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By Roger Utnehmer
An Occasional Attempt To Restore
CivilityTo Our Civic Discourse
President and CEO
April 27, 2016
The Legacy of Mayor Thad Birmingham
Less than two years ago Thad Birmingham could have gone down in history as one of Sturgeon Bay's most popular mayors. Today his legacy will be a divided community, conflicts of interest, cronyism and an election victory distorted by a last minute smear campaign.
He has a responsibility to heal the community his leadership and campaign tactics have divided. Instead of acting like his 52-vote victory was a landslide, Thad Birmingham needs to show grace in victory, sensitivity to those who disagree with his policies and a commitment to open government and public participation. So far he has done nothing to heal and much more to divide. Dumping his opponent from the Plan Commission, returning to noon meetings of the city council and failing to repudiate the actions of his campaign volunteer John Yount, reek of arrogance rather than reconciliation.
Thad Birmingham would do well to follow the leadership example and styles of other elected officials in Door and Kewaunee Counties. Door County Board Chair Dave Lienau led development plans in Sister Bay resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollar in improvements without the rancor and divisiveness over which Birmingham is presiding in Sturgeon Bay. Algoma Mayor Wayne Schmidt will soon announce final plans for a hotel development that has near-unanimous community support. In Kewaunee County, board supervisor Lee Luft is leading efforts to bring divided factions together to improve water quality and health. Luft is one of the most intelligent, effective, articulate and decent people serving in local government. Dave Lienau, Wayne Schmidt and Lee Luft show respect for the taxpaying public by communicating through the media and never stonewalling when it comes to answering questions. They are consensus-building, conciliatory men of good will who compromise for the public good.
Birmingham, on the other hand, has boasted to a fellow Sturgeon Bay "good old boy" insider that he will not talk to DoorCountyDailyNews.com. He refused, before the election, to state if he would reappoint Thomas "Cap" Wulf to the Waterfront Redevelopment Authority. Birmingham has a responsibility to communicate to the public through the media. If he is not going to do his job and answer questions from reporters, he should return his mayoral salary to the City of Sturgeon Bay. Wulf has a pattern of questionable behavior. His recent vulgar reference to it being "nobody's g—d---business" if he invests in a development project with city support is appalling. Birmingham also owes an apology to former mayor Dennis McIntosh as well as employees and customers of Door County Ace Hardware who heard Wulf's four-letter-word-laced tirade that resulted in disorderly conduct charges and a restraining order. Birmingham, by his silence, condones Wulf's obnoxious, crude and inappropriate behavior. His conduct is indefensible. Appointing Wulf with his apparent ethical challenges and anger-management issues will be part of the legacy of Thad Birmingham.
So how does political leadership weakened by a 52-vote margin of victory bring a city together?
Here are some suggestions for Thad Birmingham to lead with grace and decency;
...Return to evening meetings so the public can not only attend if desired but also run for office without having to be independently wealthy, retired or own their own business.
...Welcome input from those who hold diverse opinions and keep people like Laurel Brooks involved in city affairs.
...Welcome the invigorated millennials who have been showing up at meetings, expressing opinions, engaging in civic discourse and running for office by finding places to tap their talent and engage their resources. They are the inevitable future of Sturgeon Bay.
...Call for the resignation of Thomas "Cap" Wulf from the Waterfront Redevelopment Authority. Certainly Thad Birmingham can find someone without a restraining order in effect, a conviction for using a position of public trust for personal gain and a pattern of vulgar, crude public outbursts as Wulf demonstrates. Wulf's latest outburst, saying it's "nobody's g—d--- business" if he invests in a city project should get him kicked off the WRA alone.
...Establish a city ethics commission to review mayoral appointments for potential conflicts of interest. The League of Women Voters and Door County Civility Project would be great resources.
...End your self-imposed gag order on answering questions from reporters or return your mayoral pay.
...Put on the table what incentives the city is offering the developer of Cap Wulf's property on Madison Avenue. Move discussion about developer incentives to the public domain rather than shroud them in secrecy.
Some have also questioned the involvement of Carri Andersson as one of the people suing the city over the west side waterfront development because her sister, Kelly Catarozoli, is a member of the Sturgeon Bay city council. Andersson's involvement in the litigation has been cleared as NOT presenting a conflict of interest with her sister by city attorney Randy Nesbitt. If Andersson would withdraw from being party to the lawsuit she would remove any appearance of conflict and end suspicion of any inappropriate communications that could be damaging to the city. She has done nothing to present a single bit of evidence of inappropriate action but removing the question by withdrawing from the lawsuit would be one contribution to healing. Removing her name from the lawsuit would not diminish its impact but it could enhance public confidence.
Cap Wulf recently accused me of being a "transplant" and questioned my concern for Sturgeon Bay.
By risking the wrath of some who may disagree, these comments hopefully indicate those of us here by choice rather than chance of birth care for our community with the same passion and depth as those of you fortunate to have been born here.
That's my opinion. I'd like to hear yours.