Waukesha mayoral candidates at odds over city issues

Staff photo by Christopher Kuhagen
Shawn Reilly (right), who is challenging Mayor Jeff Scrima in the mayoral election, discusses the city's Great Lakes water application with School Board member Steve Edlund after the mayoral debate Monday at UW-Waukesha.
Published on: 3/4/2014

Before a packed lecture room on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, the two candidates vying to be Waukesha's mayor debated a range of issues Monday evening that included the city's application for Great Lakes water, the way the city is handling its budget and how they would help business development.

Challenger Shawn Reilly, who won the mayoral primary two weeks ago by 96 votes, was the aggressor throughout the evening, and called out Mayor Jeff Scrima on many occasions during the hourlong debate for not working collaboratively with the Common Council during the budget process.

"My philosophy is you work with the Common Council on the budget," said Reilly, 53, a longtime downtown Waukesha attorney. "If the Common Council doesn't know what the mayor is thinking during that period of time, they're going to be surprised at the very end. That's happened.

"It was a shock to the Common Council that there was a veto, and they needed to scramble in December in order to get the tax bills out for the citizens to pay their taxes by the end of the year. That process is not a good process.

"I will have a totally different process. I will be working with the Common Council during the entire budget process, which is really the most important decision made by the City of Waukesha every year."

Scrima replied to Reilly's criticism that he had not attended budget committee meetings by saying the mayor's job is "not to micromanage."

The vetoes are just part of the system of checks and balances, said Scrima, 36.

"Tough decisions do have to be made," the first-term mayor said.

In his opening statement, Reilly said that, if elected during the April 1 general election, first on his agenda would be establishing trust in the mayor's office.

"To do this, I will participate and communicate," Reilly said. "I will be available. I will respond to questions, and I will work with others. I will tell you what I am thinking and why. This seems simple, but it is not being done."

Scrima, who as a newcomer won the mayoral election in 2010 over the incumbent Larry Nelson, presented a question to those in attendance during his opening and closing statements.

"Is the City of Waukesha stronger today than it was four years ago?" Scrima said. "Under my watch, in collaboration with the Common Council, city staff with members of organizations in the community we have delivered proven results."

Scrima said that over the last four years, for the first time in the city's history, the city has held the tax levy flat under the inflation rate. He also touted job growth and an increase in community "front-porch" events during his tenure.


While Scrima said the cost of living here is the city's greatest challenge, along with affordable water and providing tax relief, Reilly said it all centers on the city's request for the Lake Michigan water. It's the reason, Reilly said, he's running for the job.

"This is an enormous issue facing the City of Waukesha," said Reilly, who reminded the audience that Scrima was against Waukesha receiving Lake Michigan water during the election four years ago and during the early part of his term.

"Mayor Scrima took the position that Lake Michigan water was not an option for the City of Waukesha," Reilly added. "His position after he was elected held up the decision making on the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) even allowing the city to go forward, and he has taken positions that are unworkable for him to represent the city in moving forward in getting Lake Michigan water."

Reilly was referring to the summer of 2010, when Scrima refused to sign a letter drafted by Water Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak at the direction of the city's Water Utility Commission saying lake water supply was the only reasonable option available to the city.

This delayed the DNR from resuming its review of the city's application. The Common Council had previously approved the application, saying that it completed its studies.

At the debate, Scrima said he now supports getting water through the City of Oak Creek. Of the unsigned letter to the DNR, he said, "I have to look out for your best interests, and I have to ask the tough questions, like worst-case scenario."

Other issues

In a question related to improving downtown businesses, Scrima said "one of the best ways to improve business and development is to have more people come downtown. During the last four years, we've grown our downtown events. That's the competitive advantage of our downtown: fun, social events."

Reilly, the former president of the downtown Business Improvement District, said, "The goal would be to make sure the downtown is very clean and inviting. In addition, to encourage additional anchors."

When asked about the increased heroin use in the county, Scrima said he puts his trust in the Police Department, while Reilly said police isn't the answer to the problem.

"I see that fixing the heroin problem more on getting the kids to not try it at all and if they have tried it to stop," Reilly said. "That's more of a court issue. It's more of a community policing issue.

"I'll be working with the Waukesha County Drug-Free Coalition to make sure the issue is addressed. It requires substance abuse training and therapy."

Both candidates said they oppose an extra sales tax on cultural assets in Milwaukee County.

"When we look at any kind of partnership, we need to look at it as a business deal," Scrima said. "I would be very skeptical that Milwaukee would bring us anything that would be mutually beneficial."

But Reilly said discussions with neighboring counties can't hurt.

"We have to try to figure out ways that we're a participant in all of those discussions, to work with adjoining counties to support the great cultural assets in Milwaukee County, but there needs to be some reciprocity," Reilly said.