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City Council Election – Our Final Observations

The Periscope Group has been paying attention to the three contested City Council elections in the City of Manitowoc.  We interviewed and/or gathered responses from all six candidates for our article last week.  All three of us listened to the Candidate’s Forum that was held last Thursday at City Hall.  This article presents a summary of our thoughts that are drawn from our interviews, interviews that appeared in the Herald Times Reporter, observations from the candidate’s forum, and our own knowledge of the candidates.

What follows is what we would be considering if we were voting in each of these districts.  I will explore strengths, weaknesses, and concerns with each of the candidates, along with an overall view of the district and how the city might be impacted if a candidate wins.  I will attempt to be objective, but I will also disclose that I have histories with several of the candidates.  I served on the Council for 9 years with Scott McMeans and Chris Able, as well as 1 year with Jeremiah Novak and Rhienna Gabriel.  I have socialized with some of the candidates, etc.  It’s hard to not take your personal views or relationships into account, but I also think that I can back up what I type with things that each candidate has actually said or done.

We are not endorsing candidates and we are not telling you who we think that you should vote for—We have way too much respect for you to think that we could even attempt to do that.  That said, the Periscope does have a strong opinion on how the City should be run, and we would not be accomplishing our mission if we sat silent. So, if we compliment or criticize a candidate’s position on an issue, it is because it is not in line with the Periscope’s mission. 

Without further qualification, here are our unvarnished thoughts on the races, separated by district.

District 2:  Incumbent Scott McMeans vs. Rick Zunker

Scott McMeans is articulate, smart and he has plenty of Council experience.  He has spearheaded a lean government initiative and has also been on the Finance Committee, which has stabilized City finances and has helped pay down our unconscionable debt.  He has been Council President as well as Chair of the powerful Finance Committee, and he has handled both competently.  His qualifications cannot be questioned. 

That said, there is reason to believe that McMeans has become part of a cozy group of aldermen who have aligned themselves with the Mayor, which definitely calls into question his independence and objectivism.  Consider McMeans’ aggressive and maybe even cruel attacking behavior when the Council took away Ald. Gabriel’s voting rights last fall.  The Periscope still thinks that this was a huge overreach by the Council, and there is considerable reason to believe that the Mayor was behind it.  Why would McMeans go along with it so enthusiastically?  Even when asked about this incident in the Periscope questionnaire, McMeans went into a long explanation of the legality of the action—not the decency or appropriateness of it. 

Rick Zunker strikes us as sincere and genuine, and we can’t doubt his desire to serve the city.  He’s a lifelong resident and knows Manitowoc well.  But, he also impressed us as being uninformed about many City issues.  His answers to many questions were very brief or deferred to a need to gain more information once he got into office.  It is certainly true that certain issues can’t really be addressed until you are actually on the Council, because you don’t have the information.  But, it’s not impossible to take a stronger position on concepts such as the wheel tax, downtown City plan, etc. where public information is readily available.  When you’re challenging an incumbent, you have to give voters a reason to change horses.  The Periscope does agree with Zunker that the Council would benefit from some new blood, and we think he’d probably be fine if he was elected.  But it seems like he may be too much of an unknown especially when facing such a qualified opponent. 

The choice here comes down to whether you think that the Council is running great as is, and if you’re OK with power being gradually consolidated to a small group of aldermen, or if you think that new blood is needed, and you’re willing to roll the dice with a somewhat unknown quantity.

District 3:  Incumbent Jeremiah Novak vs. Chris Able

This is an interesting race!  Jeremiah Novak is the incumbent, but Chris Able actually has quite a bit more Council experience, having served for several terms before being narrowly defeated by Novak two years ago.  They seem to be in general agreement on most issues. 

Novak runs a business downtown and has been very active in promoting and sponsoring a lot of downtown events—his business is sponsoring one night of the outrageously fun and successful Night Market 920 concert series, as one small example, and his business sponsors dozens of other community and charity events.   He is also heavily involved in downtown business groups.  District 3 is the “downtown district”, and Novak definitely has hands on involvement.  He was prepared for meetings and was not afraid to speak up—not always a given for aldermen in their first term.  He is independent and not visibly part of any factions.  He was one of only three aldermen to vote against taking away Ald. Gabriel’s committee voting rights, for example. 

Able has been an MPSD school teacher for over 20 years, and he has taken the initiative to receive additional training that would aid him in a Council position.  He was always prepared for meetings, not afraid to speak out, and you always knew where he stood—an increasing rarity on this Council.  He was independent and not visibly part of any factions. 

Able gave one of the only outside the box answers at the candidate’s forum.  Regarding snow plowing, he wants to let the Police Department dictate when we need to plow, rather than adhering to a strict 3” threshold that the City has in place.  This position is pretty creative shows a willingness to make some common sense changes to a bewilderingly customer-unfriendly snowplow operation. 

As an aside, outside of this tweak, all six candidates at the forum were in agreement that our snowplow operations are wonderful, and our drivers are doing a great job.  I agree that our snowplow drivers are working very hard, but mm I standing on the ceiling about the overall performance and policies?  Is it possible to criticize the snow plowing strategy without criticizing the snow plow drivers?.   

The Periscope has concerns over Novak’s apparent belief that every city problem can be solved by hiring more staff.  With a flat population, how do you find the money to continually hire more staff?  The Periscope would like to see the Council try to do more with what it has before hiring more staff. 

Able describes himself as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative.  I don’t know that he would fit into what many would consider to be a traditional fiscal conservative, but he never rubber stamped new spending—again, a rarity on the Council. 

To us, both of these candidates are qualified.  This race boils down to choosing a candidate who is a business owner and is visibly invested in downtown vs. a candidate who is professorial and is exceptionally well versed in City issues. 

District 10 : Incumbent Rhienna Gabriel vs. Bruce Jacobs

Oh my!  Has there been a juicier aldermanic race in the recent past?  Once again, the Periscope thinks that there is more to this race than meets the eye.  There’s been an almost unheard of media attachment to Ald. Gabriel’s behavior.  And, to be fair, her behavior has raised flags.  But, the Scope thinks it’s fair to ask why she has been caught in the crosshairs, and who’s behind it. 

Let’s start with qualifications.  The Scope thinks this is probably a wash.  Gabriel is an incumbent and comes from a public health background.  She does her homework and is articulate.  She has gone to meetings and conference around the state on issues that she is interested in and she brings that knowledge back to the City—that is over and above the call of duty for sure.

Jacobs has a long career with the City as a Police Office and is a business owner.  All citizens owe our public safety employees a huge debt of gratitude.  We also can’t discount the fact that Jacobs is a business owner—we need more of that know-how on the Council for sure. 

Would it be OK if we took the liberty of going beyond qualifications when looking at this race?  It has drama and intrigue all over it.  To start, there is no question that the Mayor and a core group of aldermen want Gabriel off the Council.  Last fall, they banded together and used a seemingly-innocent drop off of a six pack of beer to justify taking away her committee voting rights.  (These rights will be reinstated if Gabriel is reelected.)  This winter, the Mayor made a proud Facebook post supporting Jacobs as seen below. 

This spring, the Council once again admonished Gabriel because she sent a cryptic letter to several aldermen.  Just this week, a former alderman who is closely aligned with the Mayor filed an ethics charge against Ald. Gabriel for using her City email address in her campaign materials.  This despite the fact that several alderman in this election did the exact same thing and none of them had ethics complaints filed against them.  This offense is awfully ticky-tack and hardly warrants this kind of attention.  If you look up any alderman on the City website, their city email address is shown—it’s public information.  It’s not like Gabriel was having city staff run copies and stuff envelopes for one of her campaign mailings.  The Scope has been saying for months that it is important to look at why she is being singled out in this unprecedented fashion.  In our view, Gabriel is being targeted because she does not march to the beat of people at City Hall who want to maintain the status quo.  She dares to question how things are being done, and she makes suggestions and has ideas.  The ethics charge and the insistence on making a big deal of the cryptic letter took place during campaign season—this can’t be a coincidence.  This strikes us as an attempt to ensure that Gabriel is not reelected. 

The Periscope has been consistent in acknowledging that Ald. Gabriel’s behavior can be erratic, and she does invite certain responses and we understand why her colleagues get frustrated.  For example, she barely answered any of the Periscope’s pre-election questions, despite our meeting with her face to face and following up with an email.  That kind of behavior is bewildering.

But there are also some serious concerns surrounding Bruce Jacobs’ candidacy and how it came to be.  From the beginning, Jacobs has been dogged by an accusation that the Mayor recruited him to run.  This rumor no doubt started because the Mayor made a Facebook post supporting Jacobs’ candidacy.  At the beginning, Jacobs was coy and evasive when asked if the Mayor recruited him to run.  (See his answer on the Periscope questionnaire.)  Then after being asked repeatedly at the candidate forum, he finally admitted that he was.

Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with recruiting people to run for office.  But why would Jacobs initially appear to hide the fact?  What happened when Jacobs finally admitted this link was even more troubling.  In an apparent attempt to show that he would be independent and not beholden to the Mayor, Jacobs said, “Justin is a Democrat, and I’m a Republican”.  Except there’s one little problem.  In 2011, Jacobs signed the petition to recall Governor Scott Walker. 

How many true Republicans signed that petition?  Why would Jacobs first deny association with the Mayor, then admit it, then attempt to downplay its significance with an apparent falsehood? 

To us, this race boils down to two candidates with obvious qualifications but also serious caveats.  Do you stick with Gabriel, who seems intent to look at ways to make the City run better?  But you would also have to accept the fact that her behavior will be erratic at times, and if she is reelected, the Mayor and Council will likely continue to look at ways to weaken her.  Or do you look at Jacobs, who is well known and well liked, and has been involved in the community for decades?  But you would also have to examine his evasive behavior during the campaign and wonder what it might mean if he gets into office. 

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