Being Mayor of Wauwatosa does not include riches, notoriety, or accolades.
Instead, the job currently requires a desk full of serious issues including dealing with a pandemic, social unrest, balancing progress against preservation, and listening to a diverse population with different ideas on the best path to the future. So why would anyone want to take all of this on?
“I am just nuts about Wauwatosa and I want nothing but good things for it,” Mayor Dennis McBride said. “My primary goal is to make Wauwatosa more welcoming community.”
Motivation to be Mayor
The current salary for Wauwatosa’s mayor has been reported at $30,000 so someone who has already retired from his day job would likely need a different motivation than money.
“I’m not doing it because I have some grand political ambition, I am too old for that,” McBride said. “I am doing it because I love my community. I care about my community. I came out of retirement to continue volunteering my efforts and my talents.”
But even with his positive outlook, McBride is aware that he has a number of difficult issues to manage. In spite of these challenging times, he offered some sage advice for all of us.
“Don’t assume the worst of the people you are working with, assume the best,” McBride said. “Too many people come in with their political and philosophical differences and immediately assume the person that might disagree with them on one thing or another is a bad person or an evil person or someone who is getting paid-off by some developer to do something. That is not going on in Wauwatosa.
“We have occasional disagreements on how to achieve our goals but everybody on the council, and especially all the mayors I have ever dealt with, we all just want Wauwatosa to be a better place. We are all willing to work with people, try to overcome our differences, and listen empathetically to each other. In Wauwatosa, most of us want the same kind of things for our community and we are willing and eager to work hard to get there together.”
When asked which item on his calendar has been the biggest challenge, he turned to the civil unrest that escalated after the Wauwatosa Police Department chose to keep a controversial officer on the payroll.
“I think quite clearly – even though it’s hard to believe this with a pandemic going on that affects every corner of the globe – the biggest challenge facing us right now is the racial unrest in Wauwatosa, including the protests and all of the fallout from that,” McBride said.
The Mayor is doing what he can to balance the need for security with the right to peacefully protest. He is asking the police department to consider cutting or reducing the fines given to those that broke curfew while it was in place.
“My understanding is that the range for fines for curfew violations is something that is in the state statutes, and the range is from $0 to $5,000,” McBride said. “The police here decided to place all curfew violations at $1,500. We are looking into this issue to ensure the fines are appropriate. We do not want to unduly penalize people. If a law was violated, that is something the perpetrators will need to deal with – but we are not trying to be unduly punitive to legal protests. We are just trying to make sure the fine levied is always appropriate and commensurate for the offense.”
The aftermath of the unrest in Wauwatosa gave McBride concern as he surveyed the scene, but he found good in what he saw.
“I drove down North Avenue, and around 68th Street, some shops were boarded…and still, right next to those boarded shops were people drinking coffee and walking their dogs and doing what Wauwatosa does every day,” McBride said.
He added: “There is a lot of resilience in this community. We have had some difficulties, but people have gone on and we are going to make our great community even better. We have disagreements, but we will work our way through those together. One thing I have been saying to folks, is that this country got through world wars and pandemics and racial challenges before, and we will do so again.”
Pleasing the People
Mayor McBride appears to fully understand the realities of American politics.
“It was true long before I came to this planet, and it will be true long after I leave,” McBride said. “You can’t please everybody. You have to do what you feel is right and be willing to adjust. Most of the people who have commented to me after the unrest we had, believed that in general we have done a pretty good job of maintaining safety for our citizens and keeping order in our community.
“That doesn’t mean we did everything perfectly. It just means that people are relieved that we did not have any deaths or the level of destruction that we have been seeing in Kenosha, and now also in Philadelphia and in other places, nationally. It has been a difficult time, regardless of where you land on the political spectrum.”
A Full Docket Ahead
Addressing the issues of civil unrest while ensuring that the Police Department receives the respect and support it deserves is no small feat in any community. But the Wauwatosa Common Council has already enacted several reforms and has a long list of other related and non-related agenda items to tackle.
“The city staff is also working on a number of projects in other departments. We are looking at our housing policy, we are looking at ways we might be able to better and more directly support minority-owned businesses and businesses led by women,” McBride said.
“The issues of equity and inclusion go far beyond police departments. Our entire society has to deal with lingering effects of racism. We asked our department heads, ‘What can you do as a director with your budget to promote equity and inclusion to make Wauwatosa a more welcoming community?’ These issues go far beyond our police department to touch every part of our community.”
McBride said that whenever you talk about police reform, people will have different definitions for what that ultimately looks like.
“The first thing we have to do, is to establish a common definition and a common language. As a society, we haven’t settled on that definition yet. So, one of the things we are doing, is we just retained a consulting firm out of Washington DC to do a study of our police department to see how we might make it both better and stronger. That isn’t to say it isn’t a good police department now, but what we are saying, is that there is always something we as human beings can do to better ourselves.”
The study is currently underway, and McBride said it should take a couple of months to complete.
“Studies and inquiries like this inevitably create some degree of tension because if you are asking what you can do better, people start to feel unsettled when asked to step out of their comfort zone,” McBride said.
Addressing the pandemic is also on the mayor’s plate, and McBride is working with the Health Department to mitigate the effects of the virus.
“Ever since the pandemic kicked-in, the health department has been working 24/7 to try to come up with ways to cope with it,” McBride said. “We have hired contact tracers to supplement our health department workforce. The problem is that we are getting overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.”
In addition, capacity in bars and restaurants is being limited. The Health Department is facing a budget crunch and presented four different budget proposals to the council to find a path forward. The first one was the same budget number as last year, but it would have limited the department’s focus too narrowly on only COVID-19. Ultimately, the council approved a medium-level budget increase.
“It’s a challenge financially and emotionally [for the Health Department] and they are working very hard,” McBride said. “But we need everyone in the community to adhere to the CDC guidelines and to protect themselves from others by wearing the masks and engaging in social distancing. And do all of the other things that people are well aware of as best practices, but are not always adhering to them.”
McBride and the council streamlined a program to give loans to small businesses affected by the pandemic and said that it is their goal to respond to these businesses within 72 hours. Despite the current challenges facing the business community, Wauwatosa is still a very desirable place for developers who are undeterred by the pandemic. (Visit Wauwatosa.net and search Financial Assistance for Business & Non-Profits)
“We have to make sure that whatever new development comes in (and we have to have new development) it is scrutinized to make sure that we do not negatively impact our existing neighborhoods,” McBride said. “We are justifiably proud of our beautiful community and our diverse architecture and whatever new development we consider and approve has to match those criteria well. As a lifelong citizen of Wauwatosa, it is a careful balance that I am quite conscious of.”
So Why Do It?
So why come out of retirement to take on a low-paying civic job with no perks and tons of heavy social issues to wrestle with?
“This is my hometown, I have always loved it. I have always cared deeply about what happens here. My mother raised all of her children to care for the community. And I educated myself with the intent of serving my community. To me, community service is one of the highest callings,” the first term Mayor responded succinctly.
McBride took the mayoral reins from the hands of Kathy Ehley in April of this year. He said he admired how she had led the city and respected the way she gracefully left office. Before being elected mayor, McBride served on the council from 2008-2018.
Serving as Wauwatosa’s mayor, McBride’s ongoing work becomes a collaborative relationship with the council because the members manage the city’s budget. Mayors in Wisconsin have a limited range of power due to the state’s legislation.
“One of the biggest challenges I have had as mayor is getting people to understand how limited our powers are at the municipal level,” McBride said. “For example, I do not have the authority to fire the police chief, because state law gives that authority to police and fire commission. At the federal level, the President has much more authority in controlling who is running every department or commission. As a local mayor in Wisconsin, I simply don’t have that type of authority.”
McBride said that the power of city government is determined by the Wisconsin legislature and the provisions under our Wisconsin state constitution. Other states allow more home rule he stated, and some allow less.
In Wisconsin, the state has awarded its most populous urban centers (in cities like Milwaukee and Madison) a great deal of mayoral control over how the community operates. But in smaller cities like Wauwatosa, the mayor’s powers are more intentionally limited and balanced.
As for handling school and educational issues, the city government mostly stands back as the superintendent and the local school boards run the show.
“We currently do, and have enjoyed a productive, collaborative relationship with the school board and the superintendent over the last decade or so. Both sides have worked very hard to develop and strengthen this relationship,” McBride said. “I have always had a strong interest in the schools.”
Like every other school district in the country, Wauwatosa has had to spend an enormous amount of time, money and effort dealing with the pandemic. PPE, virtual learning, and even counseling our children are among their daily responsibilities. “We continue to strongly advocate for the federal government to provide necessary financial assistance to the schools for dealing with the pandemic,” McBride said.
You can feel the pride in Wauwatosa that flows from McBride even as he addresses these slippery political issues. He remains confident that our city will weather the storm we all face and grow together.
“People want to work, live and shop in Wauwatosa,” McBride said. “Wauwatosa is a very resilient place.”