I Insist on Transparency and Open Government

Open Meetings

I am proud of this editorial from the January 21, 2010 News Graphic Time and again, both as an alderman and subsequently as a committee member, I have opposed closed meetings.  Government should be open to the public.

Everyone (except those in government) agrees that government should not make decisions behind closed doors.  Yet, government officials on all levels keeping shutting the public out.

There are a few things that local government is allowed to do outside of the public eye.  Most have to do with ensuring that government is not put at a disadvantage when negotiating with others.  That makes sense, to a point.  But it should be the exception, not the rule.

Yet, government officials use these very narrow legal exceptions to justify all kinds of closed meetings.  How do they get away with it?  Easy.  The meetings are closed.  The public never knows.

Most elected officials do not know better.  They assume, when staff tells them that something properly should be in closed session, that it should.

I firmly believe that most elected officials are good people and want to do good things.  However, if we want to make government better and fairer, we need to elect people who will effectively challenge the status quo.  Not many candidates will do that.

As your alderman, I will challenge inappropriate closed meetings.  I will insist on transparency.  I will err on the side of open meetings.  I have done it before.  If reelected, I will do it again.  I ask for your vote on April 5.

Don’t Forget About Mequon Business

Mequon light industrial

The 4th District is about 7.5 square miles.  Our one district is about three and one-half times larger than all of Whitefish Bay, and about 50% larger than each of the City of Cedarburg and the Village of Grafton.  Most of the district is residential.  It also has a large amount of parkland.  However, what is often overlooked is the one square mile of light industrial in the district east of Wauwatosa Road.

As an alderman, my first priority was and will be the residential areas of the district. The 4th District, like all of Mequon, is concerned with safety, roads, schools, property values and low taxes.  We all want high value, well-protected neighborhoods.

However, it is mistake to overlook the light industrial area of the district. Light industrial uses few city or county resources.  It uses no school resources.  Yet, it pays a tremendous amount of taxes, reducing the taxes the rest of us pay.

The light industrial properties in that approximately one square mile contribute almost $1.87 million in real estate taxes every year. In 2016, the business owners in that area will pay:

  • about $840,000 in school taxes, or over 350 times the amount paid by the average homeowner (without adding one child to the district);
  • about $390,000 to the City (without using our parks, or contributing much to the cost of our safety services); and
  • about $240,000 to repay sewer bond obligations (largely incurred before most of the buildings existed).

They also pay county, state and MATC real estate taxes.

The City needs to pay more attention to this area. We need to encourage its success.  To the extent it is successful, we all benefit.  To the extent it fails, we end up paying more in taxes and, more importantly, adjoining neighborhoods will end up living near blight.  Additionally, we need to ensure that adjoining neighborhoods remain well-screened and buffered from this area and the roads and rail traffic that serve the area.

First Lit Drop

Today, we distributed our first piece of literature to every residence and the businesses in the 4th District.  You can see it here.  I am going to keep this campaign positive.  I will  focus on my background, my long history of involvement in Mequon, my accomplishments as an alderman of which I am most proud, what I hope to do in the future, and so forth.  I see no reason to make this a negative campaign.

Thoughts on Being an Alderman

I have been going through some old files in anticipation of this election.

Three years ago, when I decided not to run again, I made a presentation at a Common Council meeting encouraging people to run to replace me.  As part of that presentation, I gave the following advice to prospective candidates.  I tried to follow these “rules” when I served on the Council, and I will try to follow them again if I am reelected in April.  In fact, I think this is good advice for all holders of elected office.

I want to pass on to prospective candidates a few of the things I have learned about being an alderman:

  1. If you try to make everyone happy, you will fail (and will drive yourself crazy). On most issues, you will make some people happy and others not. Sooner or later, you will find that, at some point, you have disagreed with everyone you know or meet. If you are smart and honest, the majority will judge you based on your cumulative work.
  2. Never fear doing the right thing or making a decision because it might hurt you in the next election. If holding the office is that important to you, than you probably should not hold office.
  3. You can disagree with other aldermen without being disagreeable. You will accomplish more if you get along with other aldermen. Right or wrong, they are good people.
  4. Simply because the folks on one side of an issue make more noise, they do not necessarily represent the majority of your district or the City. Even 100 people showing up at a meeting does not necessarily indicate a majority opinion. Usually, only one side of an issue speaks up. Often, the other side is the majority view.
  5. Regardless of your preconceived notions, Mequon employees are a dedicated group. They care, work hard and generally do a good job. Do not expect a bunch of lazy bureaucrats. They have areas of expertise. On the other hand, remember that their jobs only exist to serve the City. The City does not exist to provide them a job. Occasionally, they may have their own politics and agenda and, on some issues, they might not agree with you and your constituents. Do what you think is right, not what staff thinks is right. Hold them accountable.
  6. Have thick skin. Most of the residents you deal with on City issues will be polite, and a few will appreciate your efforts. Others will assume the worst about you because you are a “politician” and, in this highly politicized world, some will be rude and condescending. Be polite in return.
  7. Over the years, some of your most ardent adversaries will become your friends. Remember that as you deal with people.
  8. Many people want someone in government to listen to them. If you listen, they will respect you and might come to welcome your views, too.
  9. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to the press. These are obligations and are necessary for good government. So are open records and open meetings.
  10. Listen to your constituents. Listen to staff. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to your common sense. But, when an issue is difficult, seek out independent, legitimate experts (not consultants who make their living off of government) and listen to them also.
  11. Most of the time, creating committees and task forces is just a way to defer making decisions.
  12. Be opinionated, but build consensus.
  13. Government moves far too slowly. Getting frustrated won’t change that. But, if you wait for staff to put something together, your term will be over and you will have accomplished nothing.   Therefore, push. Push hard.
  14. Some neighbors will complain about each development proposal. That does not make the proposed developments bad. Usually anxiety and fear of the unknown cause the complaints. Anxiety and fear are not good compasses of public policy.
  15. Spending more money does not in itself solve problems.   Of course, things do not get done without money, but much can be done within the confines of a budget. Prioritize. Do not just decide to spend more and think you are getting things done.
  16. Apply the law as it is written, not how you want it to be written. If a policy or law is wrong, change it. Do not just ignore it. Flexibility is important, but consistency and fairness are even more important.
  17. You are not a member of a board of directors, even if some of your colleagues act that way. Board members oversee management and wait for issues to be presented to them. You are a legislator. Propose things. Ensure your voice is heard. Ensure your proposals move forward. Nobody will do that for you.
  18. Details are important. The “Big Picture” is not enough. Make sure that ordinances and policies are written correctly and precisely. Many good ideas that have been poorly executed have come back to haunt the City.
  19. Principles about government’s proper role are more important than a specific agenda. Hold fast to your principles, and your agenda will follow.
  20. Change what should be improved, but please do not throw out the baby with the bath water. You and your neighbors moved to Mequon for a reason. It is a great place.
  21. If you are prepared, and insistent, and know what you are talking about, you can have as much or more influence than the Mayor. Use that influence.
  22. An elected official is not personally important.   Do not act like you are. You are a servant of the people. That does not mean that you should act obsequiously submissive. Step forward and be heard. You can make a difference. But do not pretend that you are important. Most people you meet, regardless of how long you serve, will not know or care that you are an alderman.
  23. Have a sense of humor. Have fun as an alderman. It can be personally rewarding.
  24. Quit while you still have something to offer, rather than biding your time until your term is done.
  25. Finally, to steal from Ronald Reagan, “[w]hen we start thinking of government as ‘us’ instead of ‘them,’ we’ve been here too long.” Be an advocate for the people of Mequon, not just the government of Mequon.