By Brandi Makuski
In what was expected to be a routine approval on mayoral appointees to the city’s new bike commission ended with a categorical rejection of the entire group chosen by the mayor.
Councilwoman Tori Jennings asked for additional discussion on the topic at Monday’s city council meeting, inquiring about the mayor’s claim that following a month-long application window, two spots on the six-person commission remain unfilled.
Jennings was central in creating the bicycle and pedestrian street safety commission (BPSSC) and wrote an ordinance with membership requirements Mayor Mike Wiza believes were so specific they excluded otherwise qualified candidates.
During what are becoming regular testy exchanges between the two at city meetings, Jennings told the mayor she “obviously did not write the BPSSC ordinance with the intention of unseating anyone who served on BPAC at the time the ordinance was adopted”.
“On the contrary, I assumed, mayor, that you would see how the individuals you selected for BPAC (the defunct bicycle/pedestrian advisory committee) aligned with the recommendations in the ordinance,” Jennings said on May 21. “I further assumed that in order to maintain continuity and efficiency, you would simply move BPAC members to the BPSSC given their expertise and service to date. I did not foresee that you would disband BPAC and solicit applications—which in turn created more work for you; and delays.”
But Wiza said he was following the law as written by Jennings and approved by the council in April, which called for specific expertise and did not include grandfathering BPAC members onto the new commission.
“Because the council chose the specific criteria for the appointments, we have applicants who do not qualify for the committee but would be good candidates to serve,” Wiza said, adding he’s discussed with the city attorney whether the ordinance can, as written, cover applicants who may not meet the exact criteria outlined.
City Attorney Logan Beverage said last week he agreed with Wiza’s assessment of the ordinance. On Monday night, he said he’d changed his mind, saying he believed the wording was open to interpretation. Wiza said he plans to seek additional opinions from lawyers outside of city employment.
Until he gets that second opinion, Wiza said the council had two options: they could either change the language of the ordinance to “relax the requirements for commission members” at a future meeting; or the city could approve the appointees, allowing the four people identified by Wiza to meet as a quorum of the commission, and continue taking applications until the remaining two spots are filled.
Under the ordinance, the five members and one alternate “should have, to the extent practicable, known experience and interest in pedestrian and bicycle transportation safety as well as familiarity with the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the Portage County Countywide Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan…[t]he commission should include: An Engineer or Planner; Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Advocate; Bicycle Friendly Business owner; Safety Educator, an Alderperson, and a non-voting Community Development or Public Works staff liaison.”
Wiza’s appointees included Michael O’Meara, a traffic engineer who also previously served as a city councilman; Trevor Roark as a bike safety advocate; Associate Planner Kyle Kearns, who works in the community development dept., as the city liaison; and Ald. Mary McComb as the council liaison. Resident Janet Borski was identified as an alternate.
None of the applicants, Wiza said, met the qualifications as a safety educator or a bicycle-friendly business owner.
Jennings offered a different lineup, one that included former BPAC members Anne Rogalski, Michael O’Meara, Bill Fehrenbach, and Trevor Roark. Wiza said they were excellent candidates, but not all met the criteria written by Jennings.
“I was trying to find a way to determine how these otherwise very qualified people would meet the requirements you laid out,” Wiza said. “These were your words and I’m trying to follow them. Until we have the language right, I don’t feel right doing this.”
Wiza recommended the council approve the appointees he’d presented, so the group could at least begin meeting, adding, “We have already missed one grant opportunity [related to bicycle issues].”
Councilman Mike Phillips moved to accept the four appointees. Aldermen Jeremy Slowinski and Shaun Morrow also voted in favor.
The remaining council members—Jennings, Meleesa Johnson, Mary McComb, Mary Kneebone, Cathy Dugan and Cindy Nebel—all voted to reject the four appointees.
“Okay; we do not yet have a BPSSC,” Wiza said.