On my last day of public service…

I am celebrating. I am celebrating my final day as an alderwoman- my last day representing the citizens of Stevens Point in District 4.

For those who are interested in reading my final statement, it is below. It’s long, but it includes a lot, and I mean every word of it.

On my 30th birthday, I did an interview with a local media outlet- an urgent phone interview so she could meet a deadline. I was celebrating with my family, but I skipped my own birthday cake and did the interview in the car on the way home. I was excited to be part of a series about women in government. One question sticks out in my mind, to this day. “What do we need in local government?” 

My answer? “Kindness,” and I stick to that answer today. I’m sure many people will still consider me naïve, or too soft for elected public service. They may say that I just don’t understand the inner workings of politics or the secret world of what REALLY happens in local government. Many will say that by being elected, I knowingly signed up for people treating me cruelly, and as a result, I have no right to complain or bring it to light.

Unfortunately, my sacrifice of birthday cake was in vain, as the article never ran. I hope it’s not too late for me to try and spread that message of kindness in government.

Lately, at all levels of government, there is an overwhelming amount of hatred, and loads of criticism that doesn’t serve a purpose. Many local officials, including my colleagues, are serving in their positions out of a passionate desire to make our community better. Some are focusing on keeping the awesome parts of Stevens Point awesome, and some are working towards improving upon our weaknesses. Some are even focusing on just making sure that our city workers receive paychecks and we are able to continue offering services to the community. This gets harder every year, in light of less and less funding assistance from the state. My colleagues and I are different people, but we have much in common. We are the type of people who pool our own money to buy candy to hand out to kids in our community parades- those Skittles you ate at the holiday parade were definitely not paid for with taxpayer money. Political communication scholars frequently refer to the term “civility,” and I think that asking for kindness and civility in government is a simple request. However, my hope for tonight lies less in the academic world of civility and more in the basic tenet of kindness. I believe some of our problems locally are due to a lack of kindness and a lack of perspective. I’d like to leave you all with a small dose of both- I’ll try and clear up a few things about my experience in our local government and share a little of my perspective in the spirit of transparency, and I hope that it will pave a space for kindness in the future.

I’ll start with an introduction. 

Hi, I’m Heidi. Do you remember me? We met years ago, before I was a councilwoman. Believe it or not, I’m still your neighbor- the one with the small and crazy dog, the one who loves kayaking and spending time on the water. Our proximity to the river is a big reason we chose to live in District Four.

My kindness, positivity, and authenticity are not a fluke- I’m really like this! My personality is certainly at odds with what most people expect for an elected official, and it was definitely a challenge in many ways.

My start in public service could certainly be called a baptism by fire. In my first meeting, the infamous Reid Rocheleau pointed his finger at me and told me that I was cold hearted. I was shocked, and I cried the entire way home in the car. I know, I know… I’m too soft for politics. Reid didn’t know me at all, and I appreciated his perspective on issues, yet he felt so strongly about my character that he wanted it said, publicly and on the record. I was definitely not prepared for that. I’d seen city meetings before my appointment, and I didn’t remember that kind of relationship between alders and constituents. I wondered- did I just miss it? Were there more attacks coming? Should I somehow prepare myself?

My first feedback in the anonymous suggestion box at city hall was that I show too much cleavage and it’s not dignified for an alder of our city. Of course, a photo in the paper had just run where the photographer was standing right above me as I sat at a table, signing my official paperwork. I probably would have shown cleavage in a turtleneck. I also can’t believe that I just said “cleavage” in a city meeting, and not referring to roads during the spring thaw, but that’s what a swan song is for, right? 🙂 After I received that message about my choice of attire, I wondered what the heck I’d gotten myself into. Is there a dress code? More importantly, does what I wear affect my ability to do this job? I hoped that my ideas for the city and my passion for learning would be helpful as I struggled to learn fast enough to do my job, and I wondered what other unwritten rules I’d unknowingly break.

Believe it or not, I’m still your neighbor- the one who moved here for my undergraduate studies at UWSP, and just fell in love- both with my husband, and with our city. It seemed like the perfect place to raise a family and put down new roots.

I want to clear up a big misconception among angry people on the internet: no one is here for the money or the glory.

Money? There is no big money in this job, there are no big lobbying groups that pay us, and there aren’t any kickbacks. To be honest, my take home pay from this job is $395.39 per month. It ends up being less than minimum wage with all the time I spend in meetings, researching, going to conferences, and talking with constituents. If I didn’t have my husband or kind friends to help me watch my son during meetings, when possible, I would lose money keeping this job with the cost of day care. Doesn’t that say something about our dedication to our city? I am aware that these positions fall under public service for a reason, but if we really want to encourage more people to get involved and increase the diversity of our representation, we should consider a raise in the salary of our public servants. Having young children shouldn’t be a barrier to serving our city. Someone needs to represent all the parents, too! I was too afraid of the perception to bring this up while still actively serving, but I hope that one of my colleagues can bring this forward in the near future. 

Are we in it for the glory? I’m trying to remember the last time that someone I didn’t personally know said a single positive thing about our work here. I don’t believe that it’s because we’re not doing good work. Maybe it’s because the public doesn’t know what is going on. I didn’t send out a press release when I reunited a sweet elderly woman with her lost cat, when I helped a new family get connected with a translator to get their children registered for school, or when I threw on my muck boots and helped my constituents clean out their flooded basement during that terrible flood a couple summers ago. We do good work in our communities, even if most people never see it. We’re totally fine with being out of the spotlight during our day-to-day work- I actually prefer it. Sometimes the work we’re doing in government takes longer than we wish it did. I couldn’t prevent that flood for my constituents, so I helped with the cleanup. In the meantime, we kept working on a solution, and this year, their road will be reconstructed. It will help with stormwater management and help many people in the long run. I didn’t tell anyone about it, and I don’t know if the public connects the dots between that problem and that solution- I just wasn’t concerned with tooting my own horn when that’s a part of my job and there’s more work to be done!

So why do people authoritatively claim that we’re terrible? Maybe it’s because they assume the worst about us, so even when we do great things, they believe there is an ulterior motive. WHY do they think awful things about us? I’m going to venture a guess- bear with me. Sometimes the frustration of feeling like your voice doesn’t matter manifests itself in anger or cruelty. I understand the feeling- I’ve driven all the way down to Madison to meet with my senator several times, yet his votes rarely reflect my concerns or opinions… even when I bring data to back up my position. I don’t take it personally, even though I’m frustrated. I know he hears me… he just believes, for whatever reason, that the right thing to do is something different than what I think it is. 

There is a big difference between my senator and I in our elected roles, though- local city council positions aren’t partisan. Many of our issues just aren’t liberal or conservative. What kind of lawn mower should we invest in for the parks department? How should we prioritize our capital spending? What should the holiday trash collection schedule look like for next year, and does everyone have the garbage and recycling cans they need? Do the police and fire departments have the gear they need? How about staffing? Do the treasurer and clerk have the people they need to serve our city the best we can? I couldn’t tell you what the partisan stances are on most of the decisions we make, because there aren’t any.

This is going to be controversial; I know it. I’ve done plenty of research on political accountability, both before and during my time with our city. I won’t go into details of models of representation, because we’d be here all night and honestly, I’m sure most people just don’t care. 🙂 I can sum up the important parts as they relate to us in this room, though.

I don’t believe that the role of an elected official is simply to regurgitate the thoughts of their constituents. If it was, then we wouldn’t need to have elections- a robot could do our job. We wouldn’t need to run our campaigns on a platform of goals for the city, because they wouldn’t matter. I DO believe it’s important to listen, actually listen, and ask many questions to understand the situation, but it’s also the job of an elected official to gather additional information, talk to staff and experts in the problem, and propose different options- along with assist in providing the logistics of the solutions. I often asked my neighbors, when they brought up an issue, what they thought a few possible solutions could be. They often knew the situation better that I did at first, and I really valued their ideas. It’s rarely black and white, and it’s our job to look for creative solutions and find an outcome that will best suit our community as a whole. It’s not an easy job, but the simple act of doing it doesn’t mean that we deserve such negativity.

One of my favorite “not my job” tasks is encouraging everyone from the public who comes to speak at our meetings. I do my best to give them nonverbal feedback to reassure them and help make them feel more comfortable. I teach public speaking at UWSP- I know how hard it is for most people to come forward and speak in front of us, and the staff, and on television and the radio. If you’ve been to a meeting and spoken with us, you probably remember me- I was the one smiling and nodding while listening to you. Many things about approaching us here can be intimidating, and I wanted to give our citizens a little bit of kindness when they were feeling anxiety. I’m not sure that a robot could do that.

Believe it or not, I’m still your neighbor- the one who grinds her teeth at night, sings in the shower, and loves hanging out on her back porch in the warmer months.

Most of you know that my mother died unexpectedly last year, when I was four months pregnant. I was so surprised with the response from my neighbors and constituents. The week following her death, one neighbor came by and used their snowblower to clear our driveway. Another dropped off a heartfelt card and a bouquet of flowers. From a few blocks over, someone arrived with a loaf of homemade bread and fresh butter. Yet another called me a fucking bitch and asked why I wasn’t at work representing her, even though she knew the situation… and she wasn’t the only one. 

I don’t even know what to say about that. I’ll never forget the way those neighbors made me feel during the absolute worst time in my life. I will never forget it. It changed the way that I looked at our community- why would people feel that it is okay to treat me this way? I would never do that to someone. Is it because I am elected- so I deserve to be treated this way? Is it because I disagreed with them on an issue? I’ve thought about this over and over again and realized that despite the well-intentioned warnings of friends in elected positions, I never got that hardened heart that would allow me to have these terrible comments roll right off. I always assumed that staying kind, vulnerable, and truly caring about my neighbors would be an asset to me. Was I wrong? I want to pretend to be tougher than I am, and act like it doesn’t bother me, but having people treat me this way forever changed the way that I look at our neighborhood. Was that the goal?

I completely understand questioning your elected officials and holding us accountable for our decisions- it’s a key component of our government. However, I’m here to tell you that if you continue being cruel to your local elected officials, you will end up with cruel people in return. 

Believe it or not, I’m still your neighbor- the one who loves riding her bike along the Green Circle by the river, and I really enjoy meeting new people. We’ve been pouring money into our new home as we convert it from a duplex back into a big single family home, and yes- we have all the correct permits. 🙂

I know that I will catch a lot of flak for my statement tonight. I know some people will be livid. How dare I talk about my experience this way? I deserve everything that happened, especially the bad things, because I’m a politician, right? I’m sure some members in the media will write terrible things about me, and some people in our city will be so angry that I ventured to say these things. Will there be a call for the council to be replaced by robots? Who knows!

I’m honestly looking forward to a break from the constant criticism and questioning of my motives. I never took any funding from anyone for my campaigns. I don’t have an agenda other than keeping what’s great and fixing what’s not. I do wish that there was better communication between the city and our citizens, but that is probably due to my background and a little insight from “the inside” of city hall. I think many local governments could use some help from a communication professional… we’re certainly not the only one. Perhaps we can work on adding that to our budget in future years.

Believe it or not, I’m still your neighbor- the one with the hard-working mustachioed husband and the sick baby, the one who loves to bake and share her treats with everyone.

I am proud of my honesty in deciding to resign to take care of my son and being very transparent about what is going on. I thought it would be better to explain what was happening in my life, admit that I am actually NOT superwoman, and allow someone else to devote their time and energy to serving our community while I devote my time and energy to helping my son grow up healthy and strong. Of course, while most people were supportive, there are others who question my timing, the REAL reason I’m leaving, and whatnot. There was even a constituent at a meeting who was angry with me so she responded by making scary faces at my son and made him cry. Really? Come on. 

I hope this statement doesn’t sound like I’m just here to complain, rather- I truly feel that it is the time to ask for kindness and empathy among our community.

Please treat my replacement with kindness. Please treat my colleagues with kindness. And above all, please treat each other with kindness. We all want the same things- a happy, healthy, thriving, safe community that serves people of all ages, and we’re all in this together.

Dear council members and staff- I thank you with all my heart for all the opportunities I’ve had to work with you. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished together, and I look forward to seeing what you all do next! I appreciate your patience as I learned the complexities of issues that people outside of city hall may not even consider. Thank you so much for helping me celebrate our alderbaby and being as helpful as possible with Teddy once he arrived. Please continue to help the new council members, as we all know the learning curve is steep, and we were all new once. 🙂

Dear citizens of Stevens Point- thank you for allowing me to serve you for the past four years. While it had many challenges, I don’t regret it for a second. Perhaps once my son is a little older, I’ll be able to afford to come back for another term or two. I still care about you and I will still fight for you, but it just won’t be on the public record anymore. Believe it or not, I’m still your neighbor… so I’ll see you around. 🙂

And with that, I’m done. Time for some wine and an evening of thanking my lucky stars for my family! 🙂

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