Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles on declared candidates for the office of Rhinelander mayor. Last week, we featured newcomer Chris Frederickson. Other candidates will be featured as they announce.
Alderman Alex Young, who has served on the Rhinelander City Council for 13 years, announced last week he will run for mayor in April of 2018. Most likely the announcement did not come as surprise to many, as Young has been considering a run for some time.
"Certainly, I don't think it's a secret that I have been thinking about this for a long time and planning it for a long time and I definitely wasn't planning on having signs out or announcing now," Young said. "But when I see other candidates' signs start popping up, if I want to be a creditable candidate, I feel that I have to answer that," he said, referring to Chris Frederickson's signs. "I can't let that sit out there unanswered for months at a time. I think my original intent was to wait until later in the fall or this winter."
While he may have had to launch his campaign a little earlier than expected, Young said he has a plan in place.
"As I say, I have been thinking about this for a very long time, so one of the things I wanted to do was some of the logistical things that needed to happen, like ordering things from vendors and pricing, all those things. That was one of the things I wanted to get out of the way early, so I put together a plan that I have been revising for a long time. I had to move up some of the dates on that plan because of seeing some of the other signs cropping up around town. I pretty much had what I needed to do in the plan, I just had to move up the execution a little bit," he said.
Like Frederickson, Young has a Facebook page that he will use for campaign purposes.
"I haven't been seeing a lot of the things that (Frederickson's) been doing, I've looked at his Facebook page a little bit. But the number one question I get is 'Who is he, what's he about?' It's tough to answer a lot of those questions. I only recently, briefly, met him. He introduced himself to me at the fair." Young said. "And certainly, some people have asked me what some of my positions are on issues and, overall, I think I have gotten a good response from people in the community now that I have made the announcement. A couple people have commented, stopped me in stores or seeing me walking around and so forth and made encouraging comments and asked some questions about different things. I mean, apparently people are able to recognize my face and approach me with different issues they've had with the city, problems and things like that. And that is all good information, that is things that I want to hear. I want to hear what people's concerns are, what people think we're doing good, what people think we're doing bad, what we can improve on and what they want to see in the future. So all of that has been a good conversation, a productive conversation."
Having served on the City Council for 13 years, Young has a certain level of name recognition that could be helpful, he added.
"Certainly, I have been involved in local government for a while, for a good while, and hopefully people will recognize some of the good things that I've been involved in over the years," he said. "And to that extent, I think it helps. It actually helps that I have some accomplishments that I can point to, things that I've done. I guess I can also point to different accomplishments over the years on the City Council. There are various things, a lot of economic development projects, various things we've done in the parks and tried to clean up various things in the community that I've tried to work on."
One accomplishment Young cited that had a major economic impact was the refinancing of the city's debt to the Wisconsin Retirement System in November 2013. The move saved the city over $1 million in interest and counting.
"That may be a little nerdy, but there aren't too many people who can point to a front page news story about saving the city $1 million with their name attached to it," Young said. "That is an idea that I threw out there, one of those things that I threw out there year after year for a number of years and didn't get any traction on that. And then I did get traction on that and we got it done. We weren't even making the interest payments, so that loan was continuing to balloon and grow. I mean, that's like making the minimum payment on your credit card, it's going to keep growing forever. And that was a major issue for the city that nobody was addressing. I threw it out there year after year after year, and we finally got it done. Now we're saving the city $1 million plus."
One of Young biggest challenges will likely be convincing the voters he is not part of the problems in city government, but the solution. Any other incumbent alderperson seeking the mayoral position would likely face the same challenge, given the controversy surrounding City Hall over the last year, and Young believes the challenge can be overcome.
"I believe that there certainly have been a number of disconcerting things that have happened in the city," Young said. "Right now, I'm one out of eight on the council, and I have always tried to stay above the fray and not get dragged down into the muck by some of these personal attacks. And with respect to some of the ongoing problems in the city, some of the personnel issues and so forth, for my part, as one out of eight, I've been told consistently that those things are a function of the mayor's office and a function that the City Council shouldn't be involved in. But if those things aren't being solved, let's try to do something, and I've tried to do something. I bring those things to the table and sometimes it's been frustrating. I think it's time to step up to the plate and solve those issues where I can solve them."
As for the animosity that arose among the alderpersons after the Aug. 29, 2016 firing of then-city administrator Kristina Aschenbrenner, Young said it has been frustrating to watch.
"I think we (alderpersons) have to be able to disagree on the things that we disagree on and do it in a constructive way and still be able to work with our colleagues the next day on things that we do agree on," he said. "I think there have been some issues in that regard and people hold grudges, and that is a problem in local politics, it's a problem in state politics and it's a problem in national politics. And it is unfortunate because it casts a cloud on a lot of the good things that we are trying to do. I really feel that in my time in city government that I have been able to disagree productively and constructively with people. Certainly all of the people involved, I've disagreed with on at least a couple different occasions on different things and I am still able to talk to them and I'm still able to work with them the next day on things that we do agree on. That's one of the things that I'm proud of and one of the things that I think we need to do more of in the city. And hopefully, from the mayor's office, I'll be able to help bring some cohesion to the situation."
A common perception a lot of people have of the City Council is that if you are not a city of Rhinelander resident, the city government doesn't really care about your opinion. That is something Young said he would like to address from the mayor's office, if elected.
"I think it ought to be addressed, but I also think that it is a symptom of a larger problem. I mean we have all seen a lot of divisive comments on social media, we've seen a lot of aggressive and hostile things that people say. I think it stems from a communication issue. I think that the city has done a poor job of communicating on what we're doing and how we're getting it out to the public. We don't really have a presence on social media, of course some city departments like the police department and the fire department do, but we (the city leadership) don't. Mayors in the past have published weekly mayor's newsletters with an unvarnished look at what is the good, the bad and the ugly about what has happened in city government this week. I think we need to do a better job of communicating those things out, but I think that some people, particularly inside the city, with the climate out there right now with some of the personal attacks and hostilities and things that have taken place on social media, I think that people react by becoming insulated, react by trying to close off walls and not taking into account some of those opinions. I don't think that is the right answer. I think the right answer is at the core of every single one of the rants that you see on Facebook, there is probably a legitimate concern there."
Young was hesitant to address the social media postings of his fellow alderpersons but did say he tries to put thought and care into his own posts.
"I don't want to speak too much about what other alderpersons do, this is America, they have the right to write whatever they want, whether it's going to make them look good, bad or otherwise," he said. "As one person on the council, I don't think I'm particularly in a position to address what other alderpersons are doing on social media, except to say you don't see me engaging in stuff like that. I try to keep what I post positive and factual and avoid personal attacks and I think that we can do a better job of engaging with people on social media about issues affecting the city and things along those lines. I do think that it is part of the mayor's role to force some rules of decorum for the City Council. To what extent that affects what people do on their personal time, I think people are free to write something if they want and if it makes them look bad, that's part of the First Amendment, too."
Young also noted he has received extensive training in local government through the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and other groups.
"I've tried to better myself and tried to become a better, more effective official by doing that. I've attended trainings put on by various groups, the league, the UW, state agencies, all of the above," he said. "And I try to bring those ideas back and try to put them to work for Rhinelander, but I certainly think there is a learning curve in getting into local office. It took a couple years of learning the ropes and seeing where things were before I started putting rubber to the road and actually making proposals. I think that is one of the things, with respect to the mayor's race this time around, is we have some very challenging issues facing the city. We have some very strong personalities on the City Council, people who have been around for a long time who know the ropes and know how to work the system and I think that is going to be a challenge for the next mayor coming in, and I think it is going to take someone with a little experience. And I think that I have that experience, and I would point out that I have worked with a lot of these people for a while now, and we have disagreed about a lot of things, but I have worked very hard to disagree constructively with them and be able to work with them on things we can agree on the next day. Hopefully, I can put that to work in the office of the mayor."
Young said he believes the office of mayor requires someone who is willing to travel to Madison to meet face-to-face with state elected officials.
"I do think it is an integral part of the mayor's office to be the public face of the city. Every professional organization that has written or opined on this topic has said the same thing. If you look at the ICMA's guidance on what are the city administrator's responsibilities are if there is a mayor and that is that the mayor ought to take on the political roles that are public facing roles that are, more, I would say, diplomatic roles in dealing with the council," Young said. "Again, that is where I'd point back to where we have lacked in some communication issues that the mayor should be stepping up to the plate and taking care of some of those things. And it just hasn't happened. At many of those events there are aldermen who attend, but a good percentage of the time it is the mayors who attend those things. To the extent that I have picked up the slack, that is a role of the mayor's office, and it is something that I have experience in. I've testified before legislative committees in Madison. I've gone down and visited Rob Swearingen and Tom Tiffany in their offices in Madison, as well as locally here, and discussed issues related to Rhinelander as well as met with other legislative leaders. I think that is important and that is an area that I have experience that I can bring to the office."
While he was candid in outlining some of the changes he would like to make to the position, Young was quick to praise the current occupant of the office.
"The number one thing is that people need (to be effective elected city officials) is to love their community and certainly Dick Johns loves Rhinelander," he said. "That said, sometimes that's not enough. You have to be an effective official, to be effective at what you do to get positive things done at the same time. One of the questions I always ask myself, and I heard it again from somebody else, is you always got to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, 'Am I getting things done, am I being effective and am I able to work effectively with my colleagues and others involved in city government?' If the answer to any one of those things is no, then it's time to retire. I think maybe it is time to have somebody in the mayor's office who can address some of those concerns because there are going to be times when the city administrator is not going to be able to and they (the council) are going to rely on the mayor to help them with those things. That is part of the mayor's job, by state statute, and I think we need to have somebody in the office who can do these things."
"I think that the office of mayor does require a lot of energy," Young continued. "On paper, it is a part-time position, but I think it's a part-time position that requires a full-time commitment. I think the voters ought to demand that somebody put in the time, somebody ought to be in there for regular office hours so that members of the public can come in there and air their concerns and discuss things with the mayor, and that employees and staff have that same ability. There is a lot of work required out of the mayor's office and I think a lot of those things we have slacked off on. I have all the (council) minutes going back decades ago and when I read some of the old minutes, and gosh, we used to require the mayor to submit monthly reports and talk about what the mayor's office was doing that month. I don't know at what point in time we stopped doing that, but I think we ought to have a higher standard and we ought to require more."
Another role of the mayor that Young sees as important is helping the public effectively communicate with committees or the full council.
"I think a lot of the questions that council members ask of people in those meetings are legitimate questions that stem from legitimate concerns. And I think that it should be the responsibility of the mayor that if somebody wants to bring something before a committee, or do something before the city council, that the mayor ought to be astute enough to realize some of the areas where questions could crop up and how people can prepare for that," he said. "We want fresh ideas, we ought to be encouraging fresh ideas, new proposals and things of that nature, whether it is coming from businesses, whether it is coming from people seeking permits or various things, people seeking to do things in a park, expand some of the things in a park. All those things are good things, and we should be encouraging people. But the mayor ought to be out there working with those people and helping them anticipate what concerns might crop up from others. That way, those people don't feel like they are being blindsided in meetings, that they are facing a firing squad in coming before committees, coming before the council."
Although Young currently serves as an Oneida County board supervisor, and his seat is up for re-election this spring as well, he said Thursday he is leaning toward running for re-election to that seat but not his City Council seat.
"To an extent, on the one hand, it's difficult to run for multiple things at the same time. But there are other members of the county board, whether they are town chairmen in their own towns or things of that nature, that also serve simultaneously on the county board. In a lot of respects, I think that can be helpful and positive because there have been definitely incidents where my position serving on the county board has helped to try to coordinate things between the city and the county," Young said. "Things as simple as when we did the downtown project and we took those historic streetlights out and replaced them with the new lights. Yes, the city was going to use a number of those lights in the park system and other things. But at the same time, I was talking with some folks over at the county about some lighting that they were looking at replacing around the courthouse. We were able to get something worked out where we could get a couple of those lights that we had taken out of the downtown over to the courthouse to install them there. It helped the city and it helped the county."
There has been talk in recent years about starting a health insurance consortium between the county, the city and possibly some of the school districts. Young said that's still on the table.
"While it hasn't been actively pursued in a little while, that's something that I think should be pursued and could potentially yield some savings. And I think there are other areas where we can get together and work with the county on purchasing and things where we might be able to share a certain piece of equipment. As one member of the City Council, I'm not well positioned to try and do that. Serving simultaneously on both very well could be an asset to try to work on some more cooperation between the city and county," he said.
Young also cited the animal shelter as a successful joint venture between the city, townships and county government.
"We (the public safety committee, then PPP) looked very hard at what to do with that. That was one of those issues where the city, the townships and the county had some skin in the game because the humane society services are provided to a number of the townships around us as well as the city. At the same time, it was an awkward situation to have the city manage that because there are probably people in the private arena who probably know more about animal care then we do," he said. "We successfully privatized that thing, rolled it out as its own non-profit. They have their own separate board of directors. They have an agreement with the county and they have an agreement with the city that we each chip in a certain amount. And they have been wildly successful at private fundraising as their own entity. They have made awesome strides as their own organization and they are much better because of it. To the extent that we can pursue more things like that, I think that would be a good direction."
Again returning to the subject of experience, Young reiterated that his knowledge of city government makes him the best person to fill the mayor's chair.
"It's complicated, it's arcane, there are a lot of moving parts, and there are things I don't know. I would not hold myself out as an expert in any one area of the city. We've got staff that are experts in any one area. But, holy smokes, have I learned some things over the last 13 years. I think it is probably one of the most important learning experiences in my life, that there is such a diverse set of areas that the city is involved in, things I never would have been able to learn on my own outside of the city government," Young said. "And I'm always trying to learn new tricks and trying to learn things that can better our community. And you learn from past experience, whether you did something that worked or you did something and it didn't work or you did something that maybe you could have done better. And those are all things that I can bring to the table and hopefully I've got some institutional knowledge and history about things that we've done in the past. Even people I disagree with, I often learn something from."
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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