By Eric Timmons
When Jamie O’Neill was considering running for the La Crosse County Board, the question of who would look after her young children during meetings was a major consideration.
O’Neill was elected in April of this year, but said child care remains an issue for her, and one that likely creates a barrier to participation for others.
“I thought long and hard about the decision to run for a public office, with one of the biggest concerns being child care during meetings,” she said. “If my partner is traveling for work or if a meeting is held during the day, I have to hope a babysitter or relative is available.”
O’Neill added: “With any fewer resources it would have not seemed possible; this is alarming as I feel privileged. So having any fewer resources would make this not feel possible. I am concerned that those whose voices offer the most in these important conversations may not be at the table due to lack of child care.”
Local elected officials in La Crosse tend to be older and often are retired. Younger, diverse, working class voices are often missing from important debates. It’s a similar situation around much of the country but a number of smaller cities are beginning to offer free child care at public meetings as a way to address the problem.
Sun Prairie, a suburb of Madison, approved a pilot program to provide child care at its city meetings for part of this year but the project was canceled when meetings went virtual due to Covid-19. Free child care at city meetings has also been implemented fully or tested in Ithaca, New York; Hayward, California; Brookhaven, Georgia; and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
The goal is not only to support council or board members who have children, but to make it easier for members of the public to attend and speak at meetings. Studies have shown that those who participate in public meetings tend to be “older, male, longtime residents, voters in local elections, and homeowners” and that one of the barriers to participation for younger people is child care.
“I’ve witnessed the same folks serving on committees, showing up to meetings, making decisions,” noted Jacqueline Marcou, who sits on the City of La Crosse Arts Board. “They belong there, but as do folks with children, single moms and dads. We need to encourage a more diverse turnout, a more diverse voice at the table.”
She noted that some Parent Teacher Organizations and neighborhood associations are already offering child care at their meetings to encourage participation. But Marcou, who also is a former member of the La Crosse Common council, said offering child care is not the only way to encourage younger parents to participate in local politics.
“Family responsibilities, including child care, is definitely something I hear folks interested in serving on city committees or running for local office mention as a barrier,” Marcou said. “I think there are several things we could do to increase access including increasing council pay (which was done in 2017, taking its full effect in April 2021) and perhaps explore child care options at meetings.”
When Sun Prairie discussed offering free child care at council and committee meetings last year, there was pushback to the proposal, said Paul Esser, the city’s mayor. The initial price tag to provide two child care at workers for each of 314 meetings of the city’s 30 boards, committees and commissions was estimated at a little over $23,000 for 2020. But that was later scaled back to a four month $7,000 pilot project, which was then canceled due to the pandemic.
Esser said he thought the program was too “narrowly focused” on child care, rather than looking at a broader set of actions that could increase participation. Opponents of the idea felt it was being set up to assist specific council members who have children, rather than to meet a larger community need, he added.
But Theresa Stevens, a member of Sun Prairie’s city council, and one of the main supporters of the proposal, said she’s hopeful that money for the pilot project can be put into the city’s 2021 budget, although it has not been included in the initial spending plan for next year.
Supporters saw the cost of the Sun Prairie program as relatively small compared to the potential benefit, although critics questioned how much it would be used by parents. If a similar program was tested in La Crosse, the city could provide the child care itself at City Hall, or it could partner with an off-site child care provider, which could reduce potential issues around liability.
Joella Striebel, who is the Our Wisconsin Revolution Northwest Regional Organizer, said providing child care at city meetings could be an answer to calls from council members for more public participation.
“Parents and caregivers with unmet child care needs are more likely to be poor, disabled, persons of color, and otherwise marginalized folks who are often most impacted by the decisions being made at the tables they don’t have access to,” she said. “We have heard current members of city council state that if their constituents want to be a part of the process, they should show up to meetings, ignoring that those who are most able to readily show up to meetings are those with the most privilege.”
Striebel also believes that an effort to share the burden of caretaking across the community could help encourage more women to run for office.
“As a parent myself, even as one who has a partner to share the load with equitably, I have had to miss meetings or turn down opportunities for public service due to my own caretaking responsibilities; I can’t imagine I’d be able to participate in any meaningful way at all if I did not have an equitable co-parent by my side,” she said. “In my role as an organizer, I hear frequently from those, particularly women, who want to get more involved but cannot due to their caretaking responsibilities.”
It’s unclear if the current La Crosse Common Council would support offering free child care at city meetings. At least one members was skeptical of the idea when asked about it by the La Crosse Independent.
“You can’t make being on the council a greater privilege than working somewhere else,” said council member Doug Happel, adding that in any case meetings are currently virtual due to the pandemic.
Happel suggested that if someone makes the decision to run for council, or to work for the city, then child care is their responsibility, rather than the city’s. He also said the city was facing a difficult time financially due to the pandemic, which meant he would be unlikely to support projects that come with new spending.
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