Our Views: Fire station petition cannot force but could sway Janesville council

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Billy McCoy believes he's doing what's best for Janesville, and in his latest crusade, he may have considerable support.

McCoy has been a thorn in the side of city government. His mantra is funding needs over wants. That's good to a point. Like many residents, McCoy is frustrated with the city's sorry state of streets and bridges.

Put McCoy in charge, however, and this city would be stagnant. During his failed city council campaign two years ago, McCoy said he would not invest in renovating the riverfront. Had he been ruler, the city wouldn't have bike trails, the Janesville Performing Arts Center and other amenities that attract not only residents in general but young urban professionals coveted by businesses.

Too often, McCoy spouts off without knowing or understanding all of the facts.

His plan to petition the city for direct legislation to rescind the council's vote on a new $9 million central fire station is the latest example. City Attorney Wald Klimczyk said the petition couldn't force the city to do anything because it would be administrative rather than legislative and state law doesn't allow a petition to repeal a lawful council action.

McCoy suggested Klimczyk's opinion is a City Hall tactic to discourage his efforts. Officials with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, however, agree that the petition would be invalid.

Undaunted, McCoy now says he'll circulate a second petition for direct legislation. This one would require a city referendum for any capital project topping $2 million. Whether the wording of that petition would be legally valid remains to be seen.

If a valid petition for direct legislation has signatures representing 15 percent of those voting in the last gubernatorial election, it would force the council to accept it or pose the issue to voters in the next general election. If voters approve the question, the referendum is binding.

Surveys show public safety including firefighting is a top priority of residents, and even McCoy acknowledges the old station needs work.

Council members must accept some of the blame for festering anger over plans for the new station. Many residents are angry about what McCoy and other critics suggest is an $8 million Taj Mahal bus garage being built on South Parker Drive. Sure, the federal government is paying 80 percent of the garage construction costs, but fiscal conservatives point out it's all tax money. They believe sinking up to $9 million more in a fire station—with no federal dollars—would be excessive, too.

Many residents are miffed that the council voted in closed session to build the new fire station on the same block as the current one. They're also upset that the city plans to clear 12 homes—forcing residents out by eminent domain, if necessary—to make room for the larger building.

While McCoy pushes ahead with his petitions, City Manager Mark Freitag says the city will move forward with plans for the station. Those include soon making offers to residents who would lose their homes.

If you agree with McCoy's concerns, sign his petitions. Even if they can't force the city to reverse course on the fire station, they might prompt the council to reconsider the  project or change how it conducts business.

Whether those changes would be good for Janesville is another question, but it's your right to get involved and be a part of this important discussion about the city's future.

COMING SUNDAY: Does the city need a new fire station, and is $9 million a reasonable price?

Gazette editorials express the views of the newspaper's editorial board. Readers are encouraged to comment on editorials through letters to the editor.

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