Editorial: Future of city council depends on citizens

By Brandi Makuski and Patrick Lynn

The Stevens Point City Council could have five new council members next April.

Seats in all even-numbered districts are up for grabs on April 7, following a possible primary in February. It’s one of the most important municipal elections in recent history because whoever emerges victorious will oversee several decisions that will bring major changes to Stevens Point.

The city council has taken an interesting turn in recent years, beginning in 2015 when seven new council members were elected to their respective seats. Many were graduates of Emerge Wisconsin, a grassroots organization designed to increase the number of progressive, Democratic women elected to municipal office.

The new council quickly went to work, voting to reassess whether bicycle lanes were feasible within a planned roundabout at Northpoint and Division—for an additional cost of $15,000—although any research of the project’s early phases would reveal that issue had already been discussed and discarded.

Soon after, the council unanimously approved adopting Vision Zero. Though few on the council were able to explain Vision Zero the following month, the adoption opened the door for sweeping new policies related to safety on city roads, beginning with road diets and bicycle lanes.

This single vote would set the stage for a major change in city government philosophy, and virtually every decision that followed had to fit within those new safety guidelines.

The council’s desire to make Division St. North more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly held up new developments of Burger King and Taco John’s on Division St. North for several months. It also caused problems for one business owner on Prentice St. North, when parking in front of her store was moved in favor of bicycle lanes.

The desire to prove the viability of bicycle lanes was so strong that some of the council publicly dismissed department heads’ reservations about bicycle lane installation on Stanley St. A few members of the council even argued with constituents during public meetings on the issue.

Attention to university student issues would increase, while property owners became the new focus of increased code enforcement.

The new city council was like none we’d seen before. Many of the new councilmembers sidestepped the businesslike dress previously worn during council meetings, instead, appearing in casual dress and nontraditional hair colors. One even wore a tiara during a council meeting that fell on her birthday. It was a looser, nontraditional feel that seeped into the council’s discussions and votes, and erased a good deal of the businesslike environment in city government.

Compared with past mayoral administrations and councils, focus on police and fire departments and new business attraction has waned. In its place is new attention on social justice issues, stronger code enforcement, creating additional layers of government with the formation of new committees, commissioning study upon study, and something called “transportation equity”: a concept invented by the progressive community organization Community Change that equates public transportation with civil rights.

One of the most disturbing elements of this council is the perception of classism. During public meetings, councilmembers often laud their own achievements in academia, regularly tout its female-majority, and have on several occasions explained they believe they know what’s best for the community, even in the face of public objection.

We are hopeful that at least one challenger emerges from districts 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 on December 1, when candidates for the spring election can begin circulating nomination paperwork. Candidates are required to obtain at least 20, and no more than 40, signatures from residents in their respective districts. It’ll mean knocking on a lot of doors in less-than-ideal weather and explaining your views to a lot of people.

We’ve put together a few tips for anyone interested in running for Stevens Point City Council:

  • Get familiar with Roberts Rules of Order. It’s the basis for all municipal meetings and ensures government business is conducted in a fair and orderly manner.
  • Understand that a bicycle lane is great in the right spot, but they aren’t always popular or sought, and they aren’t always necessary.
  • A financial background can’t hurt, but understand that municipal finance is very different from balancing your personal checkbook.
  • Trust the city’s department heads. They are experts in their field. Talk to them, ask questions, and listen to their answers, as often as possible.
  • Know your city. Many of your potential constituents are blue-collar workers with a family and living on a budget. They are sorely underrepresented in city government.

Candidates can obtain relevant paperwork from the city clerk’s office at 1515 Strongs Ave. The office is open Monday through Friday, from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Good luck.