by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
March 17, 2022
A group of Mount Pleasant residents has filed a petition containing nearly 1,300 signatures in an attempt to force a referendum on a Jan. 24 decision by the Village Board of Trustees to extend their term lengths from two to three years.
The change wouldn’t be fully in effect until the seven-member board’s current two-year terms expire, but in a village that has been upended by the flailing Foxconn project, the decision has raised alarms for residents who don’t believe the elected officials and staff members inside village hall are listening to their needs.
On Monday, local watchdog group A Better Mount Pleasant filed 1,282 signatures — far more than the 981 required — to force a referendum on the board’s passage of a charter ordinance. After the ordinance was passed, residents had 60 days to collect signatures to force the referendum.
At the Jan. 24 meeting, board members said the decision to extend the term length was to provide more “consistency” to local government and allow them to better plan for the future.
“I don’t buy it that somehow we’re acting quickly and trying to pull the wool over somebody’s eyes,” Board President Dave DeGroot said in the meeting. “What this is about is providing for a more stable, managed board. In my view that just makes for good public policy. It really has nothing to do with padding our terms. The only gas I’ve heard or read is from the same people that buck us on everything we do here.”
But residents are skeptical that the board’s motives are completely benign. The change from two to three-year terms would prevent a majority of the board from being voted out in one election year. Under the current alternating cycle, four seats are up for re-election in one year and three up the following year.
If enacted, the Mount Pleasant Board would be the only board in Racine County without two-year terms.
“One has to wonder why the rush to increase board terms from two to three years without asking for public input ahead of time or putting it on a ballot referendum, considering the ongoing, worsening disaster of Foxconn that we’ll all be paying for for decades with no clear benefit,” resident Karen Hermansen said in the meeting.
Kelly Gallaher runs A Better Mount Pleasant’s social media pages and helped with the signature drive. She says she believes the term extension is a political move by the board and questions why the board members need to have three-year terms when members of Congress manage to do their work during terms of two years.
“Aside from the fact they force many things through very quickly, their reasoning was it takes a long time, a year or so, to learn the duties of village trustee and by the time you learn the job it’s time to run for reelection,” Gallaher says. “However, members of Congress seem to do just fine with a two-year term. There’s no public desire to do this. They did it strictly for political reasons, which is what made it so easy to collect all the signatures we needed.”
Gallaher says that as she and the group knocked on doors to collect signatures, Foxconn came up frequently and residents often mentioned a belief that the board is out of touch with the community.
“From my point of view as a 30-year resident, people understand that Foxconn has failed, but that understanding ends at the front doors of village hall; they don’t get it,” says Gallaher, who is being sued by City Attorney Christopher Smith because of online comments she made about the term extension.
“There’s still this delusional, magical thinking that everything is fine, nothing is wrong and there’s no responsibility to bear for what has happened over the last four years. When we talked to people about the petition, Foxconn came up a lot in our discussions door to door. The idea of being out of touch, we heard that so many times. And this term extension, this belief they deserve three-year terms angered people, and fed into their feeling that village hall is out of touch. Foxconn has failed and the last thing we need to do is have less accountability.”
At the Jan. 24 meeting, one board member expressed concern about voting on the ordinance before voters had a say through a referendum. But the rest of the board said that the fact that voters could launch a petition drive to force a referendum was enough, because it gives the public a chance to veto the vote. Ultimately the measure passed in a unanimous 7-0 vote.
Board member Nancy Washburn says the board didn’t go to a referendum first because they were all in agreement that this was best for the village and most of the board’s members have served multiple terms already.
“Isn’t that the million-dollar question? We did not send it to referendum first because we as a board felt like we all supported the three-year terms,” she says. “When you look at those on the board now and the accrual of time they’ve spent on the board, many exceed any four-year, six-year term limits. We felt we’d express our opinion and throw our support behind it, knowing the ability to do a referendum is out there.”
Washburn says that she stands by her decision to vote for the ordinance and now the public is using the veto ability the board purposefully left available.
“I think the board acted as a united front when it voted to support the three-year term policy and from personal experience, most of the projects I’m working on go way beyond a two-year term,” Washburn says. “We knew when we made that vote, we made sure the voting public had a way to feedback to us. We knew if there was a faction that wanted to create a petition and gain signatures, that was out there and we were very willing to let that due process happen. The group has gotten signatures and I guess, based on what we know so far it will go to referendum.”
Now that the petition has been turned in, the village has 15 days to certify the signatures.