Sunday, December 4th, 2016

Ghosts of mayors past, Waukesha’s water future

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Two of Waukesha’s ex-mayors offer their counsel to Mayor Jeff Scrima, the Common Council and the community at large this weekend in the Waukesha Freeman. Former Mayor Paul Vrakas wrote a letter to the editor explaining that the policy lead should come from the Common Council.

My many years of making policy together with the aldermen and alderwomen and administering the day-to-day operation were among the most rewarding of my life. In all those years, plus serving some years on the council in the ’60s, I have not seen this degree of controversy. Oh, there were many big-time disputes, with winners and losers. That’s democracy in action, but this seems different. Perhaps it is a sign of the times, with the recession and all.

My main concern is that the traditional way of working through this kind of matter is through the council having to do it. We all know this. I’m not just talking about the water matter, but all the policy matters that arise from time to time. And there are plenty for a major city such as Waukesha.

Former Mayor Carol Lombardi told Pete Kennedy in an interview she thought the Common Council politicized the water issue by setting up a meeting with Milwaukee’s aldermen shortly after the election. However, she lays primary blame with the mayor.

Scrima started the politicization of the water issue during his campaign for mayor. His “no Milwaukee water” mantra (unless it was a day when he was hedging on even that issue) connected with some voters.

First of all, Lombardi said, the issue is “Lake Michigan” water, not necessarily “Milwaukee” water. She believes Lake Michigan is the best alternative for Waukesha, and she supports exploring sources such as Oak Creek and Racine – in addition to Milwaukee.

Lombardi believes Scrima doesn’t understand the complexity of the water issue, or at least didn’t when he raised it during the campaign.

“It’s very heartbreaking to see what has transpired regarding this water issue, and using it as an election tool was just very inappropriate in my opinion,” she said.

As for Scrima’s brilliant new ideas, well, they’re neither new nor brilliant.

“It’s like going back to the dinosaur era to reference using the quarries,” she said. The aquifer won’t last forever, either – something that has been known for decades. “You could call Paul Vrakas to get some background on when this all started,” Lombardi said. (Vrakas was the mayor before the mayor before Lombardi, who was mayor for eight years before Nelson, who was mayor for four years before Scrima.)

Vrakas did not address the water issue directly , but he did address the relationship between the city administrator and the mayor.

The council was correct that it had the right to make changes in the working arrangement with the administrator (the mayor could have weighed in on it with a veto, worth five votes, but did not), but I hope that each and every policy matter in the future will come to the council floor.

Policy questions are the business of us citizens. I trust also that in the revised administrator contract there are no policy matters. With there now being a closer tie between several council people and the administrator, there is a need to be sure that the mayor is involved – or at least invited to be. Again, if a meeting on a given policy subject is scheduled by council people, it should be set by the full council in order that the mayor can exercise his view that the matter is timely, or important, through the veto power.

Lombardi also talked to Kennedy about the city administrator.

“What has transpired over this water issue has given powers to the (city) administrator,” said Lombardi.

Lombardi was an advocate of creating a city administrator position but “as the business head, not the executive head,” she said. The administrator’s role was to work on budgets and financing. The council and mayor, meanwhile, were to direct how tax dollars were spent. (Given how things have turned out, Lombardi would be more likely to support a part-time mayor and full-time manager form of government, she said.)

This Tuesday night the Common Council will be meeting again to discuss the water issue. It is very likely they will vote to proceed with the application with the DNR’s questions answered except for one, the obstinance of our current mayor. My advice is that the Common Council should proceed with the vote. If the mayor cannot have his veto sustained, then it will be incumbent upon him to act in the expressed will of the city. However, if the mayor cannot continue to serve in good conscience while supporting the city’s official position then he should resign. The drama needs to end for the good of the city.

I suspect, from my observations of the mayor so far, is that he will not conduct himself well after the vote and is incapable of behaving responsibly. I hope he proves me wrong.

Meanwhile, regardless of the outcome Tuesday night and the outcome of any veto by the mayor, the members of the Common Council must take this fight to the public. They will need to explain their vote and what the consequences would have been had they voted not to press forward with the application of Great Lakes water. This is not the time for business as usual. This is the time to reach out to the community so that they will understand the decision and why the mayor was wrong.

This is no longer a policy fight. This is a political fight, and it’s time the Council engaged themselves in it.

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