Does geography matter? East side dominates Janesville city, school government

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, January 12, 2014

JANESVILLE—Most of the people who set Janesville's city and school taxes and decide about garbage pickup, street plowing and the number of students in a classroom have one thing in common: They live east of the river.

It's been this way for decades.

One reason for the east-side dominance of local government is that few candidates from other areas of town ever run for public office. A majority of the candidates win or lose, come from east of the river, a Gazette analysis shows.

Demographic differences play a role. The analysis shows people who live east of the river tend to have higher educational levels and earn more money than elsewhere in the city.

“More affluent people vote more than less affluent people and tend to be more politically involved,” said David Canon, professor of political science at UW-Madison.

“The strongest explanations for differences in levels of voting and political participation are income, education and age,” Canon said. “So if the eastern side of Janesville has the more affluent, higher-educated residents, they are more likely to be involved in politics than people in the other parts of town.”

Income is a consideration, agrees Julie Gibes, a town of La Prairie resident who ran for school board a decade ago.

“A lot of people on the east side can afford not to work, or they have jobs that are so flexible that it allows them to run,” Gibes said.

But does it make any difference when it comes to the decisions of the school board or council? Opinions vary. 

Council member Sam Liebert brought up the city's traditional divide last year, as the council decided who must install sidewalks.

Liebert said he heard from many constituents who said their voices were not heard on the panel the council appointed to make sidewalk recommendations.

“It shows our at-large election system is broken. We need to have alderman represented by districts. I'm sure five or six of us live within a mile of each other on the east side. It's not a representative government,” Liebert said at the time.


Tom Wolfe, former school board member who has lived in every quadrant of town, said he never saw a bias on the board.

“The river always, for those of us who've been here all our lives, has provided a boundary of some kind,” Wolfe said, but he never thought any school board member favored one side of town.

During his nine years on the board, Wolfe said, people accused him of working for the east side because his children attended Craig High School, and people accused him of working for the west side because he attended Parker.

Getting it from both sides, in a way, proves his evenhandedness, he said.

The school district did more school construction on the east side during those years, Wolfe said, but that was because the older buildings were on the east side, as was the city's growth.

Burdette Erickson, longtime advocate for the near-west side Fourth Ward, is happy with the current setup.

No one from the Fourth Ward sits on the city council, but Erickson has no complaints about the city's support for the Fourth Ward.

“I believe the people who serve have the entire city's interest at stake. They are honorable and respectable people who wish to serve the entire city and not any one particular issue or any one particular neighborhood. That has never come up with us,” Erickson said.

School board member and east-sider Kevin Murray said called the east-side dominance “curious.”

“At one time, there were three of us (living) within a block and a half,” Murray said.

“We're still pretty small. We just have this cross-town rivalry that some people take pretty serious,” Murray said.

Nevertheless, Murray doesn't see any geographic bias on the board.

The board actually works hard to be balanced, Murray said, noting that when questions were raised about the high school expansion projects, board members agreed to change the plans so that the wrestling facilities at Craig and Parker would be similar.

Bill Sodemann likes to point out that he's the lone west-sider on the school board, but he agrees with Murray.

“I don't think it's a big issue,” Sodemann said.


Sen. Tim Cullen, who has served on both the city council and school board, said the city has changed in 50 years, and it's no longer an issue of east side versus west side.

Cullen, a Democrat, said both major political parties seem to be getting more involved in the nonpartisan local elections.

Going back at least to the 1960s, most candidates came from the east side, Cullen said. That was due in part to the now defunct Janesville Public Relations League, which worked to get very capable candidates with a business outlook to run for local office.

Those business people tended to live on the east side, but they worked for the entire city, Cullen said.

“They came there to do what they thought was right. They didn't come with their own political philosophy,” Cullen said.

The local union movement also has long been active in endorsing candidates, and the business-minded Forward Janesville also is active in “finding people of a certain philosophy to run,” Cullen said.

But now, he sees the parties becoming more active.

“I don't know that that's the way the city council system was meant to work, or the school board for that matter,” Cullen said.

The old-school, business-minded public servants came with an open mind, Cullen believes. “But now organizations try to find people with particular philosophies.”

The city's east side once leaned Republican, but now plenty of Democrats live there, Cullen noted.

And the west side now is home to comfortable subdivisions where Republicans have chosen to live, Cullen said.

It's not about geography anymore,” he said.

Cullen thinks the partisanship is a problem: “I think what you are seeing now is more and more people coming to the city council and school board with preconceived notions if not positions on how they're going to vote on issues as opposed to coming there and seeing what the facts say,” Cullen said.

Because of their partisanship, “I think they lose some of their flexibility once they get there,” Cullen said.

Cullen noted the voucher-school and charter-school legislation at the state level, which he sees as anti-public education.

“You'd like everyone on the school board in favor of public education, but I'm not so sure that's what we're going to see,” Cullen said. “I think we're going to see more people run who are in favor of private education being funded with tax money.”

Liebert, himself a longtime Democratic activist, agreed about the increased partisanship. 

Rock County as a whole leans strongly to the Democrats, at least in partisan elections, but the Janesville school board and city council are moderate to conservative, in Liebert's estimation.

One reason, Liebert said, is that the people who show up to vote in the spring, nonpartisan elections tend to be older homeowners who probably have more at stake and pay more attention to local news, while those who vote in the fall partisan elections are more diverse.

Fall elections get more publicity, which helps bring out more voters, Liebert said.


Gibes, the former board candidate, suggested that paying school board members might get more people from the west and south sides to consider running.

Neither the school board nor council members are paid. Most school districts of Janesville's size pay their board members.

It's an honor to serve, Gibes said, but a stipend of $2,000 to $3,000 could make a difference.

The city in 1923 changed to its current form of government, with a city council that hires a city manager to run the city. Twice since then, the city held referendums on returning to a system with a mayor and aldermanic districts. Both referendums failed.

The ward system led to “a tremendous amount of corruption,” so electing councils at-large was a part of the Progressive Era's push for clean government, said David McKay, a professor of history at UW-Rock County.

On the other hand, ward bosses worked hard on behalf of their constituents, McKay said.

In an at-large system, officials tend to lose sight of the people at the bottom, McKay said, although he said he doesn't know if that's the case in Janesville.

About half the city's schoolchildren qualify for subsidized lunches, McKay noted, but if none of the school board members have experienced poverty, they might not truly understand why that matters.

The diversity of views in a city ward system could be a good thing because no matter how well intentioned the members from the affluent part of town are, they don't know the lives of the poor, McKay said.

Bruce Monson, a local businessman who backed the 2004 referendum to change the form of city government, still thinks geographic representation would make a difference.

“The way a city can be stronger and better is by getting closer to the neighborhoods,” Monson said, suggesting that the perennial sidewalk issue might be best solved at the neighborhood level.

Some worry that aldermanic districts would produce council members who don't look out for the city as a whole, so Monson likes the system some cities use: some members elected by wards, some at large.

Now, when an issue comes up, often the first thing a council member asks is what other council members think, Monson said.

“It's nice to know where the other council members are, but you need to know where your constituents are on that issue,” Monson said.

Another concern is getting someone to run in some wards. Monson said people who shy away from running now because they don't feel up to handling the problems of the city as a whole would run if they knew they were representing a smaller area.

Narrowly focused council members might compete against each other for their wards, but competition can be good, Monson said.

Wards could try something on a small scale—such as allowing dogs in parks during the summer—and if it works, that idea could later be adopted citywide, Monson said.


School board members also are elected at large, but that could change if a petition drive leads to a successful referendum vote, said Dan Mallin, staff counsel for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

State law requires that when school board members are elected by geographic area, all voters vote for all the board members, but board members must live in the specified areas.

Liebert said he's not sure people are ready for another referendum on the form of city government. It will be interesting, he said, to see if the topic comes up after the April 1 elections.

Again this spring, most candidates for council and school board live east of the river. The exceptions are Sodemann and council incumbent Matt Kealy.

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