City Council Vote Grabs National Headlines

Council rule impacting nursing moms, kids stirs controversy

by Lauren Fisher

Council member Catherine Emmanuelle at Eau Claire City Council meeting on Tuesday, October 24.
Council member Catherine Emmanuelle at the Eau Claire City Council's meeting on Tuesday, October 24.

After months of positive press coverage concerning Eau Claire’s economic and cultural growth, we find ourselves in the beam of national attention once again – but for something far more divisive. Through The Associated Press, hundreds of outlets, including the New York Times and Washington Post, have picked up a story about the Eau Claire City Council’s Oct. 24 decision to restrict infants and toddlers from being on the dais – the raised platform from which council members participate in public meetings. The council voted 7-1 to enact the rule, with three abstaining out of protest. It is the first standing rule the council has adopted regarding meeting decorum.

“Our city council showed that they weren’t willing to figure out how to make it work, and that concerns me.” – Eau Claire City Councilman Andrew Werthmann

Headlines emphasized the impact the decision will have on council members’ ability to nurse while performing their public service. The Associated Press published a piece entitled “Eau Claire City Council votes to ban children from dais after breastfeeding debate,” which has been run with slight variations by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Under different headlines, numerous local and national news and niche publications have run stories on the issue. The Huffington Post hosted a contributor piece entitled “Banning Elected Moms from Breastfeeding is on the Wrong Side of History.”

Social media reactions to these pieces have been varied and heated, with many arguing that the measure is regressive, inconsiderate to women, and in violation of Wisconsin state law. Others say that when at work, parents should prioritize their job duties, and that having and nursing children at council meetings is distracting to the parent, council, and public. Many share the abstaining council members’ opinion that the matter of nursing during public service should have been handled without legislation.

On Friday afternoon, 12 members of the Wisconsin State Legislature penned a letter to the Eau Claire City Council imploring them to reconsider the policy.  “We are outraged about the vote your body took earlier this week,” the letter said.  It went on to state that actions such as these discourage women from serving their communities, and teaches young girls that their bodies are inappropriate and distracting.  State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, shared the letter on her Twitter and Facebook account.

VoteRunLead, a campaign and leadership program that prepares and encourages women to run for public office, began the #standwithcatherine hashtag on Oct. 25 to support Catherine Emmanuelle, the City Council member at the center of this discussion. It has been widely retweeted and used to accompany pictures of public servants performing their duties with their children in tow.

This decision follows a months-long tension between the council and Emmanuelle about whether the council would allow her to bring her newborn son onto the dais with her.  Several council members believed that having a child on the dais would be a distraction.  In response to these concerns, Council President Kerry Kincaid told Emmanuelle she would not permit the council member to bring her child onto the platform.  Emmanuelle elected to participate in council meetings, in what capacity she could, from the public seating area.

Emmanuelle and the council were unable to arrange for accommodations that would allow the council member to perform her duties fully from the public seating area.  Seeing the arrangement as a barrier to being a mother and a public servant, she consulted with an attorney and submitted a letter to the council stating that she was within her rights to have and nurse her child on the dais, and would resume doing so. Kincaid responded by giving the issue over to the council for consideration in the form of a resolution.

The accepted resolution stated that “the City Council Chamber dais is restricted to Council Members, the City Manager, the City Attorney, and other necessary City staff…” which was the unofficial policy of the council before Emmanuelle gave birth to her son. Parents may still bring their children to council meetings and other city business as long as they are not brought onto the dais.

The original text of the resolution included an exception to the above restriction that would allow council members to bring their infants or toddlers onto the dais during meetings on the condition the child does not distract from the decorum and conduct of the business of the City Council. This provision was removed in an amendment proposed by Councilwoman Kathy Mitchell and approved 6-5 by council vote.

If the resolution had not passed, Kincaid would have retained authority over the matter of bringing children to the dais.

The ruling was intended to ensure meetings were conducted with minimal distraction and maximum consideration for the public, according to Mitchell, who voted in favor of the amended resolution. She explained that citizens who address the council regarding their lives and businesses at meetings are often nervous, and deserve the council’s support and undivided attention. “You just can’t do that when there’s a baby or a toddler sitting up there with you,” she said. “It’s like a shiny object; you can’t help but watch what the baby’s doing.”

“I think it’s unfortunate if [the coverage] does have a negative effect on our community,” she said.

Kate Beaton, one of the three council members who abstained on the resolution, expressed concern that the decision, made widely known by media coverage, will discourage young professionals from choosing to move to Eau Claire to work and raise families. “People are really proud of the culture we have here in Eau Claire,” she said. “I’m worried that this decision is going to affect that special culture.” She mentioned that it specifically affects young women and their consideration of running for public office.

Some members express regret that the issue was handled as it was. “It was regrettable that a resolution to this issue could not have been made so that it wouldn’t have been as disruptive as it has become,” said David Klinkhammer, a council member who voted in favor of the resolution. He views the decision as an affirmation of the council president’s responsibility to establish rules of decorum for the body.

“Our city council showed that they weren’t willing to figure out how to make it work, and that concerns me.” Councilman Andrew Werthmann said. He, Emmanuelle, and Beaton abstained from the vote because they did not believe the issue should have been addressed with the proposition and establishment of a rule.

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