Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Wednesday, 09 October 2013 19:02
Port officials want more accountability from downtown group, which says it will consider expanding board membership
Port Washington city officials and the Port Main Street Inc.’s executive committee met for more than two hours Tuesday to try and work out their differences prior to city budget talks in the coming weeks.
Mayor Tom Mlada said city officials stressed the need for Port Washington Main Street to be transparent and accountable during the meeting, something they have emphasized since the Rock the Harbor Harley-Davidson anniversary celebration in August lost tens of thousands of dollars and put the organization in a precarious financial position.
To do that, city officials stressed the need for Main Street to hold public meetings and follow the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law as a way to be a transparent, accountable organization, said Mlada, who is also a member of the Main Street board of directors.
It’s important because the organization is funded primarily through tax dollars, he said.
“To me, we ought to be aiming for and asking for public input so residents can voice their opinions,” Mlada said. “Anytime you have taxpayer dollars in the discussion, it just makes sense.”
Main Street Board President Jim Biever said the organization has always held open meetings, except when dealing with personnel matters and contract negotiations.
“I think we’ll probably have our bylaw committee review what we have to make sure it reflects that openness,” he said.
The Main Street bylaws called for the group to operate under the state Open Meetings Law until this summer, when it was amended to allow closed meetings for a number of reasons. Biever said the change was an effort to simplify things for members unfamiliar with the state law.
Mlada said the city also stressed the need for Main Street to expand its board, bringing in new members who would provide different viewpoints.
“That’s not an indictment of anyone currently serving on the board,” he said. “There would be real value to expanding the board.”
As many as five new members could be appointed, Mlada said.
Biever said the board is poised to appoint two new members on Monday to replace Rob Helm and Maria Kiesow, whose terms are up.
Four candidates are being considered to fill those spots, he said.
Adding more members “could be a possibility,” Biever said. “We’ll have to see how the board feels.”
The Main Street board will meet Monday, Oct. 14, and members will work to finalize its 2014 operating plan and budget in preparation for its appearance before the city’s Finance and License Committee the following week, Biever said.
“We’re assuming we’ll be full funded by the Business Improvement District and city,” he said. “We’re committed to doing the right things for downtown businesses and property owners.”
Main Street receives $58,000 annually from the downtown Business Improvement District, which assesses a tax on downtown property owners, as well as a $25,000 contribution from the city.
But with Main Street members talking of a potential deficit from Rock the Harbor of as much as $30,000, aldermen last month said they wanted to see changes and accountability from the organization before they approve any funding for 2014.
Biever said the Main Street board will likely know by Monday what the losses from Rock the Harbor total.
Tensions between the groups haven’t decreased since then, something that was especially evident last week when the city said it would appoint members of the BID board to comply with state law — something it hasn’t done in recent years. That news prompted Biever to suggest the BID consider disbanding.
Tuesday’s meeting, however, seems to have relieved at least some of the tension.
“We’ve worked through that,” Biever said of the BID membership issue.
“I think everyone in the room agreed to move past our past issues and move forward.”
Mlada and City Administrator Mark Grams concurred.
“We aired things out, and that was good,” Grams said.
Mlada added, “They heard our suggestions and they certainly seemed receptive to them.”
Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Wednesday, 02 October 2013 18:10
Membership move by Port officials prompts organization’s vice president to say disbanding business district is an option
A move by Port Washington officials to control membership on the Business Improvement District board has so upset Jim Biever, the board’s vice president and president of Port Washington Main Street, that he has suggested the BID should dissolve.
That would effectively end Main Street, an organization credited with reinvigorating downtown Port, but one that has been the subject of controversy after its August Harley-Davidson anniversary celebration lost thousands of dollars and put the program in a precarious financial position.
That’s because the BID, which raises its money through a tax imposed on downtown property owners, provides the majority of funds — $58,000 annually — for the Main Street program.
Biever said that after watching the Common Council meeting on television Tuesday night, he wrote an e-mail to BID board members suggesting the move.
“I never thought I would say the following words: Before I see the mayor and council completely ruin the efforts of concerned business and property owners, I strongly suggest we take action to disband the Business Improvement District,” his e-mail read.
“All options are on the table,” Biever said in an interview Wednesday. “I was just making them aware of the options.”
The suggestion has prompted a significant amount of discussion already, Biever said.
“I wouldn’t say anybody’s embraced the idea yet,” he said, adding most board members are confused by the Common Council’s actions and motives.
“What happens is going to be determined by the direction the mayor and council want to see the downtown to go,” he added.
At Tuesday’s meeting, aldermen were told by City Administrator Mark Grams that appointments to the BID board had not been made in accordance with state statutes in recent years.
State statutes call for appointments to be made by the mayor and confirmed by the council.
“There is a process that must be followed,” Grams said.
But once the Main Street program was created, the city failed to follow the rules and make the appointments, Grams said. Instead, the BID board made its own appointments.
In addition, he said, city codes call for the board to have 11 members, including the alderman who represents the BID district.
Currently, there are eight board members, including Jim Vollmar, a former alderman who used to represent the district, Grams said. Some of the board members were approved by the council years ago, he said, while others were never approved by the city.
“We really do need to correct those things,” Grams said, adding the council will likely act on the matter at its Oct. 15 meeting.
But Biever, who has served on the BID board for all but a few of the 19 years it has existed, said the issue that he blamed Mayor Tom Mlada for caught the group off guard, causing confusion and frustration.
“I don’t consider it wise politics,” he said. “He should have come to the board and let us solve the problem or at least be part of the solution. We know downtown, what works and doesn’t.”
When the BID was started, he said, the only control the city had was to approve its operating plan.
Biever said the idea of dissolving the BID “is not the plan A, B or C. It’s the plan that’s way out there. But if the city were to cut the funding or the BID funding were to change, what’s the alternative?”
Dissolving the BID is a relatively simple process, he said, requiring the owners of properties that make up half the district’s assessed valuation to petition for dissolution.
“I’d hate to see it,” Biever said. “I think of the BID as good for downtown.”
But, he added, a new organization representing downtown business and property owners would likely take its place — albeit one without the roughly $60,000 in funding raised through the BID tax.
“I would think it would take maybe hours for people to step forward and form a new organization,” Biever said. “It’s just not going to be dropped.”
While a new board may not be able to offer the same variety of events that Main Street has, he said, it could provide the core offerings that draw people to downtown, such as the farmers market.
The BID board membership is likely to be just one of the topics tackled next week when city officials meet with members of the Main Street board.
Both Biever and Mlada said they hope the session will help the groups reach a consensus on the direction for Main Street and BID and set the basis for the Common Council’s budget talks later this month.
Aldermen recently expressed frustration with the Main Street board after learning the Rock the Harbor-Harley festival in August lose as much as $30,000, essentially draining the group’s reserves.
Former mayor Scott Huebner, who helped found the Main Street program, told the Common Council Tuesday that the city’s call for answers about the festival is important.
The city needs to be “the voice of reason and push for answers from our Main Street board,” Huebner said.
The group seems to have strayed somewhat from its initial focus on economic restructuring and downtown development to festivals, he said.
Huebner also said the council needs to ensure that Main Street remains open and transparent, especially since the city has traditionally contributed $25,000 annually to the group, making it the second largest funding source for the organization.
Main Street recently removed a clause from its bylaws requiring it to follow the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law, Huebner said in an interview, replacing it with a less restrictive clause that opens the door to “secret, back-door” meetings.
“As a taxpayer, I would highly recommend the city not work with an entity that is not transparent,” he told the council.
Biever said that the change was prompted by a desire simplify things for members unfamiliar with the state law.
The new bylaws call for most meetings to be open, he said, except when discussing personnel, contract negotiations, litigation or deliberations that could be detrimental to volunteers, building or business owners, board members or others affiliated with the group.
“Anyone’s welcome to attend our meetings,” Biever said. “I don’t envision having a closed session anytime soon. We have nothing to hide.”
Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 18:45
Mlada wants agreement on direction for groups after flap over Rock the Harbor festival’s financial shortfall
Port Washington Mayor Tom Mlada said Tuesday he plans to meet with officials from the city’s Business Improvement District and Port Washington Main Street Inc. as the city prepares to open its budget process next month.
“I view this as another opportunity to open dialogue, to sit together and see if we can reach consensus on the direction to take,” Mlada said.
It may take several meetings to reach a consensus, Mlada said. But if the groups can’t, the city may look at a range of options when it comes to funding Main Street.
“Where we go beyond next week is really an unwritten story. The options are all there,” he said.
Those options include dropping or trimming the Main Street contribution, limiting how it can be used or limiting how the BID tax can be used, he said.
The city has traditionally budgeted $25,000 annually for Main Street and levies a tax that brings in about $58,000 to finance the BID, which has also used the money to support Main Street.
While some people have suggested the city wean Main Street from the city’s annual contribution, Mlada said, he doesn’t believe the city will drop funding for the group.
“This has to be about a time of building rather than a time of turning back,” Mlada said. “The Main Street program has proven it can be very successful in mobilizing a number of volunteers, in organizing promotional events and in efforts to attract businesses to the city.
“I think we’ve shown you need to have some kind of strategic effort that’s really focused on bringing these to the downtown and to the city, and that’s largely been through Main Street.”
Tensions between the Common Council and the Main Street board were evident last week, as several aldermen called for the resignation of Main Street’s board of directors after the group lost as much as $15,000 on Rock the Harbor, a Harley-Davidson anniversary celebration, putting it in a financially precarious position.
Mlada, who is a member of the Main Street board, said he hopes the meeting marks a start in repairing the relationship between the city and Main Street — something that will be key if the city is to continue funding the organization.
“The council wants accountability. We have to be mindful of that,” Mlada said. “We have a responsibility to make sure we are the best stewards of the taxpayers’ money.”
Part of that, he said, will include expanding Main Street financing beyond the city contributions to an increased fundraising effort.
“We have a pretty significant gap in what we (the Main Street board) have budgeted for fundraising and what we actually raised,” Mlada said.
Last week, the Main Street board was told that although it budgeted $30,000 for fundraising contributions this year, it has only taken in $1,500.
The city’s Finance and License Committee will start reviewing departmental budgets the week of Oct. 7.
Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Wednesday, 18 September 2013 18:30
Port group’s secret-ballot rejection of attempt to give ex officio members voting rights blasted by mayor, aldermen
Port Washington Main Street Inc. on Tuesday voted by secret ballot not to adopt a recommendation of the Common Council to allow the ex officio members of its board to become voting members.
The 7-2 vote angered city officials, who had lobbied for the recommendation.
“We weren’t even given the courtesy of an up-or-down vote,” Ald. Dan Becker said during the Common Council meeting that followed the Main Street board’s meeting. “It just shocked me.”
The council’s resolution called for the executive directors of Port Main Street, Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Council, as well as the city planner, to be full members of each other’s board of directors.
The Chamber has adopted the resolution, but the Tourism Council has not yet considered the matter.
After the vote, Main Street board member Harry Schaumburg said the ex officio members should not consider the vote a rejection of them or their work.
“The decision on this is in no way a reflection on the ex officio members, on their contributions,” he said. “I think we need to go on record and say this is not what we’re voting on.”
The ex officio members — Tourism Director Kathy Tank, Chamber Director Lisa Crivello and City Planner Randy Tetzlaff — have all been active on the Main Street board and as volunteers, board member Maria Kiesow noted.
Aldermen had lobbied hard for the recommendation to be adopted, appearing before the Main Street board in August to appeal for its approval.
Becker appeared at the Main Street board meeting Tuesday night to again lobby for its approval, saying, “It will only make this board stronger. The more people you have at the table, not just to express their opinion but to vote, the better. It’s great they all participate.”
Mayor Tom Mlada, a member of the Main Street board who was not present when the vote was taken, blasted the decision.
“It was an opportunity for the board to do the right thing, and it failed,” he said. “They took that opportunity tonight and flushed it down the toilet.”
Mlada said approving the measure would have rewarded the ex officio members for their hard work and dedication, saying they play a vital role and bring a valuable perspective to the Main Street board as well as coordinate efforts between the agencies, something that should be rewarded with voting rights.
“I think the losers were not just the three individuals who have been pouring themselves into Main Street for years now and have set a bar for collaboration and cooperation,” he said.
It would have made the Main Street board a better board, Mlada said.
“When we don’t have the best board possible, we don’t have the best program possible,” he said.
“For me, it’s a defeat that’s hard to stomach.”