City Council Approves Hens, Reduces Cannabis Fines, Welcomes Caretakers

Lauren Fisher

The Nov. 26 and 27 Eau Claire City Council Meetings totaled more than seven hours, and resulted in the passage of a balanced budget and three notable city ordinance changes.  Community members weighed in on the creation of an ordinance allowing for the keeping of poultry within city limits, the reduction of the city fine for marijuana possession, and a resolution that will allow citizens to bring dependents to official city business.


Eau Claire residents will be able to apply for a license to keep up to five hens per year on residential properties following the 8-2 passage of a chicken keeping ordinance.  The passage comes after several attempts to provide an ordinance that would allow residents to raise chickens in the past decade.  Acting President Andrew Werthmann, the only councilperson remaining who voted the last time an ordinance was raised in 2010, spearheaded the project.

The chicken keeping ordinance specifically disallows roosters and noisey poultry, and includes requirements that coops be set back at least 10 feet from property lines and at least 25 feet from neighboring residential structures.  Coops must be at least five feet from any residential structure on the licence holder’s property, and at least two feet from any property line.  Other guidelines are in place for food storage, proper slaughter practices, and coop cleanliness.

Several residents expressed support for the ordinance at the Nov. 26 public input session, citing benefits including increased food access, reduced urban tick populations, and using chickens as an educational tool for young people. A few also raised concerns about the coop placement regulations.  Residents with narrow properties said they would be unable to build a coop that met setback requirements, and would therefore be refused a license. 

“Those setbacks are important to making sure that there is minimal impact on neighbors,” Werthmann said.  He continued to say that the community feedback was important, “but it is the case that not everybody is going to be able to keep chickens.”

Cannabis Fines

Werthmann also sponsored an ordinance amendment that reduced the city fine for a first marijuana possession offense under 25 grams to $1.  Including court fees, the total cost of such an offence would total $138.76.  The measure passed 8-2.
Council member Terry Weld voted against the amendment, voicing concerns that eligible violators would be discouraged from taking advantage of a $250 diversion program through the District Attourney’s office if simply paying the fine was less expensive.  Diversion programs can prevent a criminal infraction from being added to an individual’s permanent record, but are not available in all situations.

“We can’t legalize on a local level, but what we can do is signal that it’s the lowest priority possible,” Werthmann said of the ordinance.  “Marijuana laws as they are in our state are harmful and they adversely impact people, and it’s time that we start taking action on it.”

“My hope is that when we get a report next year, is that it will show a major reduction in the resources that are put toward marijuana crimes,” Werthmann said.
Gerald Staniszewski, the Eau Claire Chief of Police, provided the council with a memo concerning the proposed ordinance on Nov 19.

“The proposed amendment, if passed, would have no impact on police operations,” he wrote.  “...I cannot give direction to our police officers to ignore behavior which is a violation of local, state, or federal law.”  Despite the fee reduction, possession of cannabis is still a violation of city ordinance and state and federal law.

The Eau Claire Police Department does not have a team of officers looking for people in possession of small amounts of personal use marijuana, Staniszewski said.  “When an individual is cited or arrested for possession of marijuana, they were most likely involved in additional behavior which resulted in an officer’s attention (fighting, theft, OWI etc.),” he wrote.

Dependents on the Dais

A resolution encouraging citizens and city officials to bring non-disruptive children, family members, and others as needed or desired to public proceedings of the city passed in a 7-3 vote. The resolution was drafted by Councilwomen Jill Christopherson and Emily Anderson, with input from Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuel.

The measure provides that guests of participants may be seated with their guardian during public proceedings, and that members of the council and of boards, committees, or commissions, may request recesses in order to address disruptive behavior that may arise. It further resolves to instruct Dale Peters, the city manager, to identify best practices to decrease barriers to governance participation for citizens who provide care to dependent family members.

The resolution supersedes a resolution passed in October 2017 that banned council members from bringing children onto the platform from which they conduct city business, which was passed in response to Emmanuel’s request to bring her newborn son to council meetings.

Some Eau Claire residents expressed concern that the practice of allowing people to bring dependents to city business could result in distraction from proceedings, or necessitate further discussion as to what constitutes disruptive behavior.

Christopherson believes the measure is a step forward for the council. “It responds to the values of a new generation, one that does not support the restrictions that women have experienced in the past,” she said. “This resolution anticipates other restrictions placed upon persons who care for children, aging parents, and developmentally delayed individuals. It makes a commitment to invite and support all qualified individuals into leadership.”