#LWM2018 Comes to an End

Well that is a wrap. The 2018 League conference has come and gone. We wrapped up the day with some breakout sessions and we got to hear for the keynote speaker, Jason Kotecki. Jason’s inspired us to step out of our comfort zone and try new things. As local leader we need to enact change. However, that is easier said than done. That is why we need to tinker around when we have an idea, even if it just means starting small. Not all innovative changes have to be Earth-shattering. He also reminded us to not let the “adultitis” set in. In life we do not have to be serious and uptight all the time. If we take ourselves too seriously all the time, then we might miss out on a lot of opportunities in life. If we have a similar mentality when we are governing our municipalities and say things such as “we can’t do that, that’s too impossible,” then we are setting up ourselves to possibly passing up an opportunity. The saying that comes to my mind is, “you’ll never know until you try.”

After the keynote speaker, we had the Just Fix It, Turn Out for Transportation Luncheon. Thanks to the Transportation Development Association for allowing us to have this space to discuss what needs to be done to solve the State’s transportation funding challenges. It was great to hear from current assembly representatives when they reiterated that solving the transportation issues is a not a partisan issue. So, we will have to see what is in store for the future state budget after the November elections. Hopefully, the outcome will have a positive impact on our local communities.

I have done a lot of self-reflection over the past few days. I have been rejuvenated with new energy and I have a lot of new ideas that I want to share with my fellow council members and city staff. I hope that the ideas that I gained throughout the conference will make Sheboygan a better place. All of us that have a passion for our communities are making Wisconsin a better place, because we all share a common vision to move our communities forward.

I want to give Jerry Deschane a shot out and thank him for letting me take over his blog for the week. Also, I want to thank the League staff and all their hard work to make this conference a success.

I hope that you enjoyed this conference as much as I did. I know that next year will be just as great. We will see you in Green Bay in 2019.

-Ryan Sorenson, Sheboygan City Council

Day 2 of #LWM2018 Finishes Strong

I was up bright and early for the second day of the conference with many others for the WEA Trust run and walk. After the morning run and breakfast, it was time for the conference workshops, and meeting more passionate local leaders. This year there was a great number of session that focused on my issues that are impacting our communities all across Wisconsin. It was difficult for me to narrow down the decision for which sessions to choose. Since we are community leaders we have to make difficult decisions. I started off the morning with learning about managing street construction and the impact on local economies. I decided to attend this one because I am a member of the public works committee and we all face challenges with roads back at home. Securing funding for road repairs is difficult enough, but as local leaders it is imperative that we also mitigate the any negative impacts that construction might have local businesses. Columbus and Waunakee had fantastic solutions to ensure that community members were engaged along the entire process during the presentation.

The second session that I attended looked at how small communities can be cool. I wanted to go to this session because having a “cool” community is one important component for retaining and recruiting talent and people. Many communities across Wisconsin are struggling with a brain drain problem. Finding new and creative ways to develop stronger connection with people, and celebrating entrepreneurship are some things that need to be done to grow a community. Dr. Ivan did this session and I was able to draw connections between this session, this talk over lunch, and his session on regionalism. As leaders we need to think about the future and develop creative partnerships that are driven by community members and stakeholders.

During lunch it was great to have Tony Evers swing by and hear what he had to say about his race for Governor. It is vital that after this election, state lawmakers listen to local leaders because we are on the front lines every day and see the direct impact that so many issues have on people. My hope is that in next legislative session that state lawmakers, figure out a sustainable solution for infrastructure and road funding, restore local autonomy, and of course eliminate the dark store loopholes.

Later today, Tammy Bockhorst and I sat down and did a Facebook live chat. Tammy shared her thoughts about how day two went. If you have not seen the video yet, go check it out on the League’s Facebook page. Now I am off to happy hour with other young elected officials.

-Ryan Sorenson, Sheboygan City Council

Day 1 Of #LWM2018 Is Starting Strong

The first day of the conference is underway, my bag of vendor items is packed and I have my #LWM2018 buttons. It is truly something special when so many local elected officials travel from all over the State of Wisconsin to attend a three-day conference that focuses on community improvement. This demonstrates to me that there are so many passionate people out there that believe in their communities and want to make their corner of the world a better place. Today, I chatted with city council members from Racine, Kaukauna, and Menasha, and I felt the connection that they all had for their community’s. You name it, we probably talked about it; roads, housing, lead pipes, and TIDs just to name a few. They all expressed so much excitement for the new knowledge that we would all learn at this event and bring those ideas back home.

I always enjoy talking with the many different vendors and sponsors that take the time out of their busy schedules to come to our conference. I think that this is a vital part of learning what different partnerships that we can cultivate to have a positive impact back home. Many of the vendors that I sparked a conversation with saw on my name tag that I was from Sheboygan, and asked me how I have been enjoying my time on the council. Then we usually crack a joke about my young age. A good handful of vendors even knew some of the city staff from Sheboygan by name. I was very impressed by this, but I was even more proud that our city staff has a positive reputation with our partners. When I am back home in Sheboygan, I am going to relay the message to let them know they are doing a fantastic job.

Now my struggle that I need to figure out is which workshops I am going to attend tomorrow. The decision should not be too difficult, after all it is not getting referred to a committee to be discussed. Also, I hope that you were able to check out my first Facebook live interview with my Mayor, Mike Vandersteen. Look out, if you are lucky, Gail and I might interview you to see how your conference experience is going. See you tomorrow!

-Ryan Sorenson, Sheboygan City Council

Taking Over Jerry’s Blog

Hello My name is Ryan Sorenson. I am alderman on the Sheboygan City Council. I was first elected to the city council in April 2017, and I was only 23 at the time. I am excited to share that this week I will be taking over Jerry’s blog for the annual League of Wisconsin Municipalities Conference. Being a millennial in local elected office, I will be sharing my perspective throughout the conference.

A little bit about myself, I was born and raised in Sheboygan. While attending college at UW-Milwaukee, I was very involved in student government all four years, and was elected student body president. After graduating college, I felt a need to get involved and make a difference in my community. My mom instilled in me while growing up to never sit on the sidelines and complain, but get in the game and make a difference, and so that’s what I did. I challenged and defeated a 10-year incumbent. I knew that our council needed a fresh perspective and some new ideas to help move our city forward.

This year will be my second conference. When I attend the conference last year in Appleton, I had no idea what to expect, but I had an open mind. While at the conference I met many local leaders who were passionate about their communities. I learned so much at the workshops and breakout sessions, and enjoyed all the speakers. My favorite session last year was learning about all the unique and positive ways that planting trees can have on a community. One fun fact that I learned was that planting trees correctly can extend the lifetime of a road before it needs to be repaired. Who knew? With all I experienced at my first conference, I became a more effective and knowledgeable council member. I left the conference in 2017 full of new information and I was excited for my next one. I am looking forward to seeing what is in store for this year’s conference. I know it will be a great one.

If you see me at the conference this year, please stop and say hi. I would be happy to connect and meet you. You can also follow me on twitter @ryansorensonwi


It comes down to welcome

I was in Hurley recently, participating in a conversation about community inclusivity. As the talk unfolded in this Northern city of 1,300, it became clear that there are a variety of definitions of inclusivity. It’s a diamond with many facets. It seems to me, however, that they all relate to the same thing: making “those people” feel welcome. It really doesn’t matter whether “those people” are oldtimers, newcomers, millennials, immigrants, natives, Hispanics, African Americans or Viking fans. Inclusivity is an attitude that this place is a place for everyone. Specifically, it is a place for you. C’mon in; sit down. Have some coffee.

The conversation was led by Eric Giordano and Dave Anderson of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS). WIPPS is in the initial stages of a new project on this topic. The League and the Wisconsin Counties Association are helping to support their work, which will culminate next April in a conference on inclusivity. Think of the Hurley meeting as a “warm-up exercise.”

One thing I noticed right away is that people often tune out of conversations on inclusivity. Sometimes this is because they don’t understand the labels. That’s a fair criticism; the word “inclusivity” sounds like one of those terms you hear tossed around in a UW class on sociology, but never at an American Legion hall in Hurley. What does it mean? Who are we talking about? Why should I care?

The other reason people, particularly current residents of a place, will go blank when this conversation comes up is because it feels like they’re being blamed for something. If you’re asking how my city can be more inclusive, you’re implying that we’re not already inclusive, which, in turn, suggests that I am a bigot of some sort. Most of us, me included, are a mixed bag of goodness and badness. We like being recognized for our goodness and hope that our badness doesn’t show in polite company. It’s embarrassing.

We naturally feel more comfortable among people we know and less so among strangers. Put me in a room full of Packer fans from the Green Bay area and I’m happy as a clam. But put me into a room full of Minnesota Viking fans from St. Paul and I’ll disappear into my clam shell. When I’m called out for not talking to Viking fans, rather than defend myself, I will just move away from the conversation.

Using a football analogy is, I will grant you, a cheap and easy way to skirt very sobering issues of race, poverty, immigration, religion and age. I’m not doing it to trivialize the need for an honest discussion about these topics; I’m doing it to make the point that there is a simple human concept that applies to all of them. That concept is welcome. People can sense when they’re welcome. They can sense when they’re not. It doesn’t take long for a stranger to pick up the signals. What signal is your community sending?

I first heard this discussed in my church. My wife and I volunteered to serve on one of those committees, and the topic of gaining and keeping more members came up. After talking about it for weeks, reviewing the literature and searching high and low on the internet, we kept coming back to a single topic: welcome. Did the people who walked into our particular church feel welcome? Were they greeted? Were they asked to participate in this or that committee; maybe bake a pie or judge a talent contest? Did they sense that the people around them were glad they showed up?

If they got the sense of welcome, they were more inclined to come back the next Sunday. If the vibe they picked up was indifferent, maybe they were a little less inclined. If it was hostile or cold, well, you get the picture.

As we move into this new era of minimum population increases, Wisconsin’s communities need to do everything we can to seek out people. As we age, the temptation among many of our retirees will be to move to a warmer (in all senses of the word) climate. Every employer is facing a worker shortage; we need to bring every able-bodied soul into the workforce, regardless of the blemishes that may appear on their rap sheet. We need to open our doors to people who may not look or talk exactly like us. And yes, we need to have an honest discussion about immigration reform. The need to be welcoming is not a “warm fuzzy.” It’s an economic imperative. The community that welcomes will be the community that succeeds.

It’s time for the New Localism

I just finished reading Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book, “The New Localism, How Cities can Thrive in the Age of Populism.” Perhaps not surprisingly, my friends and family members gave me plenty of privacy when they saw what I was reading (they usually nodded politely and then scurried away), but it was worth the few hours of isolation. Katz and Nowak are calling on local leaders to step up and lead in a whole new way. True students of local government should read the book.

The authors argue cities and villages have more power than they think and more problem-solving capacity than they know, but they need to organize differently. “Conventional wisdom holds that cities are powerless, mere creatures of the state, subordinate political units of nations. But conventional wisdom is wrong. It mistakenly treats cities as just another layer of government rather than as what they truly are: powerful networks of institutions and ecosystems of actors that coproduce the economy and co-solve problems.”

Katz and Nowak affirmed something that I often notice about Wisconsin’s best municipal leaders: they seem to make things happen without doing anything at all. “Conventional leadership norms do not quite fit the configuration of localities. The path to collective problem solving relies on leaders who can navigate and leverage the networked reality of urban power. Cities are neither vertically integrated companies nor governments that have a set command-and-control structure. Rather, they are networks of public, private and civic institutions that coproduce the economy and cogovern critical aspects of city life. The essence of a successful local leader, therefore, is the ability to bring groups of people together to solve problems and do grand things that they cannot do as individuals. To reflect the distributed genius of the city, leaders must be adept at creating and stewarding horizontal relationships rather than issuing and executing hierarchical mandates.”

While I tend to get a little cross-eyed when people start talking about infrastructure and municipal finance, the book proposes an intriguing new twist on the national infrastructure debate. Rather than ask the President and Congress to design a new program of roads and bridges, complete with new forms and regulations, why not turn the process around? “Infrastructure is a complex business, comprised of multiple investment sectors as diverse as a water treatment plant, a river or lake reclamation, an airport or port expansion, a road, rail, or transit hub retrofit, a rail station redevelopment. Each is different in terms of project design, revenue streams, and market impacts, and in how they are governed, regulated, owned and operated. As such federal plans for infrastructure often are not responsive enough to local needs and concerns. What if we reversed the process to flow from the local level to the federal? What if several governors, mayors and county executives, from across both parties, nominated a group of emblematic projects? A trusted intermediary could use a uniform template that made the business case for each project and then sorted out options for federal financing. In this way, Congress could ultimately enact legislation and provide tools fit to purpose and designed to succeed.”

Leading thru networks? Congress in reactive funding mode, listening to local practitioners, as opposed to command-and-control mode, dictating to them? Sounds revolutionary. On the other hand, maybe that’s just enough revolution to help move us all forward.

Cast a vote for Old Abe

In a week you’ll be voting for local government offices in Wisconsin. If history’s any indication, you won’t have to wait in line very long. Spring elections in Wisconsin historically have the lowest voter turnout among the regular ballot opportunities. I alternate between seeing that as an endorsement of the quality of your work (of the federal, state and local layers of government, the public trusts local government the most) and worrying that low turnout is a sickly canary warning us that the air’s getting foul in the coal mine of democracy.

I don’t like what I hear lately when people talk about the government. Too many citizens look upon government, even local government, as “them.” The people who operate government are “someone else,” not the citizens themselves. Never mind that the village president is their brother and the Public Works Director lives on the same block. This problem of perception is bad enough at the local level, but it’s worse at the state level, and it’s downright alarming at the federal level. Even elected officials use terms like “the deep state” in a disparaging reference to a far off and untouchable, immovable government.

I had this in mind as I was driving through South Central Pennsylvania recently. A certain freeway exit caught my eye and kicked loose my memory of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. At the tail end of that short speech, the President was trying to remind his fellow Americans what we’re doing here. Standing in a cemetery, surrounded by the graves of thousands of young men, Abraham Lincoln wrapped up one of the world’s most beloved speeches by calling on the crowd to resolve themselves to remember that the whole purpose is to ensure:

“That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Have we forgotten the meaning of those words? One-hundred and fifty-five years later is “the government” now a far-away land controlled by invisible forces, or is this still the place where we choose our government from amongst ourselves? A government “of the people and by the people,” means that our government is nobody but us.

Because “us” tends to be—well–us, it’s going to be messy sometimes. You and I will agree on which streets to pave, but we may disagree on whether a particular zoning change is good for our community. We’ll smile and laugh when we cut the ribbon for the new roundabout (okay, bad example), but then we’ll get all red-faced and loud when someone brings up that riverfront redevelopment project.

Government of the people, by the people and for the people recognizes that people are basically good, but with occasional bad moments. It’s a government that reflects our shared morality, gladly spending millions to educate someone else’s children and giving a hand to a neighbor who’s lost his job or her home. At the same time, we’ll rail against the foolishness of those new planter boxes downtown. The magic of a government selected from amongst the people themselves is that the government looks like them and acts like them, because it is them, good and bad.

Thankfully, we do not have to take up arms against one another again in order to fulfill President Lincoln’s wishes. There’s another way. We can simply vote. We can stay involved. After the election, win or lose, we can congratulate the winners, and pledge to work with them.

It’s what Abe asked us to do.