Among many local contested races next Tuesday will be that of Merrill City Clerk and Mayor. Monday night, City Clerk imcumbent Bill Heideman met with challenger Patricia Lindquist as did Mayor Bill Bialecki with challenger Derek Woellner, at a candidate forum co-hosted by T.B. Scott Library and the League of Women Voters at the new Merrill Expo Center.
Both forums were moderated by Lincoln County UW-Extension Director Art Lersch. Candidates were given time for opening introductions and closing statements, and 60 seconds to respond to questions submitted by the nearly 30 audience members in attendance.
City Clerk Forum
Of the many questions fielded by both Heideman and Lindquist, the general focus from the audience was seemingly on that of what, if any, changes either candidate would bring to the office of City Clerk and the candidate’s respective views on the role of City Clerk in city administration.
Throughout the near hour-long forum, Lindquist stressed her belief in integrity, cooperation and striving for an open door policy if elected on April 3, while Heideman emphasized his 20 years of experience in the position and his ability to continue to provide quality, helpful service to the city. When asked of how the candidates view the City Clerk’s role in overall city administration, Heideman indicated his belief of the City Clerk’s office being equal to that of other department heads.
“I don’t see anyone as being superior or inferior,” he said. “As a City Clerk I see everyone as equal. I try and work for everyone in this city. I will when necessary, make connection with people to make sure things get done.” Lindquist indicated her goal of reaching out to city hall staff in an effort to work cooperatively, to assure her responsibilities as City Clerk are fulfilled.
Perhaps one of the more pointed questions of the evening came when candidates were asked if either had ever been disciplined in their respective occupations and what, if any, deficiencies exist in the office of City Clerk.
“I have never been disciplined in any position I have held,” Lindquist stated.
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” Heideman added. “I have had conversations with people on how I have done things. And if you’re asking if I learned from them, then yes I would say I did learn from them.”
In the matter of deficiencies in the City Clerk’s office, Heideman hesitated a bit.
“A city clerk can be stubborn at times,” he said. “I won’t stand up here and say I’m perfect as that would be a lie. But I think my team is great. I’m not perfect and my team isn’t perfect. A myriad of things can be done better, but overall I think we do a good job.”
“I’m not in the City Clerk’s office so I can’t say if Bill is perfect or not,” Lindquist stated, “But I would be available to the public with an open door policy. I pride myself on being efficient and finding a way to improve processes.”
When asked of ideas for improvement to the office of City Clerk, Lindquist voiced her goal of making efforts to expand methods of communication.
“Once you see current processes, it’s easier to understand what can be changed. But from the outside looking in, perhaps communication could be improved. Not everyone gets information the same way.”
Heideman voiced his concern of current infrastructure at City Hall as a means of improvement.
“When someone comes into city hall, anyone can walk a distance in either direction before they meet anyone. For security sake, I would like to see someone at the entrance to meet people when they are coming in. After all, we do have the office of Probation and Parole upstairs and Municipal Court. It would just be nice to have city hall more secure and people friendly.”
“I have nothing bad to say about Bill,” mayoral challenger Derek Woellner said of incumbent Bill Bialecki, during opening statements in the Mayoral forum. “I think he’s a great guy, but I do have some things to say about the administrative team.”
Bialecki spoke of his service to the City of Merrill in his mayoral capacity since 2010 during his opening statement, as well as previous service on the Merrill Common Council. Bialecki also cited seven years of service in the military and his career as an electrician; retiring in 2008.
Amongst a wide ranging field of questions from the audience, Bialecki and Woellner seemingly agreed on a few points, while starkly disagreeing on others.
When asked about positive aspects of the city and methods of better marketing those aspects, both candidates agreed on the citizens of Merrill.
“The people who live here are the most important thing we have,” Bialecki stated, “such as the people who volunteer for service on our common council and various committees.”
Bialecki further indicated a need to continue services to the aging population while seeking opportunities to retain younger members of the community.
Woellner indicated a steady decline in the city’s population since Bialecki took office, citing a reference of a 4.5% population decrease.
“I will agree people are the most important asset we have, but over the last 10 years our population has declined. So we are losing our most important asset. We haven’t marketed our parks very well or people very well.”
Matters got a bit heated when during the conversation about population decline, Woellner made a comment regarding lack of “things to do for young people” and Bialecki “jumping through hoops to open a facility for older people”; referring to Kindhearted Home Care. “When we ask for things for young people, it falls on deaf ears,” Woellner stated.
Bialecki challenged the statement, stating the development was initiated by a private citizen. Woellener argued Bialecki had attended a Parks and Recreation meeting at some point, but was then interrupted by moderator Lersch and asked to allow Bialecki a rebuttal, per forum format. Bialecki chose to not discuss the matter any further and asked for the next question. Another topic of agreement for the candidates was development of the former Anson-Gilkey property along the Wisconsin River. Both candidates agreed on commercial or residential development being best suited for the area, rather than manufacturing.
Perhaps the topic on which the two candidates stood most opposed, was that of any changes to city administration if elected or re-elected.
Woellner spoke of restructuring city government as a cost savings.
“The administrative team is killing us in cost,” he stated. “The city administrator’s salary is $112,000 per year, the City Attorney is paid $104,000 per year and the Finance Director is paid $90,000 per year. The city of Cedarburg for example is a wealthy city, but they have a city administrator/treasurer paid $80,000 per year.” Bialecki indicated he would make no changes to city administration, reiterating a previous statement; “When you have an effective professional team such as we do, you don’t stand in their way. You let them do their job.”
The same sentiments carried over when asked of their management philosophies.
Bialecki again voiced his trust in the city’s administrative team and a rather hands-off management style, “I have full confidence in our administrative team and elected people,” he added.
Woellner cited trust as a key element to his management style. “Having trust in the administrative team is important. If elected as mayor I will not trust my team.” Woellner went on to cite what he deemed illegal activities by the city’s administrative team such as the new industrial park being zoned illegally, handling of the city’s nepotism policy and the handling of the Street Commissioner referendum.
In their closing remarks, Bialecki vowed to continue to work with the common council and the city’s administrative team, showcase expand amenities Merrill has to offer for both young and old, and continue to invest full-time effort into a part-time job.
Woellner’s closing statements cited what he deemed as high pay-rate increases of city administration and addressing those increases. Woellner indicated the city administrator’s salary having nearly doubled in the last five years.