By Brandi Makuski
Municipal government is not unlike state or federal government. It is a democratically-elected body, held accountable by the voters, its own policies, and also the media — all of which are meant to protect those being governed.
But we have far more control over local government. Every two years, we elect (or reelect) local residents to the City Council who we believe best represent the constituents and best protect the city’s interests.
Unfortunately, aldermanic elections are often misunderstood. They are not partisan. If constituents aren’t educated, local elections can easily become a popularity contest, and since April 2015, this city has elected nine fresh faces who — with very few exceptions — aren’t familiar with the local population, never attended any city meetings and had previously not showed any interest in community service until they announced their respective campaigns.
There’s nothing wrong with being new or inexperienced — but having nine new alders all at once means for the city’s sake, they have even less time than usual to bring themselves up to speed. The best tools at their disposal are those which they do not appear to use: an enormous library of minutes and videos from past city meetings; former mayors and alders; and the longtime department heads and workers employed by the city.
Former Mayor Gary Wescott — the longest-serving mayor in Stevens Point history — has gone on record as noting there is a lengthy learning curve for both new members of the City Council, as well as anyone taking over the mayor’s office. It’s a tough job, and far more nuanced than most realize when they run for either.
We’re still waiting for many of our City Council members to catch up — even those who were elected 20 months ago.
Since these nine have taken office, many function without understanding the simple fact that city government is, largely, a business which needs to make money and spend wisely in order to survive.
Many remain unclear on recent city history, make priorities of feelings over facts and tend to micromanage city departments. Many don’t appear to understand that department heads were given a level of professional trust from past councils — whose members understood the directors had specific training and expertise in their respective areas. That sentiment is gone, having been replaced with a low standard of evidence from special interest groups.
Many Council newcomers also continue to do a poor job of chairing committees, and often, discussion doesn’t follow a course of relevance to topics listed on agendas. Meetings drone on far longer than necessary because of discussion on alders’ pet projects, and repeated, ad nauseam comments from those on the Council.
Committees will typically discuss projects before they move forward to the full Council. Following that discussion on the facts, these nine alders often discuss how wonderful their discussion was. Then they take time to personally thank each person involved in the aforementioned discussion, often piping up to “echo” another alders’ comments. Then, committee members discuss how blessed we are to live in a free society where open discussion is allowed.
Some of the new alders have already had their “ah-ha” moments, showing they can be swayed by new information, avoid special interest groups and are beginning to understand there’s a proper procedure by which all city projects must adhere.
But much has happened — and continues — within city government that indicates many on the Council continue to operate for the benefit of special interest groups, often without any attempt to hide their biases.
One example of this is a lack of recusals. The longtime alders this city ousted over the past year-and-a-half were all on record as having abstained from at least one vote because, as each would declare publicly, they felt their involvement could pose an appearance of a conflict of interest. That’s all it took: just the appearance of having a bias for them to step aside, as a way to protect the entire process.
This Council is different. Many alders have existing ties to UWSP yet had no problem voting earlier this year to approve the university’s request to expand a parking lot.
One Council member, a downtown business owner, voted to approve installing new bike hitches in the downtown — including one that was installed near her business — and continues to vote on requests from the Association of Downtown Businesses; events from which her business could realistically benefit financially.
Some on the Council have also displayed its disconnect with the community. Shortly after being elected last year, one Councilman asked city police to enter, without a warrant, private homes hosting off-campus parties to search for underage drinkers. The same Councilman suggested students also be subject to police search as they walked down the street. Those proposals never made it to the Council Chamber because, as one police officer sarcastically said, “there’s this thing called the Fourth Amendment…we can’t violate the U.S. Constitution”.
In May 2015, some on the Council voiced their disapproval for a long-planned new parking lot near Mead Park, arguing in favor of keeping green space, and pointing out residents could simply bike to the park. They initially ignored the fact the park’s baseball diamond is heavily used in the summer, suffered limited parking space, and that many of the players’ families had small children who traveled to the park directly from work.
In June 2015, the Council asked engineering firm AECOM to rethink plans for the new Country Club Dr. overpass by studying the potential for including a bicycle/pedestrian pathway under the new structure. AECOM returned to explain why it would not work, but only after racking up $13,000 in new — and unplanned — expenses for their work on the design study.
Last Oct., the Council approved a new “pocket park” inside Pfiffner Pioneer Park. The project was approved after very little public discussion, although closed-door talks had been ongoing for more than a year between a private group and some on the Council.
In April 2016, the Council approved to allot $2,000 in contingency funds for a tree-planting pilot program, granting partial reimbursements for property owners on Main St. who wanted to plant trees on their own land. Less than half a dozen utilized the program, but it shows this Council’s willingness to spend unnecessarily for a very small group of residents.
In that same vein, many on the Council have in recent months had their heads turned by a local special interest group regarding installation of bike lanes throughout the city, with seeming little concern for — and zero public discussion on — the future costs of maintaining such roadway elements.
A recent public input meeting on a specific proposal for Stanley St. brought out passionate argument from both sides of the proposal; unfortunately, advocates of the project, to include several on the Council, argued those against the proposal must simply not understand its importance.
The next aldermanic election is about five months away. The existing Council must take on a new mentality or risk not only losing very experienced department heads, but also the very delicate balance of the city’s $22 million annual budget and aging infrastructure.