The two candidates running in the April 2 election for Eau Claire City Council president faced questions on their leadership styles, policy achievements and even the city’s recent battle against heavy snowfalls during a Thursday night forum.
Acting council President Andrew Werthmann, who represents a district including downtown and the East Side Hill neighborhood, and at-large Councilman Terry Weld spoke to about 60 people gathered to hear them debate at Chippewa Valley Technical College.
Werthmann began by citing the city’s progress in job creation and economic growth in the past decade, but added that “at the same time wages are not keeping pace.”
Addressing poverty is a keystone of Werthmann’s campaign, and he told the crowd at the forum the council president needs to take bold actions and show dynamic leadership to “build an Eau Claire that lifts everyone up.”
Weld viewed the president’s job as leading the council — not steering it — to encourage independent thinking among members and deter alliance-building. Casting himself as a moderate, Weld said the city council designed by state law to be nonpartisan has not been that way lately.
“Our council is not nonpartisan,” Weld said. “We are spending a lot of time and effort on initiatives that in my opinion are not representing the entire community.”
Werthman contended political leanings are not the primary concern for the city.
“The issue in our community is not partisanship,” he said. “It’s that we have people barely getting by.”
But Werthmann did note that under his leadership, an open comment period was added earlier this year to Monday night meetings, allowing people of all viewpoints a chance to speak to city officials.
“Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican you have the opportunity to come down and share with us,” he said.
Werthmann has lead the council as acting president since June after longtime president Kerry Kincaid resigned. The April 2 election is for a one-year term — the remainder of Kincaid’s unexpired term.
Winter parking, budget changes
Candidates had to address whether winter parking rules changed in 2015 have been good, given how recent snowfalls have led to tall snowbanks that have narrowed driving lanes on streets.
“I’m proud of the changes that we made to alternate-side parking,” Werthmann said.
The city’s old rules requiring alternate-side parking every night from November through April resulted in unnecessary fines on nice spring days, often to people with homes that lacked a garage or adequate off-street parking.
“In reality this was a tax on being poor,” he said of the old parking policy.
Werthmann commended the city’s plow drivers for the jobs they’ve done this winter.
Weld noted the challenge the city has faced with a harsh winter.
“We’ve had a long five weeks, obviously, with historic snowfalls,” he said.
He noted there has been a learning curve since the policy was changed about 3½ years ago for residents so they know which side of the street they should park their cars after snowstorms.
But he also attributed some of this winter’s plowing problems to $25,000 taken away from parking enforcement during last fall’s budget talks, which went toward a new initiative. Werthmann defended that funding shift because the money is going toward a program to get residents involved in deciding how a portion of the city’s budget will be spent.
Multiple times during the forum, Werthmann spoke in support of another change to the city budget that added library positions intended to help the homeless population and literacy in at-risk youth.
However, Weld criticized how the amendment creating those two positions didn’t get a public discussion and arrived with little notice to the council.
“What we saw in the eleventh hour as was mentioned was not necessary,” he said. “It didn’t have to be that way.”
The candidates were asked about three policies they’d initiated on council, which caught Weld at a disadvantage as he’s been in office for a little less than two years. He did note that he had pushed for a discounted bus fare specifically for lower-income residents. He also said that his time on council has been spent trying to create compromises.
Werthmann, who’s served for about a decade on council, cited a policy early in his tenure that gave city workers in same-sex relationships the same employee benefits as heterosexual couples. Two other policies he said he’s proud of is creation of the city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee and greatly reducing the fine for possession of a small amount of marijuana.