Council candidates tackle recent issues

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Marcia Nelesen
Sunday, March 30, 2014

JANESVILLE--Several hot issues have surfaced in Janesville, and The Gazette asked city council candidates their opinions on them.

Four candidates are seeking three open seats. They are incumbents Jim Farrell and Mike Kealy and challengers Mark Bobzien and George Brunner. Brunner has previously served on the council. Incumbent Kathy Voskuil did not seek re-election.

The election is Tuesday.

City staff and the alcohol license advisory committee recently suggested the city increase the number of retail liquor licenses available by seven to aid economic development. The number is tied to the city's population, and state law does not require a quota. Such a license is needed to sell pre-packaged alcohol. It is not the license that restaurants and bars need to serve alcohol. Also suggested was a procedure so the council can grant a license on an individual basis if none were available. None of the city's 19 Class A licenses are available now. How would you vote?

Bobzien: Bobzien would increase the number of licenses available by lowering the ratio per number of residents, as suggested.

“The fact that there are none available right now for a company that sells alcohol to come to town just shows that we need more,” Bobzien said. “I don't think adding a small number--five to seven--is going to increase competition to put any undue stress on existing business,” he said. Bobzien would wait to see if those additional licenses are used before considering whether the city needs a procedure to grant individual licenses.

Brunner: Brunner would support adding the extra licenses even though he doesn't believe they are a motivator for economic development.

 “As far as letting the market establish how many licenses are used, I could support simply increasing the quota by five or seven and allowing the market to level out as far as Class A.”

Brunner said he could possibly support a method to add individual licenses if none were available if it is “fair and equitable to everybody.”

Farrell: Farrell has no problem adding licenses, especially if doing so would bring new businesses to the city and aid existing businesses. He listened when several small business owners asked the council at a meeting to add licenses so they could expand.

 “I think I don't see any harm in doing it,” he said, adding he doesn't believe it will increase alcohol abuse in the city.

He would also support a method to grant an individual license if none were available and a business requested one.

Farrell said he supported allowing beer and wine at some city pavilions and has not heard of any problems because of that change.

 “We have to be realistic with our stances on alcohol,” Farrell said. “Nobody's encouraging abuse of it, but we need to be able to allow our citizens to have that ability to have alcohol.”

Kealy: Kealy, who chairs the city's alcohol license advisory committee, supports increasing the number of licenses available. He also supports a procedure to allow a business to petition the council for a license if none is available.

“It allows for economic development but keeps the amount of licenses still restricted,” Kealy said.

City staff and the alcohol licensing committee have also indicated they will consider a suggestion to eliminate a city requirement to separate alcohol sales from the sales of other goods.

Bobzien: Bobzien said he could understand how people are concerned about eliminating the separation.

“But I've also been in many cities--not only in Wisconsin but throughout this country--and I don't think that's a big problem,” he said.

“Alcohol is a fact of life, and it's all a very gray area between Prohibition and complete alcohol everywhere … I don't think the separation is necessary.”

The idea that a separation keeps people from being exposed to alcohol advertising is not valid, he said. Most people watch professional sports, especially kids, Bobzien said. “What is their main advertising?” he said. “The idea this will keep kids from being exposed to alcohol is, I don't think, a real argument.”

Brunner: Brunner would not support eliminating the separation.

“I think, first of all, it has served us well,” Brunner said. He said he does not know of a company that decided not to locate to Janesville because of the required separation.

“It eliminates that temptation and opportunity for, in particular, underage persons, to attempt to pilfer alcohol.”

Farrell: Farrell supports the current requirement to separate alcohol sales from other sales. “I don't really see any problems with the way it's working now,” Farrell said. “I think it's the appropriate thing to do.”

 Kealy: Kealy supports eliminating the separation because it requires businesses to maintain two separate stores in one business.

“There are still plenty of things we can do to be less restrictive but be pro-business and protect our youth,” Kealy said.

A new fire station has become a hot topic in Janesville. What are your feelings on the station—the $9.5-million cost, the location, the effect on the neighbors? Do you have any suggestions?

Bobzien: Bobzien is a retired Janesville firefighter. He served on a committee several years ago that studied fire station location, and he is convinced a site on or near the current site is best.

Now the city must determine the size of the site and decide whether to move firefighters during construction or figure out whether they can work at the current site through the construction.

 “I think an eight-bay station is what the city of Janesville needs,” Bobzien said. “This is what is going to benefit the city of Janesville in the long run.”

Bobzien said he thought this issue would be settled by the election.

“Had the council acted openly last fall and let the media know and the public know what they were planning to do, it may have already been taken care of,” he said.

Brunner: Brunner agrees with the need for a new fire station. But he is concerned with the size of the footprint and the fact it has “expanded tremendously.” Brunner said he was on a committee several years ago that called for six bays rather than the current eight.

Brunner said the current site has always been the frontrunner for a new station. If more space is needed for dorms and administration, Brunner suggested the city build up to reduce the building's footprint.

 “I think there's some things that could be discussed,” Brunner said. “I think there is a real need, but I was surprised when it became public, finally, and how they wanted to locate it there. I think it's a good location, but I was surprised at the number of properties they were looking to acquire and planned to (relocate).”

Farrell: Farrell said he initially voted to build on the current site but now would like to revisit other sites the council members discussed in closed session in November or possibly even new sites.

The matrix that ranked the sites was developed a few years ago, he said. Some of the totals were not that far off from the highest ranked site, which is the current station, he said.

Discussions about a new fire station have been ongoing for decades, and Farrell doesn't see the harm in taking more time to study.

The final cost of $9.5 million was higher than Farrell expected, fueled in part by the cost of buying properties and relocating residents. He predicted the relocation process would not be smooth.

“If I had it my way, I'd consider some other sites,” he said.

Possibly, the proposed plans could be changed to decrease the building's footprint. For example, plans include a meeting room and a conference room. He suggested combining the two. He wonders why a complete second floor couldn't be added rather than just a partial second floor.

“The footprint looks really big to me,” Farrell said.

He also is interested in a suggestion to build in phases so firefighters would not have to relocate.

Farrell said he personally has talked to all 12 neighbors who might be relocated, and only 10 would not at this point. Still, the cost to the city is too high, he said.

“I do not think it should be a done deal,” Farrell said. “I really think there's another way.”

Kealy: Kealy never supported building a new fire station. He prefers renovating the current station on the current site at a cost of about $3 million. Kealy noted a new station at $9.5 million would cost the owner of the average home assessed at $120,100 anywhere from $238 to $333, depending on the borrowing terms.

 “I'm concerned about people being removed out of their homes and the cost,” Kealy said.

Rather than expanding the building's footprint, the city could story extra equipment in the soon-to-be-vacant bus garage nearby on Parker Drive, he suggested. The city is building a new bus garage.

He also would like the entire system studied, noting that fire officials have predicted a need for a sixth station.

“We need to look at the network and see how we can be proactive in the future to keep operating costs down,” Kealy said. “Can we reposition the five stations so we do not need six?” That would avoid the continuing personnel costs of a sixth station, he said.

Fire official have said the city already covers too much area with five stations.

Do you think the city violated the open meetings law when it met in closed session in November to consider numerous fire station sites and then voted on the current site? A lawyer who is an expert on open meetings laws told The Gazette the city should have had all or at least most of the meeting in open session. How committed are you to open meetings and open records?

Bobzien: Bobzien said the city is in the “pickle” with the station because the council met in closed session in November.

Councils can go into closed sessions to negotiate on property and for personnel reasons, and the council discussed neither during that meeting, he said.

“They discussed where they might put a fire station. I think because of that, we're kind of in the pickle we are now,” Bobzien said.

“This could have been brought out last fall. Homeowners should have been notified. These homeowners were kind of blindsided.”

The media are the only way Janesville residents can readily get needed information, he said. And the only way the media gets that information is when it is aired in open session.

Bobzien has a journalism degree and has worked for a newspaper.

“I'm not a lawyer, but two council members admitted they didn't do what they said they were going to do” in the notice to meet in closed session, Bobzien said.

If the council is unsure whether a meeting should be open or closed, it should always err on the side of being open, he said.

Brunner: Brunner said he couldn't comment on whether the city violated the open meetings laws because the meeting was closed.

 “I was just surprised at how that was handled,” Brunner said, noting how surprised the residents were when the information was finally made public.

He wondered whether choosing a location from many others is a policy question rather than an issue that would fall under negotiations.

Brunner said he believes in being transparent, open, truthful and honest.

Farrell: Farrell, who attended the closed meeting, said he had a gut feeling even back then that the meeting should have been opened. The meeting was ill advised, and he regrets it, he said.

“I was very uncomfortable, and I raised the issue after,” he said.

Farrell said the city has too many closed meetings. He said he urged new City Manager Mark Freitag--who was not here in November--and City Attorney Wald Klimczyk to attend a seminar on open records, which they have since done.

Everybody should have a better understanding of the open records laws, and new council members should also receive training, he said.

But the council shouldn't take all the blame, Farrell said. “We do have a city attorney,” he said.

 “I feel whatever happened is regrettable,” Farrell said. “However, let's move forward, and let's make sure, when we have a closed meeting, we know precisely why we're having it.”

The city manager agrees, Farrell said.

The November discussion would have been a healthy discussion to have had in public, and the city would possibly be further ahead with the construction of the station had that happened, he said.

 “I think the productive thing is to fix this situation where it doesn't happen again,” Farrell said.

Kealy: Kealy, who attended the closed meeting, said he is not an expert but has a general understanding of the law. He believes the council upheld the law.

The opinion of the lawyer contacted by the Gazette is just that, he said.

“I've never, ever held back information,” Kealy said. “I air my views out in public.”

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