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Trio vie for mayor's office on Tuesday

Feb. 12, 2013
 
John Belanger
John Belanger
Terry Van Akkeren

John BelangerAge: 52
Occupation: Works in sales at Milwaukee-based A Branovan Co.
Political experience: Sheboygan alderman since spring 2012.
Terry Van AkkerenAge: 58
Occupation: Sheboygan mayor.
Political experience: Elected Sheboygan mayor in 2012; state representative from 2003-10; served a combined 15 years on the Sheboygan Common Council and Sheboygan County Board between 1986 and 2003.
Mike VandersteenAge: 60
Occupation: Manager of DuBois Formalwear in Sheboygan.
Political experience: Sheboygan County Board supervisor since 1998, including four years as County Board chairman; served two terms as a Sheboygan alderman in 1990s.

Mike Vandersteen

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Less than a year after taking office, Terry Van Akkeren faces his first election challenge as Sheboygan mayor in next week’s primary against two candidates who have been highly critical of his short tenure in the city’s top post.

Van Akkeren, 58, who’s seeking to continue a two-decade career spent in state and local politics, has held the mayor’s job since last spring after winning the right to finish out former mayor Bob Ryan’s term in a recall election sparked by Ryan’s struggles with alcohol.

Van Akkeren will be challenged by another veteran political figure in former alderman and longtime Sheboygan County Supervisor Mike Vandersteen, and Ald. John Belanger, a relative political newcomer who joined the Common Council last spring.

The top two vote-getters in the Feb. 19 primary advance to the April 2 general election.

Vandersteen, 60, and Belanger, 52, both said they were motivated to run in the wake of Van Akkeren’s unsuccessful push last year to repeal the city’s garbage fee, which the city began collecting in 2012 to balance the budget without raising property taxes.

Belanger described Van Akkeren as being “singularly obsessed with one issue,” in reference to the garbage fee, and felt that it strained Van Akkeren’s relationship with other city officials and kept the city from addressing other pressing concerns, such as an impending deficit in the city’s budget in the coming years.

“We kept addressing the same thing all summer and into the fall, over and over again,” said Belanger, who works in sales at Milwaukee-based A Branovan Co. “That frustrated me. I thought we could do a lot better.”

Meanwhile, Vandersteen said the mayor’s drive to end the fee, even after a majority of aldermen said they would support it, was damaging to the atmosphere at City Hall.

“I had high hopes that things were going to be better,” said Vandersteen, who manages DuBois Formalwear and has been on the County Board since 1998, including four years as chairman.

Van Akkeren, who promised to eliminate the garbage fee during his recall campaign, defended his handling of the fee as “standing up for taxpayers,” and doesn’t feel that it’s damaged his relationship with other city officials.

“I think that’s being blown out of proportion,” Van Akkeren said. “I think we (city officials) can disagree on the issues.”

Van Akkeren maintains that the garbage fee isn’t needed to balance the budget, and he plans to revisit dropping the fee again this year if re-elected. He would also like to explore streamlining the city’s garbage collection operation and to consider other cost-saving measures, such as buying natural gas-powered trucks when the city replaces its garbage fleet in the coming years.

In contrast, Vandersteen and Belanger said they would like to leave the garbage fee in place and let it expire after 2014, as it’s now scheduled to do.

Belanger said the city needs to consider all of its options with garbage collection, including leasing its trucks and privatization, which he proposed last year, in an effort to deal with future deficits.

“It’s something that needs to be looked at and addressed,” Belanger said.

Van Akkeren said he would deal with coming deficits by going through the city’s budget line by line to identify areas to trim, the same approach he took to this year’s budget.

“There are savings here and there that together add up,” he said.

Vandersteen would search for ways to tighten up the budget by bringing in consultants to review each department and identify efficiencies.

“It produced huge savings and more efficient operations at the county,” said Vandersteen, who’s making his second run for mayor following an unsuccessful bid in 1997. “There are programs that just aren’t effective anymore that can be dropped, but until you go through that process it’s hard to pick and choose those items.”

All three candidates said they feel the mayor’s job should remain full time and that the 16-person Common Council should be reduced in size, possibly to eight positions.

The candidates also expressed similar positions on economic development, with Van Akkeren and Belanger saying they would work with business leaders and business groups to retain and attract employers.

Vandersteen said he would look to grow the city’s industrial parks and would try to meet face to face with companies looking to relocate.

— Reach Josh Lintereur at 920-453-5147.

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