Small “d” democracy at work

While many have urged me to run for a wide variety of political offices, thus far, I have chosen to run for only one, and for the past 8 years, I have served as the Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District (GLWD). Goose Lake is a small, beautiful, and naturally precious lake in central Wisconsin-home to a wide variety of plants and wildlife, where my wife and I have owned land for 28 years. We camped on it for 10 years, and after saving our money, we built a vacation home 18 years ago. We have lived here full time since mid-March to stay safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many years, the Goose Lake Improvement Association did its best to protect the lake, but since it was a non-governmental voluntary association, it had no power, and little money to take the necessary steps to remove invasive species and care for the lake in a proper manner. So, about 9 years ago, some long time residents worked with other residents, the Town of Jackson, and Adams County, to form the GLWD, pursuant to Wisconsin Statutes. The GLWD has the power of taxation and its mission is to preserve the natural integrity of the lake for those in the watershed district to enjoy.

Since the GLWD is a governmental body, it must operate according to state law, including complying with Open Meetings laws. Per Wisconsin Statutes, once a year, we must hold an Annual Meeting, and although all our meetings are open to the public, we must mail a written notice of the Annual meeting to each of the over 150 property owners in the watershed district. That notice must include the agenda, which must also include the annual election of one of our board members, as well as the proposed annual budget which any resident who shows up to the annual meeting may vote on.

Due to the pandemic, since April, we have been holding our meetings via Zoom, which has actually enhanced the ability of many to attend our meetings. However, at most, our meetings which typically only have a handful of public attendees, increased to about 15 public members.

Despite our concerns about keeping everyone safe during the pandemic, a majority of our board members believe that we had to hold our Annual meeting in person. Normally, we hold our meetings in the small, one room 19th Century era Town of Jackson hall. However, we did not believe we could safely hold our Annual meeting in that small room, even though we normally only have about a dozen attendees at those meetings.

So, we decided to have the meeting outdoors near the lake. We rented a tent and chairs in case of rain.

We also scheduled the meeting on Labor Day weekend to maximize the opportunity for people to attend, but of course, we had no idea how many people would show up, so we planned for about 30 people. At first, it appeared that our planning would be about right.

Due to the pandemic, we asked everyone to wear masks, and we were pleased to see that almost everyone complied with our request. The meeting was scheduled to start with a budget hearing at 1 PM, followed by the Annual meeting to begin at 1:30. In addition to the complications caused by the pandemic, like much of the midwest, we have experienced significant flooding with the lake rising over 2 feet during the past 2 years, threatening or damaging 4 homes, and completely covering our public beach for the past two years.

This bench and those behind it were at our beach before it flooded, so we removed it and put it in storage, and then brought it out for our Annual meeting.

The owners of one of the threatened homes began approaching the GLWD in the spring to see if there was a way to lower the lake. Although we have put a lot of work into investigating this possibility, there are many impediments to doing so, including environmental, property ownership and financial challenges. So, while we are still pursuing this possibility, our proposed budget did not have any money in it for an uncertain flood mitigation project. Needless to say, a number of property owners were not happy about this and they circulated a petition to demand that we prioritize flood mitigation in our budget.

These challenges and other issues, including purchasing property and building a storage and maintenance facility for our weed harvester, as well as replacing our Treasurer, Bill Fitzgerald, who was stepping down after 6 years of excellent service, resulted in the largest attendance we have ever had at an Annual meeting. At one point, I counted 52 people in attendance, all of whom could not be fully included in this photo.

Due to the large attendance and controversy over flood mitigation, including whether we should tax ourselves more to plan for an uncertain flood mitigation project, the budget hearing took an hour, and our Annual meeting did not start until 2 PM.

Our first controversy during the Annual meeting was where to put our excess funds from the previous year. Unlike virtually all legislative bodies, these budget decisions are proposed by the board, but voted on by the residents who attend the Annual meeting. The board proposed splitting the excess funds in 3 ways, some of which would increase our reserves which we felt could be used in an emergency for flood mitigation. However, some residents felt more should be allocated to flood mitigation. Since this item was on the agenda before our full flood mitigation discussion, a resident moved to table the motion until after the flood mitigation discussion, and everyone agreed that was appropriate.

The flood mitigation discussion was passionate, with some explaining how their properties were threatened or actually degraded, others explaining how they wanted to make sure that we did not contaminate Neenah Creek, a Class A trout stream, where some thought we could pump our excess water to. Other pros and cons were raised. But nobody raised their voices. Only one person used mildly insulting language, which I quickly admonished to make sure it did not escalate, and fortunately it did not.

The discussion was lengthy and we agreed to take a bathroom break before continuing, which for me and others enabled us to continue until the meeting finally concluded at 5 PM. Before the meeting concluded, however, we had to pass a budget, and elect a new Treasurer.

The budget discussion was lengthy, but many good questions were asked, and for the first time in GLWD history, the budget proposed by the board was not approved. At that point I reminded everyone that we could not end the meeting without an approved budget, so a few ideas were tossed out. Finally, a resident proposed that we increase our taxes to add funds for a possible flood mitigation study to help determine our best course. There was further discussion, as not surprisingly, some residents did not want their taxes raised. But the motion carried, and we passed our budget.

It is important to note, that our Annual meeting voting took place by a show of hands which we simply counted. I informed everyone that only those who were property owners in the GLWD could vote. People asked if more than one person owned a piece of property in the district, could they all vote? I told them they could. Others asked if they owned more than one parcel, could they vote multiple times, once per parcel? I informed them that they could not. As we have no system for registering voters, I informed everyone that we trusted them to only vote if they were eligible. Everyone agreed, and despite the fact that none of our budget votes were unanimous, nobody challenged anyone’s vote, or accused anyone of voter fraud.

When it came time to vote on a new Treasurer, initially we had no candidates. I let everyone know that 8 years ago, in a similar situation, I stepped into the position of Chair when there were no candidates, and fortunately, a newer resident, Jim Remsik, responded to the call, and agreed to nominate himself as Treasurer, and he was elected unanimously.

When the meeting finally concluded after 4 long hours, while many walked or drove home, others stayed to congratulate me and the other members of the board on a well run meeting. Before everyone left, I told them that I felt this meeting was a victory for small “d” democracy. We the people exercised our rights as engaged citizens. We expressed our opinions, modified the proposal of the elected officials, and while speaking our minds, we remained friendly. All this was done without political party involvement, campaign fundraising, or frankly political campaigning of any kind. Perhaps larger political bodies in our municipal, county, state and federal government, can learn how to better exercise democracy from our small community.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact me,  Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting my web site: Systems Change Consulting.

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