New Tone at City Hall

The Tuesday, July 16, meeting of the Sturgeon Bay Common Council sprawled to nearly four hours as the council took on range of topics requiring substantial discussion. It was the kind of meeting that, for most of the last two years, would have been fraught with tension, verbal sparring and insults. 

Not so Tuesday evening. Council members were calm, cordial and respectful. Mayor David Ward allowed for substantial discussion and clarified rules without the sarcasm that had become the norm in recent years. The audience and council did not devolve into exasperated sighs or muffled sneering. 

So what? 

Well, in Sturgeon Bay, such a meeting can’t be taken for granted. The night included debates about eliminating fines for marijuana possession, noise complaints related to pickleball at Otumba Park and yet another round of proposals related to the granary, in addition to a long-awaited proposal for the West Waterfront. It had significant potential to go off the rails. It didn’t. 

Ward agreed that there’s a new tone at City Hall.

“I think we’ve done a good job of taking personalities out of it,” he said. “There’s a clear understanding of what’s permitted and what crosses the line. It doesn’t help to always be arguing about something.”

Ward said he doesn’t want the personal back-and-forth that has marked meetings for the last several years, when former Mayor Thad Birmingham and former Alder Kelly Catarozoli were good for at least one verbal sparring match per meeting, and the tension among rival council members was palpable. 

Birmingham’s City Hall operated more like a courtroom than a community meeting. Ward controls the room, but in a much more inviting fashion, even allowing input from attendees that provided context for a council debate that was stuck in speculation about quadricycles downtown. That seems to be an obvious move, but it was rare in Birmingham’s tenure.

“The judgment call I make is whether it’s argumentative advocacy or information,” Ward said. “You run into trouble if you have an issue come up where someone wants to talk and it’s advocacy, but the other side doesn’t have someone there. But if it’s information for a decision, that’s different.”

Ward presides over a council inexperienced in city politics. Three members began their terms in April. The other four are in their first term. The council has a grand total of fewer than three years of combined experience. 

“We’re learning as we’re going, trying to develop a chemistry, and I think it’s coming faster than I thought,” Ward said. 

Performance-Review Policy in Place

When two council members moved to oust City Administrator Josh Van Lieshout last summer, it was revealed that the city lacked a formal review process for the administrator. It was an embarrassing revelation for the city to lack a practice considered standard for communities large and small. Ward said a policy is now in place.

“Once a new council is seated, we lay out goals and objectives for the city administrator in May and June,” he said. “Then the following February or March, an evaluation takes place.”

Ward said the policy also has a provision for external feedback, which might include notes from partner governmental bodies or organizations the city works with, such as the County of Door.