The six candidates running for Janesville City Council gave city staff grades ranging from A to C during a forum Thursday, with the three incumbents offering the highest praise.
Incumbents Rich Gruber, Paul Williams and Jens Jorgensen are seeking re-election. Newcomers Harry Paulsen and Jason Davis also are running, and Jeff Navarro is on his second try for council.
The candidates also discussed diversity and future projects during the forum, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters at Hedberg Public Library. Each candidate was given a minute to respond to several questions, including some from the audience.
Q: How would you grade the city manager and staff and why?
A: Paulsen gave them a C+. They’re not as responsive to residents’ concerns as they should be, sometimes ignoring residents entirely, Paulsen said.
Navarro gave staff an A and the city manager a C. He’s concerned about the accuracy of information coming out and the transparency of City Hall.
Davis gave them a solid B. Janesville is moving forward, but not always in the directions many in the community would aim toward. With the right direction, they could get an A, he said.
Gruber gave them an A-. Looking at the key metrics the city uses to measure progress, there aren’t many areas that residents could seriously complain about, he said.
“We’re doing some remarkable things on constrained resources,” Gruber said.
Williams gave staff an A+ and the city manager an A-. The city employs some of the greatest workers a city could have, and many of them stay with the city for decades, he said.
Jorgensen said it’s hard to grade such a large body, but overall, they deserve an A.
Q: What are the most important challenges facing the city, and how should the city address them?
A: Several candidates mentioned the importance of developing Janesville’s south side.
Jorgensen said he’s trying to start a south-side business coalition.
“The south side of Janesville is something that I hear about every day,” Davis said.
Navarro said the food desert on the south side needs to be addressed. The city could apply for grants to help get a farmers market or grocer in the area, he said.
Paulsen said it’s important to plan how to recruit and where to put incoming businesses.
Public safety, finances, infrastructure and economic development are the most crucial issues to focus on, Gruber said. If the city concentrates on those, “we’re going to succeed,” he said.
Williams said it’s important to redevelop the former General Motors property and fix the formula that determines how much state-shared revenue Janesville gets, which isn’t much.
“Janesville taxpayers are really getting the short end of the stick,” he said.
Q: What more can the city do to welcome other cultures and encourage diversity?
A: Davis, the sole black candidate running for council, said he was impressed with the council’s recent vote to move a temporary polling place out of the Janesville Police Department. However, he said he was disappointed the council voted to change the location out of convenience and didn’t realize what people’s real concerns were.
Gruber said Janesville is headed in the right direction. He applauded the police department’s progressive mindset, including its diversity training and its African American Liaison Advisory Committee.
Williams said the city is doing a good job but could do more. The police and fire departments have had a difficult time hiring people from diverse backgrounds. Such employees help because minorities’ first contact with the city might be through the police or fire departments, Williams said.
Navarro said all people are the same deep down, but we can celebrate our physical differences. What helps is education and identifying the groups that are feeling left out and finding out why, he said.
The city has different committees that promote diversity, Paulsen said. People can improve relations with other cultures by talking to and learning from them, he said.
Jorgensen agreed that open, honest and compassionate conversations help. Great things happen when people step outside their comfort zones, he said.
Q: What’s your assessment of downtown development, and what should be the next step?
A: Lots of good changes have occurred, including removing the downtown parking plaza over the Rock River, Williams said. The city needs to fill vacant properties, especially along Milwaukee Street, he said.
“We still have a long way to go,” Williams said.
Davis said any time Janesville progresses, it’s good. He wonders, however, where the city is headed regarding areas that appear to be ignored, such as the south side and the Fourth Ward.
“There’s a lot of things we could look at that could help the redevelopment of Janesville,” he said, mentioning areas outside the downtown.
Jorgensen said he’s proud of how well the council, city and other groups are working together toward a shared goal. He wants those relationships to grow.
Gruber agreed, saying the private sector has contributed time, talent and treasure toward downtown redevelopment. What’s good for the heart of the city eventually will be good for the rest of the city, including the south side and Fourth Ward, Gruber said.
Paulsen said the city should try to attract well-known businesses to downtown to entice shoppers. He commended the remodeling some downtown buildings have undergone to make them more attractive.
Navarro said the city needs to work with both building owners and business owners to take care of vacant buildings and get the most bang for its buck. The city should streamline its permitting process as well, he said.