members, but clearly in the here and now they aren’t participating at the level we would like,” Daues said. 

Wong agreed there should be a “no hard feelings” removal policy in place, especially for boards with a small number of members. 

“It just seems … if you can’t attend a majority of meetings, it’s time to move on,” Wong said.

The board will review a possible new attendance policy at a future meeting.

General discussion

The final deliberation of the ordinance came during general discussion at the end of the meeting. Wong took the opportunity to speak about the need for checks and balances in the city. He said stalemates are an important part of the current policy.

“There’s going to be a stalemate and the natural consequence is compromise. That’s what was intended by these stalemates,” Wong said. “Aside from the semantics, we’re not just adding power. As a practical consequence … we are stripping the mayoral appointment power — that would not result in stalemate … (or) compromise.”

Ward 1 Alderman Ann McMunn agreed with Wong’s point since the board already has the power to vote down mayoral nominations. Addressing Fribis, McMunn said she hopes this discussion will let the mayor see where the board is as a group, and allow them to reach compromises without the need for an ordinance.

Daues said while he agrees with some of Wong’s points, he doesn’t think the May nominations were given to the board in a fair manner to allow it to evaluate and vote on each one.