Green Bay Chamber of Commerce questionnaire
I’m running for re-election on the city council in the April 5th election. As is typical, we candidates occasionally receive questionnaires in the mail, asking us to complete them and send them back so the organization can then share the info with their members.
I recently received such a questionnaire from the Greater Green Bay Chamber of Commerce. I’ve decided not to respond to them directly, but it’s not because I don’t want to answer their questions. I just don’t feel any sense of direct obligation to them. I realize that the chamber has members located here in De Pere and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, they serve a key role in our community. But I’ve now been in office four years, and they haven’t once contacted me about any city issue. As a key organization in our community, they are not engaged in the regular operations of our city, and they certainly don’t have the same care and concern about our district as you might have.
On the “Government Affairs” page of the Chamber’s web site, it says, “The Chamber serves as the voice of business in our community by looking out for the best interests of area employers and their employees at all levels of government.” That certainly may be true, but it’s definitely not the case here in De Pere, not with the city council any way. I can think of a number of issues that we’ve considered at council meetings in recent years that affected local businesses (restrictions on trash bin enclosures, restrictions on signage, commercial garbage collection, noise ordinance affecting outdoor events, creation of new Business Improvement District downtown, etc), and the Chamber’s “voice” was not shared with me; no one contacted me, no one attended a council meeting to speak to us.
Now if the questionnaire were from the De Pere Chamber or Definitely De Pere, I’d feel very differently. Or if a local business owner asked me these questions directly, then I’d jump at the chance to talk to them. Ultimately, my allegiance is to the taxpayers in the city of De Pere, and specifically here in district 3.
But, the questions they asked are good ones, so I’d like to share my thoughts and responses with you folks, my neighbors and taxpayers of district 3:
1) What experiences do you have in building consensus to work collaboratively with others?
I think the term “others” can mean different things, so I’ll offer three possible answers.
If you’re referring to other alderpersons, we meet twice a month to discuss important issues and make decisions. Our discussions are very civil (much more so than those of some of our neighbors). We respect each other, and we seem to share common visions of how we want our city to be. We pay our city staff well, and we allow (and expect) them to do their jobs. Outside of our city meetings, we really don’t collaborate. We could, but we’d have to be careful because of open meetings laws in our state.
If, however, you’re referring to the business community, I have the benefit of being in this office for 4 years now so I can give you a couple of real examples.
First, in the summer of 2012, city staff brought to us a proposal to change a number of street parking spaces downtown (along Main Ave & Reid St) from 2-hour limited parking to all day parking. When I asked city staff how our downtown businesses felt about it, it was obvious that they had not made enough effort to get feedback. So I took an afternoon off work one day and walked the west side downtown area and spoke to business owners in person. I showed them maps of the parking and explained the proposal. I found that a number of them were against it because they need the 2-hour parking for their customers. Based on their feedback, I proposed that 14 such spots be removed from the proposal and so that they would remain 2-hour parking; we passed the modified plan on June 19, 2012.
In December 2015 we considered a proposal to change zoning that would allow Life Church to move into the former Sportsman’s Warehouse building (next to Walmart). There were many angles to consider on this issue, one of which was how the neighboring businesses felt. So again, I took an afternoon off work and walked that business district. I spoke to business owners and managers of every business in that parking lot (Sprint, Shell, Walmart, Menards, Culvers, etc). I found that every one of them was in favor of the change, which then influenced my vote to approve the plan.
So those are two real examples where I had business-related proposals in front of me regarding companies in my district. I made the effort to talk to the stakeholders in person to get consensus on their positions.
And if you’re referring to consensus with other municipalities, we don’t do much of that. A good example is the state plan to improve the portion of Hwy 32 which is N Broadway in De Pere and Riverside Dr in Allouez. The De Pere portion of the road will have bike lanes, while the Allouez portion will not. This is due to the unique wishes of each municipality. We did not have to reach consensus, we each just did what we felt was best for our citizens.
Additionally, we certainly have not reached consensus regarding sex offender residency ordinances. Here in De Pere, we followed the advice of local law enforcement, state corrections officials, and research from respected organizations from around the country and chose to keep our community safe. But this is the great thing about how we govern our small towns. We are all able to make our own choices. If your municipality disagrees with the authorities I mentioned and wants to go against their recommendations, you can do that. And many have. We didn’t. I much prefer that the entire state agree on this, but we just don’t.
A couple of years ago the Green Bay Area Visitor and Convention Bureau asked local municipalities to raise room tax rates charged to visitors who rent hotel rooms, and contribute those funds to their operation. I voted in favor of this, so that the bureau can work toward bringing in more tourism, which of course benefits our entire area.
Ultimately, it’s good for municipalities to work together and agree on issues. But it’s certainly not always necessary. We here in De Pere need to be able to make our own decisions based on what we feel is right for us.
2) In what way can the City of De Pere cooperate with other municipalities to enhance our region?
I think I covered some of this in the previous question about collaboration. But I’ll also mention our Fire Department operation. MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) is a system that allows Fire Departments to help out neighboring Fire Departments. A simple example is a day earlier this month when every one of our firefighters and vehicles were out on calls, and another call came in. Ashwaubenon came to our aid to work a fire in our city. Also, last summer, there was a man trapped under a large tractor in the Town of Lawrence. We contributed significant resources (people and equipment) to help rescue the man and save his life.
I should also mention one such issue that didn’t go well, and that was the renaming of Ashland Ave to Mike McCarthy Ave. This was the idea of Green Bay mayor Jim Schmitt and required Green Bay, Ashwaubenon, and De Pere to work together. For some reason, it came to our council first, and I voted to table the issue until and unless we know that Green Bay’s city council approves it and agrees with their own mayor. They ended up not approving it, so our lengthy discussion was for naught. But this is an example of where we did indeed take up the issue at the request of a neighbor, we discussed it, and then decided to wait. Perhaps not a clean successful outcome, but it shows that we can work on common issues.
3) What are your top priorities for the city?
Our budget is the top priority. Always. It drives everything that we do. Unfortunately it’s not the sexiest issue we face; it never gets much press and I rarely hear of neighbors talking about the city budget specifically. We always talk about certain issues or ideas, areas where we need to spend more money or areas where we’re not spending enough. I understand and agree with our draw to those issues. But in doing so, we just can’t forget the fact that we have a limited budget, it’s that simple. It’s not all that different than our household budgets. There are things that are indeed important but that we can’t do. So it’s a balancing act.
That said, I’ll mention two specific projects that will require our attention and resources.
First, our swimming pools. After all the books are balanced, each pool (VFW Park and Legion Park) is costing us about $60,000 – $70,000 per year, and both are in need of significant repair or replacement. There is some disagreement in our city about how to proceed (replace both pools, install aquatic facility, keep two pools or go to one, etc). It’s interesting to note that many cities our size only have one public swimming pool. However, I would argue that our river creates a unique situation. I’ll be the first to say that in most ways, we need to get over our constant east/west battle; the city isn’t very big, just drive across the bridge. But our pools are frequently used by children who walk or bike there, and I feel we need to maintain two. We’re in the early stages of this issue so I don’t know how it will play out. But I feel we need to figure out how to maintain a swimming facility on each side of the river. This need becomes even more important as our city continues to grow.
Second, you may have heard that Jim & Miriam Mulva have graciously offered to build and operate a cultural center in our city. The chosen site is downtown, on the southeast corner of the roundabout on S Broadway. This is a very generous offer that will benefit our citizens for generations. But it’s not a 100% gift. We can’t just sit back and let it happen. We’re going to need to contribute by coming up with a plan for things like parking. I’m not suggesting that we have to actually build new parking facilities, but we may have to enhance sidewalks and crosswalks to make it easier for pedestrians to get from existing parking to the facility. This project is probably a year or two out so it’s not getting much attention just yet. But when it comes, we’ll need to make it a priority and do our part to insure its success.
4) Do you support continued municipal investment in the Chamber’s economic development efforts through Advance?
I don’t know. That the simplest straight forward answer I can provide. I’m not familiar enough with Advance to answer that right now. I will say though that if a De Pere business contacted me to share specific information that will help me make a decision on a specific vote, then I’d eagerly listen and do everything I can to help the business do well.