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Tensions run high at Green Bay council meeting

By Heather Graves

GREEN BAY – A discussion on the possible use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars toward green infrastructure projects quickly turned heated at the Tuesday, Feb. 1, City Council meeting. 

Some council members questioned Mayor Eric Genrich’s place in the conversation.

The topic involved discussion and possible action on an allocation of nearly $1 million toward three different stormwater projects using ARPA funds from the council-approved Stormwater, Green Infrastructure and Climate Resilience fund.

Following a handful of statements and questions from members of the council, Genrich interjected with what he described as a point of clarification.

“A couple quick points, these projects were included in the capital improvement plan (that has been proposed),” he said. “So without the ARPA resources, these projects were slated to be funded with stormwater utility resources. What we are doing here is taking ARPA dollars to fund three particular projects. These projects were chosen, because of the fact that they are a bit more innovative and making some green infrastructure investments. So, the reason that was done was to free up…”

District 8 Alderperson Chris Wery interrupted Genrich, claiming he was debating the issue, an action he would not be permitted to do as chair, and Wery asked him to step down as presiding officer of the meeting.

“I’m not debating,” Genrich said before continuing. “The reason that was done was to supplant that stormwater funding in order to free up those resources, which can be spent flexibly all across the city on businesses and residencies.”

City Council President Jesse Brunette took exception with Genrich’s explanation for his comments, and looked to Interim City Attorney Joanne Bungert for clarification.

                              Jesse Brunette
                                  Eric Genrich
                                   Chris Wery

“You just had an exchange with Alderman Wery, and I would like a little clarification from the city attorney, because in the past, the former mayor, and I am not trying to make a big deal about it, but it was always something I was kind of curious about,” Brunette said. “In the past, the former mayor would step down when he was advocating a position. He would do that quite often. He’d give the gavel to the city council president. Attorney, could you give some clarification on that? Can the mayor advocate for a position as chair, or can he answer questions when he’s asked questions? And again, I am not trying to be difficult, but I think we need some clarification, because I don’t like tension if we can avoid it.”

Bungert said, according to the city’s ordinance, “the presiding officer may speak on a question, or make a new motion when they vacate their role as presiding officer, and the definition of speaking on a question involves debate.”

“So providing information or providing background information by the presiding officer is much akin to how staff would be providing information or answering questions or giving clarification… with respect to information council members need in order to debate,” she said.

Bungert said in regards to the exchange in question, “I believe the mayor was providing context, and he did indicate that he was not debating. He was not advocating for it one way or another.”

Brunette said he disagreed with Bungert’s interpretation of the mayor’s comments, saying the mayor was “leading the discussion toward a potential outcome that you find desirable.”

“I think as chairman, you need to step down, I (am) city council president, I would take the gavel, you can speak for hours on end, I wouldn’t care, but when you advocate a position from your chair, it is not appropriate,” he said. “I agree with Alderman Wery. I haven’t said anything in the past, but you do this more and more. Just step down.”

Genrich said he appreciated the point Brunette made, “but I think I am pretty sensitive to the rules of this body, but I will certainly take that to heart.”

Brunette immediately rebutted Genrich saying “you are very sensitive to criticism, and this is a perfect example of that.”

Bungert further explained that she didn’t say whether Genrich’s comments were appropriate or not, “I simply stated that as part of the discussion that he was having, he stated he is not debating the issue, but providing context and clarification.”

“So, I, as the parliamentarian, and I’m not taking a side as to the substance, I am basically putting forth the rules, and the body regulates itself,” she said. “So, I don’t act as the judge in making a determination as to whether he was or was not, I am basically restating what his position or statements were, and he stated he was not debating the issue, but providing clarification.”

Brunette said he stands by his statement “that he is answering questions directed toward staff to get a desired outcome… if staff reports to him, and these are his objectives and his ideas, if he steps in and answers…”

Vice President Barbara Dorff interrupted with a point of order.

“Is this even germane to the discussion?” Dorff questioned. “I’m sorry, President Brunette, but I’ve heard enough. This is not germane to the discussion. Your criticism of the mayor is not what we are dealing with.” 

Back to the issue

The discussion eventually got back on track after its brief detour. 

The main concerns some council members had in regards to the two most expensive green infrastructure projects – equaling a combined $930,000 – is their exact benefits wouldn’t be known until implemented.

Wery said the city’s focus should be on immediate needs, not expensive wants.

“Take that $1 million dollars and put it toward basic needs, not things from an expensive wish list,” he said. “Do we want to buy 15 police cars and a fire truck, just as an example, roughly, or do we want to do these programs that may work? We won’t know until they are built, until we study if we want to use them. I think that is a very poor use of money… I am sure there are more basic things that we can do with it than some pie-in-the-sky project that might not even work.”

Dorff said the city has to start somewhere.

“I believe this is a good place to start,” she said. “This is absolutely a good use of ARPA funding.”

The council ultimately held off on using ARPA money for two of the projects – biofiltration systems installed in the street terrace of Roosevelt Street and 850 feet of permeable pavement and biofiltration systems on Van Buren Street from E. Mason to Stuart – and decided instead to explore other alternatives for the money.

A tie vote on the third project – a rebate and cost-share structure rain barrel program at a cost of $60,000 – was broken with an approving vote by the mayor.

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