In the Village of Mount Pleasant, board members voted unanimously in January to extend their terms from two to three years, beginning in 2023.
The move surprised residents, who gathered more than 1,200 signatures within two weeks of the decision to force a referendum to supersede the vote.
But audio obtained by Wisconsin Public Radio shows village officials were planning to lengthen board members’ terms at least nine months before they made it public.
During a special committee meeting on April 19, 2021, village attorney Chris Smith recommended the increased term lengths. Smith told board members once they get elected, they have to immediately start campaigning again, which is "not cool" for them or staff.
"This is something I feel strongly about," Smith said. "I think two-year terms are too short, especially for a village of our caliber, OK? Meaning, the size, the economic growth. You know? We’re the second-largest village in the state, OK?"
The once sleepy bedroom community of Mount Pleasant gained national attention in 2017 after Taiwanese manufacturing company Foxconn announced a deal with the state of Wisconsin to build a massive high-tech manufacturing plant and employ thousands in the village in exchange for tax credits. Over the years, those plans have been drastically downsized and promises from Foxconn have gone unfulfilled. Still, village officials stand by the company.
During the April 2021 meeting, Smith told board members that if they decide midway through their term that they don’t want to continue to serve, they would be doing Village President Dave DeGroot a favor.
"Because he gets to pick the replacement. OK?" Smith said, as others in the group laughed.
Smith told the board that the two-year terms are "a little scary" and not good for the business operation of the village because all the board members could be replaced.
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Next year, four of the seven village board members are up for reelection, including DeGroot.
Smith, DeGroot and Village Administrator Maureen Murphy, who also recommended the three-year terms, did not return requests for comment.
Mount Pleasant isn’t the only village with three-year term lengths. According to the ordinance passed Jan. 24, "numerous comparable villages of a similar population throughout Wisconsin have elected to set a term of three years for Village Trustees including Menomonee Falls, Germantown, Whitefish Bay, Greendale, and Shorewood."
The April 2021 meeting was public, but only had one item on the agenda listed as "Village Government Orientation and Strategic Planning Update," giving residents no indication that increasing board member terms would be discussed.
The village did not take minutes during the meeting, so other than the recording, there is no record of what happened.
Two weeks before the village board voted to extend the terms lengths on Jan. 24, they held a public meeting to discuss the matter. But Kelly Gallaher, who heads the watchdog group A Better Mount Pleasant, said that only gave residents two weeks to find out about the change.
"Listening to the (April 2021) tape, it’s so political, and so self-serving," Gallaher said. "Staff is working with elected officials to actively keep them in office. They are disenfranchising voters, and they are saying it out loud."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to specify the extension on term lengths not term limits.