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Award-winning Evansville mayor discusses her first five years with city

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GINA R. HEINE
July 2, 2011
— When Mayor Sandy Decker faces criticism during a meeting, you might see her twirling her Evansville Class of 1970 ring on her finger.

“This isn’t about you, it’s about what’s best for the city,” she tells herself.


The ring grounds her, she said.


In her five years as mayor, she’s faced challenges that include hiring a new city administrator, dealing with a drained Lake Leota and managing several downtown reconstruction projects.


She has grouped unrelated green initiatives in the city and expanded the efforts to make the city a statewide leader in green living.


Through it all, she’s logged more hours and become more involved than any recent mayor.


“As far as what a typical community our size would consider what a mayor’s role is and what a mayor’s duties are, I think she exceeds any of those expectations,” city council President Mason Braunschweig said. “She really works a lot more than people in the community even know.”


One national and two state organizations recently recognized Decker with awards for her leadership and service, particularly in her efforts in energy conservation. She’s quick to say her awards are “city awards” because of residents’ support of city programs.


‘We believe in the community’

Decker, 59, often talks with her hands. She gestured when talking about her family’s roots in the area. Glasses on the top of her head hold back chin-length dark brown hair.


While she’s adjusted to often being the featured speaker, she said, she still gets nervous and is more comfortable sticking to a script.


Her father, Ken, served on the city council for 14 years, seven as president. Her late mother, Pat, was active in starting the Primetimers senior group. Decker’s husband, John, is a past president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.


“It’s what our family does,” she said. “We believe in the community.”


The mayor and her husband spent many years in the Milwaukee area, where he practiced law and she worked in his office and raised their daughter Jenny.


A “for sale” sign at what is now their Main Street home caught their eyes during a visit in fall 2001. They spotted the sign driving by in separate vehicles and later asked each other, “Did you see that house?”


“We were both thinking the same thing,” she said.


Although they are a couple who normally over-think everything, they moved to Evansville on whim.


The purchase of their 1880 home led to her appointment to the city’s historic preservation commission. It was a learning experience that has contributed to her commitment to historic preservation.


Rocky start

Decker landed the mayor job in 2006, defeating Karen Aikman, who was a council member at the time. No one has challenged her in the past two elections.


The 2006 election was “a very politically involved time in Evansville,” Braunschweig said.


He was elected that year, too.


Their first council meeting was tense, ending with former council member Tom Cothard telling the Gazette, “She’s going to have to get along with me as president.”


Decker laughs about the quote now. Cothard supported Aikman, but Decker called him a friend.


The relatively young council faced its first challenge within months, when administrator Bill Connors resigned. Just about everyone had a different favorite candidate, Braunschweig recalled.


Decker helped bring everyone together, and the situation showed her professionalism, integrity and leadership, Braunschweig said.


Decker recently talked with a Gazette reporter in a lounge at Creekside Place, the new community/senior center. She was on the center’s planning board for three years and said it’s one of the things she’s most proud of.


The Deckers’ $25,000 contribution to the project is marked on a wall of donors.


The draining, dredging and restoration of Lake Leota, however, probably is the most gratifying for her.


“You just have to go up there on a weekend and see the way the park is being used,” she said. “It’s almost like the soul of the community.”


Critics

Criticism comes with being mayor, and Decker said her skin probably isn’t thick enough.


“It’s very hard sometimes to not take things personally,” she said.


One of the most public criticisms came in advertisements Union Township resident Robert Janes placed in the weekly newspaper this spring. The ads addressed township residents and said the city and Decker “want your tax dollars” after the city proposed changes to its Smart Growth plan that included a long-range growth boundary.


“The blow-up” over the amendment was fueled by misinformation, she said. She’s passionate about farmland preservation, she said, and she and her husband have sought to include her family’s Union farmland in the county’s preservation program.


Other residents have complained about the money poured into downtown.


Decker said a state grant paid for the brick paving of Main Street, and the 100-year-old infrastructure needed replacement.


The city also has spent millions on a wastewater treatment plant upgrade, which she said was needed to comply with state requirements. While the sputtering economy reversed plans for a biodiesel and soybean crush plant in the city, she said the upgrades make the city better prepared to accommodate new business when the economy turns around.


Her pet peeve: people who lob anonymous complaints rather than contact her with concerns.


Braunschweig said some residents see Decker “as a very hands-on mayor and may not like it for whatever reason,” but her efforts “clearly trump any feelings that she’s too involved.


“City of Evansville residents are receiving top-notch representation.”


Commitment

Decker campaigned that she would give the time necessary for the job.


Her days range from 2 to 14 hours, and she’s at City Hall nearly every day. She averages about 30 hours a week between the office and night meetings, not including community events she attends as mayor.


She’s paid $375 a month.


She laughs at the number, turning her coffee cup in her hands.


“People can not say I do things because I’m concerned about keeping my job.”


Cothard worked with what he guessed was five mayors during his 15 years as alderman. Because Decker is retired, she’s been able to commit time “well, well beyond” her predecessors who worked full time, he said.


“Sometimes, I think she goes a little overboard, but she does a good job,” he said. “She’s the most hands-on mayor that I’ve known.”


Residents have questioned Decker’s travels to conferences and meetings around the state. Her travel budget is $1,500, and she said she turns in mileage expenses but pays for food and hotels out of her own pocket. WPPI Energy, of which Evansville is a member, has paid for her legislative lobbying trips to Washington.


The job has a big learning curve, she said, and that’s one reason she thinks it’s in the city’s best interest that she not leave the job too soon.


“The flipside is, there’s mayors who have been 18, 20 years. No, no, I don’t want to,” she said laughing. “I want to read books.”


One thing is for sure: “I’m done with public office when I’m done here.”


Decker's recent awards

State and national organizations recently have recognized Evansville Mayor Sandy with awards. They include:


--Spence Vanderlinden Public Official Award from the American Public Power Association. It recognizes officials whose contributions to APPA and their communities have enhanced the prestige of public power nationally.


“Decker has helped the city continue a tradition of alternative energy,” the association stated. “Recently, the city was selected as a pilot Wisconsin Energy Independent Community, and generation from a


new ... wind turbine enhances the community’s commitment to a green future. She also helped develop a local energy independence team to focus on energy conservation, efficiency and green initiatives in the city. The city has committed to use 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.”


--Outstanding Women of Achievement Award from Wisconsin Women in Government. Decker is one of three honored “for outstanding service in local and municipal government.” The award cites Decker’s commitment to historical preservation and energy conservation.


Decker said her favorite story is from an annual visit by third-grade students. A little girl asked her, “Can only women be mayors?”


--Phillip J. LaFollette Public Official Award from Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin. The association annually recognizes local officials who demonstrate commitment to public power ideals at the local, state and federal levels.



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