Alderman’s vote on rec center stirs social media debate

Some question whether Easter should have abstained
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Shawano Alderman Jeff Easter’s vote on the Common Council in favor of an agreement with the Shawano School District to pursue a joint recreational facility sparked a social media debate about whether he should have abstained as a school district employee.

Easter, who was elected to the council last month, is building and grounds director for the school district.

Easter said in an interview Thursday he did consider whether there would be any conflict in voting on the matter.

“I truly felt my interest and position (as alderman) is about the best interests of the city,” he said. “I didn’t think about anything else than that.”

Easter said there was no pressure from the school district regarding his vote and there was no benefit to him from voting either way.

“I don’t have anything to gain or lose from my employment with the school district in this matter, so I didn’t feel like there was any conflict there,” Easter said. “I don’t get fired if they don’t build this thing. I don’t get a bonus if they do. My life goes on. I’ve got plenty of work to do.”

Shawano resident Connie Magee disagreed with Easter casting a vote, posting on a local Facebook page that he should have recused himself.

”He should have excused himself from the vote because of a potential conflict of interest or lack of impartiality,” Magee wrote.

Shawano County Supervisor Deb Noffke, who lives in the same city district Easter represents, noted she would have thought about any potential conflict before voting.

”I always figure, if I have to ask the question, is it OK to vote on this, I already know the answer, and it is no,” Noffke wrote on the Facebook page.

Not everyone on Facebook felt he should have recused himself, though.

”As a taxpayer and parent/spouse and active member of a recreation center I do believe he should have a vote,” Shawano resident Joan Young wrote. “Also he is standing up for others who have that same thought.”

Easter said no one from the city brought the issue up or asked him what he thought about it, and that it didn’t occur to him to discuss the matter with the city attorney.

“My mentality going in was to do my job as an alderman, to seek out what I thought was best for the city of Shawano and the people who live in it, and I voted accordingly,” he said.

Easter noted that both the city and the school district are tax-funded entities.

“In both positions, my thoughts are to do the best for my employer which is the taxpayer,” Easter said. “I didn’t see a conflict in that regard. The benefit I’m looking out for, whether I’m working for the school district or on the city council, is I’m looking out for the taxpayer, who is essentially paying me to do my job.”

Easter also received some criticism from community members who spoke at Monday’s school board meeting for seeming to appear as a school district spokesman in social media posts answering questions about the proposed project.

“I have a lot of information to share about what’s factual in this whole thing that’s being proposed,” Easter said. “I’ve been trying to make sure people understand the facts.”

Easter said he wants people to be able to make an informed decision.

“I don’t care which way they go with it,” he said. “Personally, do I think this thing would be nice? Yes. Personally, do I think it’s a heck of a lot of money? Absolutely. I don’t know how to overcome that.”

The facility has been projected to cost as much as $28 million, according to early estimates.

“The question is, are people comfortable with that number or not,” Easter said. “If they’re not, then we look at another way to proceed.”

The Common Council narrowly approved the agreement with the school district by a vote of 3-2, with one council member absent.

Easter was joined in his yes vote by council members Seth Mailahn and Lisa Hoffman.

Sandy Steinke and John Hoeffs voted against. Alderwoman Rhonda Strebel was not present for the meeting.

There is no law that governs whether Easter should have voted.

According to the Robert’s Rules of Order that guide governmental meetings, “No member should vote on a question in which he/she has a direct personal or pecuniary interest not common to other members.”

However, the rules also state that, “No member can be compelled to refrain from voting,” which would have left the decision entirely up to Easter.

Former Mayor Lorna Marquardt pointed out Robert’s Rules during the Facebook discussion, but noted most elected officials err on the side of caution.

”Most elected officials opt not to vote on issues that might give residents cause to question their impartiality or the possibility they may personally benefit from the decision,” Marquardt wrote.

Had Easter abstained, the vote would have been tied, requiring Mayor Ed Whealon to cast the tie-breaking vote.

Whealon said Thursday he doesn’t know how he would have voted.

However, Whealon noted, the agreement, which lays out the responsibilities for the city and the school district should the facility go forward, does not bind the city to the project.

He said the agreement only allows the city and the school district to continue exploring the possibility of a joint facility.

“There are still a lot of questions to be answered,” Whealon said.

The proposed joint-recreational and aquatic center would replace the city’s existing recreation center and expand facilities at SCHS.

It would be located adjacent to SCHS, on the north side of the building, and would include the school’s existing competition pool.

It would add a separate community pool area; a fitness area, including weights and cardiovascular equipment; a multi-purpose space; gymnasium; racquetball court; and indoor multi-purpose facility and walking track; as well as offices, bathrooms, lockers, storage and other amenities.

It would go to a district referendum next April if a survey planned for this fall shows sufficient interest.