Voters of Port Washington made their choices yesterday, and as a result our Common Council will have new members. We will miss our departing colleagues, who have served their city with dedication and diligence, but we respect the will of the people and look forward to working with the new aldermen in the best interests of our community. We congratulate them on their election to the council.
That is what was not said at the council meeting on the night after last week’s election.
Instead of an appropriate and gracious acknowledgement of their election victories, the two newly elected aldermen who defeated incumbents were subjected to an insulting, demeaning lecture by Ald. Dave Larson.
“I think this was a situation where you took advantage of a low-turnout election,” Larson said, addressing John Sigwart and Mike Gasper from the council dais. He went on, admonishing them that it was “important to understand” that they do not represent only those who voted and attributing their election success to a “vocal minority.”
“This was a vocal minority that took advantage of a low-turnout election,” Larson said. “I think that the silent majority is going to become very vocal soon.”
He told the new aldermen: “You’re not one of us.”
It was a low, embarrassing moment for Port Washington’s elected city government.
Elections, as grade-school pupils know from their introduction to civics, are determined by the majority of voters. In Sigwart’s case, the majority was overwhelming—260 votes for him, 98 for the incumbent Dan Becker.
More than just a landslide, the victory by a 73% to 27% margin was a repudiation of the council’s unrelenting campaign to sell public land overlooking the harbor as a site for the Blues Factory music attraction in spite of broad public opposition.
The impact of the lopsided vote was heightened by the fact that the incumbent, Becker, was not only the president of the council, but was a respected and capable aldermen who had served on the council since 2009 with evident public support until he alienated voters with his push for harbor land sale.
The council ignored petitions to hold a referendum on the issue, so the voters gave it not one but two referendums of their own on the land sale—in the 3rd District, where the incumbent and outspoken Blues Factory supporter Bill Driscoll was eliminated in the primary election and will be replaced by Gasper, and in the 7th-District Sigwart-Becker race. The dominant issue in both races was the Blues Factory land sale. The challengers opposed it.
The referendum results: rejection of the Blues Factory.
As for the Blues Factory itself, it slipped closer to full fiasco status last week when the council approved the latest of numerous extensions of the deadline for purchase of the land by the developer.
The stated reason was to give the city time to repair underground tiebacks supporting the harbor wall in preparation for constructing the two-story brick Blues Factory building on the north slip parking lot.
The delay also serves to keep the Blues Factory proposal on life support by giving the hesitant developer more time—until February—to find the will and the financing to buy the land.
Larson’s bitter response to the election, which suggests that he and perhaps other aldermen will continue to push the land sale regardless of the unmistakable messages from voters, can be taken as a measure of the corrosive effect the issue has had on the community. There was a time when it would have been unthinkable for a city official to use the privileged perch of his office to publicly belittle city election winners and the citizens who voted for them.
Citizens have expressed their opposition to using public lakefront land for the Blues Factory in every way available to them, including the ballot box. But they do not have the power to stop it.
That power resides with the Common Council.
Dissolving the agreement to sell the harbor land would go a long way toward restoring respect between the citizens of Port Washington and their elected officials.