“I would caution everybody who watches the [BPAC] videos — these are not representative of the city’s opinion.” -Mayor Mike Wiza
By Brandi Makuski
Following two unofficial, public presentations last week by the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), Mayor Mike Wiza says it’s time to set a few things straight.
Wiza said the committee, which is advisory to the City Plan Commission, has been presenting itself with a measure of perceived authority it does not have.
BPAC has for several months given presentations to various city committees — but not the Plan Commission — recommending a “road diet” (reducing four lanes to three, with bicycle lanes added) be implemented somewhere in Stevens Point.
The most recent presentations, which included two YouTube videos outlining the benefits of the road diet, were made before the city’s Public Protection Committee on Sept. 12, and again on Sept. 15 during what was billed as a “listening and discussion session” before a group of citizens at Washington Elementary School.
“Why the Public Protection Committee was reviewing that recommendation, I don’t know. You’d have to talk to the committee chairperson about that, because BPAC is advisory to the Plan Commission, not the [City] Council,” Wiza said. “Was it needed? I don’t think so; I think it was redundant.”
Wiza pointed out BPAC had previously presented before the full City Council in August, but added he has “no say” in what committee chairs place on their meeting agendas, though past mayors have approved committee agendas in an effort to keep the council members focused on current projects.
Alderwoman Meleesa Johnson, who chairs the Public Protection Committee, was not immediately available for comment.
BPAC is chaired by UWSP Anthropology Professor Tori Jennings, and the group, with Jennings typically taking the lead, has presented no fewer than six times — far more than any other group — before the Stevens Point Common Council and its standing committees since being created by Wiza a year ago.
In that time, the group has presented the ideas of creating parklets (mini-parks contained within a single parking stall), installing bike hitches in the Downtown District and adopting an abandoned bicycle ordinance.
All ideas have since come to fruition, with the latter being approved in March — but without providing local law enforcement the additional manpower to properly enforce it.
When asked if BPAC turned out to be essentially a group of lobbyists, Wiza nodded and replied, “Sure.”
During the Sept. 12 Finance Committee meeting, 3rd District Ald. Garrett Ryan, who does not sit on the committee but was in the audience, announced he was proposing the city re-stripe Stanley St. as a way to gauge the success of a road diet, and to provide a proven test case before implementing the four-to-three lane conversion on Division St. in 2019.
Neither proposal has been discussed or voted on by the City Council — but many in the community believe both projects are already green-lit, with some in the audience on Sept. 12 already referring to the proposal as an existing city project.
The same was true of the Sept. 15 listening session. When he learned Jennings and 8th District Ald. Cathy Dugan both told a group of about 80 residents the project was moving forward on Stanley St., Wiza said that was untrue.
“If Tori [Jennings] and Alderperson Dugan said that, they are wrong. Tori Jennings has no authority to do that at all; Cathy Dugan has no authority to do that at all,” Wiza said. “You have to remember, this was not a city-sanctioned event — that was an alderman [sic] listening session.”
Wiza said city staff have been considering the lane conversion internally for some time, but has not conducted any bicycle counts or traffic studies yet, which is why it hasn’t been discussed publicly. Wiza said any movement on such a proposal — if it were ever formally introduced — would “take months” and include a series of public hearings prior to any council vote.
“I would caution everybody who watches the [BPAC] videos — these are not representative of the city’s opinion,” he added. “This is an advisory committee.”
When asked if he believed regular citizens, or those who follow city government only casually, understood the difference, Wiza said, “No, they probably don’t. But I created that committee because I am not a bicycle enthusiast. I wanted input from people who are. I asked that committee to provide recommendations, but those recommendations are subject to [City] Council approval.”
Wiza said he has also recently become aware that in her one-on-one approach to selling the lane conversion idea, Jennings has been spreading the wrong information about the lane reduction process.
“I’m going to tell you Tori [Jennings] has been going around to area business owners and leaders, giving them misinformation,” Wiza said, but declined to elaborate further.
When asked for comment, Jennings on Monday afternoon responded, “No, thank you.”
When asked what he planned to do about Jennings’ alleged misinformation, Wiza said, “What can I do? The members of BPAC should be aware of what they can or can’t do. I expect they follow the rules for a regular government committee, however they are not a government entity.”
Wiza also said on Friday that Jennings “is not the only person who speaks with perceived authority,” but was hesitant when asked to elaborate.
“There are alders and committee chairs who feel they have the authority to give directives to some of our department heads,” he said. “Suggestions are always welcome, but they should not be issuing orders or providing directives.”
Nine of the 11 sitting council members have served for less than two years, with the bulk of new faces coming on board during the April, 2015 election. Two members of the City Council survived the massive turnover: Council President Mike Phillips, who serves the city’s 10th District and was first elected in 1995, and Jeremy Slowinski, a longtime representative of the city’s 6th District and former council president.
Both Phillips and Slowinski have said they were frustrated by newer council members devoting so much time and credence to BPAC, as well as other less important items in the city, but neither has made a formal statement, with the exception of Phillips, who said after the Sept. 12 committee meetings that it was “time to go back to ‘Being an Alderman, 101’.”
Wiza said the entire council has undergone workshops explaining the scope and weight of their authority, and to a lesser extent, so has BPAC.
But Wiza agreed with Phillips, saying it was time for a “refresher” course on the authority council members actually have.
“I think we may have to make their duties and scope of authority a little more clear,” he said.