Differences show up among Janesville City Council candidates

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Frank Schultz
Thursday, March 13, 2014

JANESVILLE—Nobody actually debates issues at candidates forums.

Each candidate takes a shot at the questions, quite often agreeing with the other candidates, and the audience tries to read between the lines.

Such was the case at the Janesville City Council forum Wednesday night at the Hedberg Public Library. But a few of the responses were interesting.

First, the setup: Facing the audience were four candidates running for three seats in the April 1 election:

-- Mark Bobzien, 55,  retired from the Janesville Fire Department. He is a newcomer to local politics.

-- George Brunner, 73, a retired Janesville police chief who previously served more than six years on the council.

-- Jim Farrell, 67, a retired industrial controller and certified public accountant who is seeking a second term.

-- Matt Kealy, 31, who owns Kealy's Kafé and Sizzlin' Grill. He is seeking a second term.

Now for the moderately interesting stuff.

Best quote of the night: “I tend to maybe micro-manage. I think I ask a lot of questions.” —Farrell.

Most agreed-on answer: When asked for the city manager's top three priorities, all four mentioned “infrastructure,” by which they seemed to mean streets, but also a new fire station.

Bobzien was most critical, saying the city had “fallen down” recently in taking care of its infrastructure.

Best question: What do you think about consolidating services with other municipalities or outsourcing city services to contractors? This one at least prompted some disagreement.

Bobzien, Brunner and Farrell all were against outsourcing.

“We have a great set of employees with the city of Janesville. I've seen them work. They work hard,” Bobzien said. “Janesville is a top-notch employer, and we need to continue that.”

Kealy would consider outsourcing.

Kealy said he hopes the city is giving the best possible service at the best possible price, but with state lawmakers cutting off revenue to municipalities, outsourcing should be considered.

Kealy said he is willing to look at consolidation if it brings in revenue.

Bobzien could see no benefit to consolidating services. Brunner and Farrell were skeptical but said there might be some opportunities there.

Worst question: What do you think of local versus state control?

Everyone favored local control.

Old question for old men: This is not quite  fair, as Kealy is only 31, but what the heck.

The question was a perennial one: What can the city do to address the needs and wants of those aged 18-25, and help keep them out of trouble?

Farrell said the city should finally build a skatepark. He has championed this cause in the past.

Kealy said young people would be attracted to a big-city feel in a small town, and downtown festivals and other cultural events could do that. It would take private parties to sponsor those events, and UW-Rock County's expansion also might help, he said.

Bobzien agreed with the two who spoke before him, picking up on Farrell's skatepark idea.

Brunner agreed young people want cultural events where they can learn and gather with others their age.

Chuckle-prompter: The audience liked this one, or maybe it was just the women in the audience, who apparently knew the only woman on the council is stepping down: How can an all-male council that lives primarily on the east side represent all of Janesville?

Bobzien said he has friends and relatives all over town and has lived both on the east and west sides.

“My heart goes out to the west side and the south side,” and he has always been aware of issues important to women, Bobzien said.

Brunner said he has lived all over town and feels he represents everyone: “I think it's a matter of listening and being available to be contacted by the citizens and responding to their questions and needs.”

Farrell said he represents the entire city.

“This east side/west side—I really don't believe it fits, sometimes,” Farrell said.

Farrell said he has encouraged women to run for city council and will continue to do so.

Kealy said an all-male council would do as good a job as a “blended” council.

And it doesn't matter where they live or whether they are “black or white, man or woman, pink, purple or zebra-striped,” Kealy said.

The “W” word: Would you favor a ward system of government, in which council members represent geographical areas, instead of the current at-large setup?

Brunner said at-large representation has worked well. He said he would worry that alderpersons representing wards would trade favors and votes to get things for their own districts, and that different parts of the city would be pitted against each other.

Farrell opposes a change. He wondered about the quality of candidates in a ward system and said people elected at-large represent the interests of the city as a whole.

Kealy opposes ward representation. He also wondered about the quality of candidates, noting very low turnout in some wards.

Bobzien said it's not broken, so don't fix it.

Fire in the hole: The controversial proposal to build a new, expanded central fire station, demolishing homes in the process, also was a question.

Kealy remains the only one on the council or among the candidates to say the city should save money by simply renovating the existing station on Milton Avenue.

Bobzien is “100 percent behind the new fire station.” It probably won't mean firetrucks or ambulances arrive sooner, but it will make firefighters' work more efficient, he said.

Brunner supports a new station and thinks the current site is best, but he is concerned the proposed station has grown in recent years, and he worries about displacing families and demolishing homes.

Farrell “absolutely” supports a new station: 'It's antiquated, and it's not fair to let our city employees work in that atmosphere.”

However, Farrell is concerned about cost and demolishing families' homes. He said the city should look at other sites.

The Janesville chapter of the League of Women Voters, Forward Janesville and JATV hosted the forum.

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