Two citizen applications to serve on Monona city committees were dismissed last week amid a push for more diversity among city leaders.
In a 2-4 vote, city council members did not advance Monona residents Sam Bohrod and Teresa Adams to the public works committee and library board, respectively, according to City Administrator Bryan Gadow.
The vote came on the tails of discussions among city officials on whether or not the city’s committees are diverse enough.
“The last several appointments we’ve made have not shown an effort to diversify our committees, and I haven’t seen any evidence that we’ve gone out of our way to recruit people of color or different backgrounds,” Alder Jennifer Kuhr said Sept. 7.
Council members decided to table the vote that night, pushing the final vote to last week’s Oct. 4 meeting.
Kuhr also indicated concern for a possible conflict of interest with Adams, as the library board applicant also serves with the Friends of the Monona Library group. The city alder said she believes that detail may accentuate a stigma that the city lacks new voices.
“By kind of perpetuating this internal appointment, we’re excluding folks in the community from having a voice in the library,” she said. “This also perpetuates the narrative that it’s a closed group of people that run things in the city, which, you know, we’re trying to get away from that narrative.”
Sue Carr, a Monona resident who helps run a local group called Anti-Racism Circle (ARC), echoed that in a public letter to city council members Oct. 4.
“There is a perception of a certain group of people who run the city, and the perception is that it’s exclusionary,” Carr said. “I have long been concerned that ordinary citizens in Monona don’t know how to get involved or do not feel welcomed into the processes.”
Monona Mayor Mary O’Connor said in an interview that while she understands why residents may feel that way, the perception of a closed group in city leadership is outdated.
“We certainly don’t try to give this impression that it’s a closed group, because I don’t think that’s true at all,” O’Connor said. “Over half the people appointed to committees right now are new as of the last four years.”
Since her election in 2017, O’Connor said she’s appointed a younger demographic to city committees, as well as more women.
According to documents included in the city council’s Oct. 4 agenda packet, women account for more Monona city committee members than men, with 43 women and 36 men sitting on current committees.
O’Connor said she believes the perception of a closed, exclusionary city makeup is a, “hold over from the way things used to be.”
City Alder Kristie Goforth, who serves on the city’s newly-established diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) workgroup, said in September that a lack of diversity on city committees has been a topic of discussion for the group.
“The committee selection process was discussed at length [by the DEI workgroup], and many people thought that having one diverse voice on a board or committee is just not adequate,” she said.
According to further documents included in the Oct. 4 packet, 11 people of color have been appointed to Monona committees since 2017, making up 8% of all current city committees.
As per 2020 census data, people of color makeup 6.7% of Monona’s total population.
Though, City Alder Molly Grupe said she believes the lack of diverse representation on city committees isn’t just due to the small population of people of color living in Monona.
“Sometimes we’re told that no candidates of color applied or no people of diverse backgrounds applied, and I don’t think that that’s a failure of people to have interest or enthusiasm about the possibility of participating,” Grupe said Sept. 7. “I think it means we’re not doing our due diligence in our outreach and involvement of our total community.”
O’Connor indicated that it may be more complex than that.
“We are really trying to do what we can to increase diversity on our committees but it’s hard… to find people, to get the word out about it,” said O’Connor. “I think there’s some misconceptions that we get a lot of applications for committees, and we do for a few of them, but not for a lot of others.”
According to the mayor, the city has around 20 committees.
Grupe went on to say that, in her four years on city council, committee appointments are rarely discussed at length before a vote is made, with Kuhr also commenting that an applicant’s first and last name is sometimes all the council receives about an individual when voting on committee appointments.
“Often we just get names, and that doesn’t mean a lot to me,” said Kuhr. “So we’re really kind of, we’re voting blindly.”
Going forward, Kuhr said she’d like to see more information about a candidate’s specific credentials.
Term limits were another potential solution discussed among council members this fall to increase diversity, as currently there are no enforced term limits for city committees.
“One other piece of that discussion that came forward [at the DEI workgroup] is talking about term limits on our committees, so we could have openings for new and diverse voices to come forward,” said Goforth on Sept. 7.
City Council President Kathy Thomas, though, described term limits as “a sticky wicket.”
“You don’t want a committee that nobody can ever get on, but there’s some people you don’t want to lose for committees,” Thomas said.
“I can see where people are coming from on [term limits], but I think it could be very problematic,” said O’Connor. “We have a lot of committees that a lot of people want to be on, but to force people off a lot of our other committees — that we have problems getting anyone even interested in or applying for — then we’d be sitting with a lot of open spaces that we’re unable to fill.”
The mayor emphasized that she does have the power not to reappoint a committee member when their seat is up for reappointment.
Prior to O’Connor’s election to mayor in 2017, there was no established set of guidelines for the committee appointment process, she said.
In 2018, O’Connor, along with City Alder Nancy Moore and former City Administrator April Little, drafted an eight-page packet to outline the process, and included a section emphasizing that diversity should be taken into account when selecting committee members.
The document was never brought to a vote from city council, but in light of recent conversations, Gadow said the packet will likely be brought back to council for possible adoption.
You can read the full eight-page document on page 22 of the council’s Oct. 4 agenda packet, located here: https://mymonona.com/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Agenda/2002?html=true.
In the meantime, Grupe stressed that the council’s decision to vote no on Bohrod and Adams’ applications isn’t personal.
“I know them both, I like them, it’s nothing personal,” she said last month. “[But] I do think avoiding the narrative that it’s a small [group] of people who internally make these decisions is very important.”
“[Just] because we’ve always done it this way, doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to do it this way,” Kuhr added.
Current committee openings
The city of Monona currently has openings on two city committees. Interested residents should complete the citizen committee application at mymonona.com or call (608)-222-2525 to request a paper application.
City officials have posted the following information on the city website.
Public Works Committee:
The Public Works Committee, under the direction of the City Council, oversees the construction and maintenance of streets, alleys, sidewalks, storm sewers, sanitary sewers, water system and other public works projects. The committee meets on the first Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m.
Applicants with a background in engineering, construction, or heavy equipment operation or management are preferred.
License Review Committee:
The License Review Committee reviews and makes recommendations to the City Council for all applications relating to fermented malt beverages, intoxicating liquor and massage establishments, as well as ordinance amendments pertaining to these and other licenses. Operators (Bartenders) are reviewed by the committee if necessary.
The committee works closely with the Police Department to ensure statutes and ordinances are followed. The committee meets as needed on the second Tuesday of each month at 4 p.m. Applicants with small business experience are preferred.