Our Views: Leaders serve greater good of Janesville

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

“They are honorable and respectable people who wish to serve the entire city and not any one particular issue or any one particular neighborhood.”

—Burdette Erickson

Burdette Erickson should know. He lives in Janesville's Fourth Ward, home to many low-income families. He has long been a strong advocate for that area. If anyone could see that the city council or school board was neglecting a neighborhood's interests, it would be Erickson.

Last Sunday, Frank Schultz reported on where candidates and elected leaders have lived  the past decade. It's no surprise that most live in a cluster east of the Rock River.

City Councilman Sam Liebert says residents who claimed their voices weren't heard during the sidewalk debate last year show that our at-large election system is broken.

“We need to have aldermen represented by districts,” he said.

We disagree. Government can't make everyone happy. When decisions don't go the way some want, these people argue that officials aren't listening. Not listening and not doing what one person or group wants are not the same. Elect leaders by ward, and those officials too often won't focus on the city's overall good. Some aldermanic districts might struggle to find good candidates, and the districts also open the door to potential corruption.

By and large, Janesville's elected leaders have the best interests of the entire city and school district at heart. It's logical that most of those who run for these unpaid positions are educated people who have enjoyed successful careers. These are the types who desire to give back to their community and offer the vision to lead Janesville to a better future.

High-end subdivisions have sprung up on the west side, but the majority of the city's most affluent and educated residents still live in neighborhoods with more expensive homes on the east side. These people are more likely to be involved in politics, David Canon, political science professor at UW-Madison, told Schultz.

Sure, it would be nice if the council and school board better reflected the growing racial diversity and range of incomes and represented a better cross-section of city geography. The latter is particularly true given the cross-town rivalry that many people feel. And, yes, you can argue, as UW-Rock County history professor David McKay did in last Sunday's report, that the affluent can't really know the lives of the poor.

While leaders elected from specific neighborhoods would be more familiar with area issues and problems, residents would have fewer people representing them. Under our current city council system, they have seven. We are far from convinced that those seven don't understand neighborhood issues and don't represent residents well.

Besides, it should offend past and current elected leaders to suggest they don't care about all neighborhoods and residents. As school board member Kevin Murray pointed out, before the referendums to upgrade both high schools, the board tweaked plans so some projects at both schools matched.  Neither he nor fellow board member Bill Sodemann, nor former board member Tom Wolfe, believe bias is an issue.

Elected leaders must work together in mutual respect to lead our community forward. For the most part, they've done that well through the years without the need for aldermanic districts or geographic representatives on the school board.

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