Third Aldermanic Candidate Forum: A Look at Options

3rdDistrictForum.jpgby Sonya Jongsma Knauss

When five 3rd District aldermanic candidates gathered at Gordon Park Pavilion on a bitterly cold night last month, about 75 residents turned out to hear their positions on important city and neighborhood issues. Predictably, the most controversial questions centered around development, parking, and homeowner-student relations in the UWM area. The forum, sponsored by the Riverwest Neighborhood Association (RNA) and Riverwest Currents, consisted of three questions given to candidates beforehand and about 10 questions that were submitted in writing by members of the audience. The five candidates are incumbent 3rd District Ald. Mike D’Amato, Ben Goodhue, Damien Jones, Tim Vertz, and Carole Wehner. Attendees came from all over the 3rd District: Riverwest, East Side, Brady Street, and UWM, as well as residents from the 6th District. Candidates introduced themselves before the questions began. In his opening comments, D’Amato pointed out that when he took office eight years ago, he promised to help make the people of the 3rd District the most well informed and most politically involved residents of any district in the city. He asserted that he had kept that promise. In his responses to subsequent questions, D’Amato packed in statistics on issues like homeownership, tax rates, parking replacement, and meeting attendance in replies to various questions. UWM student Ben Goodhue introduced himself next, energetically expounding on his passion for the job and his desire for “education not gentrification,” a message he seemed to muddle at one point by stating that students should stay east of the river and Riverwesters should stay west of the river, with no one moving in or out. Goodhue maintained his youthful enthusiasm throughout the debate, speaking forcefully on issues, some of which he admitted he was not overly familiar with. Damien Jones, a Riverwest resident and active Green Party member, described his campaign as one of ingenuity, issues, and pure grassroots. He came back to this theme throughout the debate, along with a desire for greater citizen involvement and information. He repeated several times, “the less you know, the more THEY get away with.” Riverwest resident and RNA treasurer Tim Vertz opened by emphasizing his similarities to those in the audience. “I AM you,” he said. “I am a neighbor who cares about our neighborhood, and the best way to care is to be involved.” He was perhaps the most calm-mannered candidate at the forum. At one point, following a terse interchange between D’Amato and Wehner, punctuated by a shouted interruption from a member of the audience, Vertz stated, “Civility is not a weakness.” Vertz also advocated for a citizen advisory panel, saying “it’s not about me, it’s about we.” Wehner introduced herself as an East Side resident and realtor with a love for duplexes and an interest in working with residents and students in the UWM neighborhood. Wehner stated that she would set up a “storefront office” in the 3rd District at her own expense to be easily accessible to constituents if she were elected. Following are a few summary comments on questions asked at the forum: On Holton Street:Candidates were asked about Holton Street as a perceived and real dividing line and what could be done to make it a more vibrant, viable street where people of all colors would want to live and do business. They called for things like better lighting, greenery, slower traffic, and business creation (Wehner); increased involvement by neighborhood organizations and homeowners’ associations (Vertz); grassroots efforts by those who live there with aid from the city (Jones); brighter streetlights and fewer liquor stores (Goodhue); and better code enforcement for problem businesses and landlords, promotion of homeownership programs, and more jobs (D’Amato). D’Amato also pointed out the difference between the east side of the street, which has been in the 3rd District, and the west side, which is in the 6th District. “It has been neglected for far too long, and if the 6th District alderman isn’t interested in working on it, we will take charge of both sides,” he asserted. On development and gentrification:Candidates were questioned about their vision for development in the district, particularly regarding gentrification and “less-than-honest” developers. Wehner opened with critical comments about the new building going up on Royall and Farwell, saying the city has plenty of condos already and condo growth should be slowed. She wants emphasis to shift to maintaining older homes. Vertz is opposed to building more condos as well, saying he “can’t stand what they look like… (developers are going to) ruin our neighborhood if they put in a big box with glass.” Jones pointed out that gentrification is not a myth, that it is happening in Riverwest, and that he knows people who have had to move because of rising prices. He opposes “pandering to suburbanites.” Goodhue got in a dig about condos bringing in a more dense population and adding to existing parking problems. D’Amato spoke more positively about development, redirecting the focus of the conversation — “I think it’s a good thing that people want to live here… and unlike the other candidates, who seem to think our city neighborhoods should be gated communities, I welcome people who want to live in the city.” D’Amato also said it’s inconsistent to oppose sprawl and to be against development. He pointed to examples of what he considered positive infill development, and emphasized that he is not interested in tearing down existing neighborhood housing stock to make room for condo developments. He also pointed out that he had a role in re-zoning most of Riverwest to single family and duplex housing, which helps prevent large-scale development from happening. A few hecklers called out from the audience during his comments. On taxes: Goodhue said he can’t pledge to lower taxes, but he does believe that he owes taxpayers efficiency. He questioned the Council’s adding millions back into the mayor’s budget, and he also pledged to freeze or lower aldermanic pay. D’Amato cited statistics to show that the tax levy stayed below the rate of inflation, and he pointed out that restoration of timely services such as street lighting, plowing, and garbage pick-up were behind the council’s increase in the budget. He promised to advocate for more state revenue sharing for Milwaukeeans, who have been hurt by recent cuts. Wehner said she thought the City was making bad spending decisions and allowing low bidders to purchase land for development. Vertz asserted that property taxes must come down and said an increase in service fees (taking items off the tax levy) was the main reason taxes look lower than in the past. Jones said a tax freeze was total foolishness but questioned where money was going. He spoke against vouchers and any privatization of city services. On parking: Jones’ comment, “Let’s talk about that predatory, regressive tax called the parking permit” was met by applause from some in the audience. “Why do we have to pay to park in front of our own houses?” he asked. Goodhue expressed concern about businesses on the East Side where customers have no place to park, and Vertz proposed an agreement between the City and UWM where UWM would open up its parking structure on Saturdays for people to park. Wehner complained that east side developers are not replacing the parking spaces they build on (however, according to city code and D’Amato, this is not true and in fact the city requires building plans where all spots are replaced before awarding contracts). D’Amato asserted that parking is a problem that can’t be solved, only managed. He also noted that the “two inch” rule will soon be applied across the board in Riverwest, rather than enforcing alternate side parking rules in some parts of Riverwest regardless of snowfall. Vertz noted that he had been advocating for the same thing and was happy to see the city finally make parking rules more neighborhood-friendly. On UWM student-homeowner issues:D’Amato was quick to point out that UWM has not consulted with the city or residents on whether they should increase their student population, nor has the university asked surrounding homeowners to absorb a higher population of students. “Decisions are being made without local support,” he said. “UWM doesn’t have a housing plan.” He cited problem landlords in the area, mentioning opponent Carole Wehner by name, for “jamming six people into a home” and having a detrimental effect on homeownership in the area. Wehner responded by asserting that she lived in her duplex and she had no idea what he was talking about. “I am not what he is purporting me to be,” she said. She was interrupted by shouted accusations from a resident, who was asked to refrain from personal attacks and take up any personal issues with the candidates after the forum. Vertz called the student/homeowner issue “over-hyped” and took a conciliatory approach, stating that he’s been working with a student organization to try to find mutually acceptable solutions for students and homeowners. Jones referred to D’Amato’s comments as a “mean-spirited campaign against UWM,” and Goodhue turned D’Amato’s statement around saying, “City government never asked UWM.” He didn’t like the idea that “students might be forced to move across the river — dorms are the way to go.” Disclaimers: The RNA does not endorse candidates; however, it does encourage people to be informed and to vote for the candidate of their choice. Riverwest Currents is not endorsing candidates for the primary; check our April election issue for general election endorsements. Full disclosure: The author is an RNA board member and moderated the forum. She lives in the 6th District which, unfortunately, did not hold a forum until January 29, the day this paper went to press.
by Sonya Jongsma Knauss