While the window for candidates to declare for the April 2020 City Council election doesn't officially open until December, an award-winning local artist and cartoonist has announced that he intends to throw his hat into the ring.
Tom Barnett, who in addition to creating a series of books that spotlight the Hodag, is also the coordinator of the Oneida County Fair, has established a Facebook page called Thomas Barnett for Rhinelander City Council. He said he will file the necessary paperwork this winter to run for the District 1 seat currently held by Common Council president George Kirby.
Barnett cited the recent division on the council and the harm it is doing to Rhinelander as his motivation for running.
"Watching all the stuff going on at City Hall right now, the perceived notion, I guess, that people can't get along and work together to fulfill a common goal. And I feel that there needs to be more of a unification of people on City Council to work forward," Barnett said in an interview Thursday. "A lot can get done when you're not fighting each other over every little thing."
Other than his work with the fair, Barnett said he has no experience in government.
"I've been watching, attending every single City Council meeting for a while now trying to understand everything that is going on, where the dysfunctions lie. I do have a lot of knowledge about what is going on in this city through my stuff that I've done through my work in the community," he said. "I feel that the city is a diamond in the rough, that's how I look at it. I think the city has so much potential, but we could do so much better. We should be bringing businesses in, not seeing them leaving. We shouldn't have any empty storefronts. There is so much that could be done. If we could just turn that corner of fighting, we could make it a better city."
While he has not attended a meeting of Forward Rhinelander, a group of civic-minded residents, business owners and city officials who are looking to help advance the city's fortunes, Barnett said he has heard about the group.
"What the fair is trying to do for the community is probably something Forward Rhinelander would probably be very interested in," he said.
Barnett agreed that the recent dysfunction amongst the council members has negatively affected public perceptions of the community.
"I think we can do better, I really do, there's no doubt," Barnett said. "There is so much pettiness and the walls have gone up so high. I don't see any way they're going to be able to be broken down anytime soon, the way things are going right now.
He said he "truly believes" that mayor Chris Frederickson, city administrator Daniel Guild and aldermen Andrew Larson, Steve Sauer, David Holt and Ryan Rossing are trying to move the city forward in a more positive way.
"But for some reason, it's being stonewalled at every turn," Barnett said. "And I understand that there are procedures that have to be gone through, I understand all that. But it almost appears to me that there are certain members on the group that belong on this side, and certain members that belong on that side. It's so separated right now, it's like water and oil, and it shouldn't be that way."
While he likes what Frederickson and Guild, in particular, have been trying to do, Barnett said he wouldn't be another rubber stamp for whatever they present.
"I'm nobody's 'yes man.' I've called Chris out on things. I've complained to Daniel about things. So it's not like I'm going in there to be on one side," Barnett said. "I want to go into the City Council for my constituents side. It doesn't matter who is agreeing with me and who doesn't agree with me, or who agrees with me and who doesn't agree with me, it will be what the constituents want. And in some of the alderpersons, I'm seeing that they're not really representing their constituents. They're representing their agenda and what they want to do. And I think that's disturbing."
Barnett said he has heard whispers about recall efforts being launched and thinks that would be another blow the city doesn't need.
"I'm like wow," he said. "It's bad when we get to that point."
The squabbling is holding the city back, he concluded.
"This city can grow so much bigger than it is right now, it really could," Barnett said. "And we're the gateway to the Northwoods, so it's like what are we doing? We're tying our hands with sticking our feed in the mud and dragging things so slowly through fighting and arguing with each other instead of really trying to understand each other and work together. And that's what we need to do. I think there needs to be a lot more understanding on the City Council and a lot more working together trying to reach that common goal."
"And that's the problem, I don't think there is a common goal," he added. "I think some want to move the city forward a lot and others want to keep it the way it is because they like it and it's comfortable. And that's my perception."
As of press time, Kirby did not respond to a request for comment on Barnett's potential candidacy.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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