With city leaders taking a stand on a national political issue and changing city documents with more politically-correct language, a former councilman questions if they’re focusing enough of their attention on running Eau Claire.
Eric Larsen, a retired Eau Claire deputy police chief who served on the City Council from 2013 to ‘17, sent an email Tuesday afternoon to current city officials before they voted on a resolution urging state and national officials to take action on gun safety with measures such as universal background checks and waiting periods.
In the email, he said he backs the gun safety policies, but questions if the council is not focused enough on local government matters while it debates issues that are out of its control.
“City Council should be focusing on the functions of the city government,” he wrote.
Larsen listed debt policy, tracking revenues, reviewing staffing, maintaining infrastructure, meeting comprehensive plan goals and providing services to satisfy the city’s growth as areas the council needs to pay attention to.
“These are the projects you are entrusted with as stewards of the City of Eau Claire,” he wrote. “But they are neglected when staff is forced to rewrite ordinances to match someone’s sense of what should be proper nomenclature, or when they are kept working late into the evening while council members discuss issues beyond their control.”
During Tuesday afternoon’s meeting, acting council President Andrew Werthmann responded to Larsen’s email, saying that elected city leaders can handle both the business of running Eau Claire and discussing major issues that constituents are concerned about.
Werthmann noted that the council was able to handle other business Tuesday — seeking a grant to buy buses, scrutinizing alcohol license applications and other agenda items — while still having time to talk about gun safety.
And he said the clout of a city the size of Eau Claire does matter to legislators in Madison and can spur change.
“These statements do matter and they matter to our constituents and that’s why we should take them on,” Werthmann said.
Larsen, who came in third in April’s Democratic primary for the state’s 91st Assembly District, acknowledged in his email that there is “a feeling that council should be a voice for the community.” But he then said it is important to remember that Eau Claire residents have their own voices and are capable of using them to talk with their legislators.
Larsen was among community members who provided ideas for the gun safety resolution to current council members Emily Anderson and Jeremy Gragert, who brought it to the full council. And his email mentions several gun-related incidents in Eau Claire that he feels make the case for “common sense, basic reforms.”
After some amendments, the gun safety resolution — essentially a message from the city to state and national legislators — was approved Tuesday in a 9-0 vote with Councilman Michael Xiong absent.
Current Councilman Terry Weld said Tuesday that while he supports the gun safety resolution, he also agreed with Larsen’s sentiments about the city taking on issues that are out of its control.
“I want to make sure we’re not walking on too thin ice and not getting too far ahead on these national political ideas and making statements,” Weld told his colleagues.
Weld added when candidates run for City Council, he feels like they aren’t elected based on national issues. He and some of his colleagues said the council needs to have a broader discussion of its role in these kinds of matters.
Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle mentioned given the council’s current makeup — four new members were elected in April, and President Kerry Kincaid resigned in early June — it does have more people who want to take on big issues.
“Elephant in the room is we have more of an activist council than we’ve ever had before,” she said. “What are we going to do about that, and how are we going to be?”
Emmanuelle, who was the leading voice to push the city government to adopt “people-first” language (changing “disabled person” to “person with disabilities,” replacing “low-income people” with “people experiencing poverty”) in its official documents, said that the council has to be mindful about how their decisions will impact city staff work time.
Handling new initiatives from elected city leaders in addition to running the day-to-day and long-term work at the city did worry Eau Claire’s top employee at a June 12 council meeting.
Council members had requested a feasibility study of free bus fare for children, changing city documents to have “people-first” language and creating a code of conduct for the City Council during that meeting.
“We do have concerns about doing all that you’re asking,” City Manager Dale Peters said then, adding that staff would do the best it could.