A meeting of the Fitchburg Common Council was a contentious, tense, heartfelt affair on Tuesday night during the Council’s annual Budget hearing. Amid efforts to recall Mayor Jason Gonzalez and the red-hot temperature of his public discourse with Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson, the Council chambers were filled to the brim.
One by one angry, disillusioned, pleading, sad and always heartfelt citizens took the microphone and let loose on Mayor Gonzalez for what most in the public decried as his decision to put meaningless and in some cases irrelevant spending on public works ahead of the neediest children in Dane County in a $20 million budget proposal that eliminates $110,000 in funding for local nonprofits, including $50,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County to transport and feed 850 youth after school.
On a number of separate occasions the meeting had to be called to order. Wanda Smith, who had unsuccessfully run for the Council, was vocal in her defiance of the Mayor’s decision.
“We thought we had overcome but look where we are today,” Smith said loudly and fervently. “The new administration is total chaos. What is your motive? My biggest fear here is violence being at an all-time high. You put all these resources into your police and not into the children of this community. But your police will not be able to save you. But there are people in the community who know the answers to the problems we have.”
Smith accused the Fitchburg Common Council of white supremacist-type behavior in a fiery, bombastic statement. Smith called out by name two council members and was rebuked by City Administrator Patrick Marsh as well as Mayor Gonzalez who called the meeting to order.
While Wanda Smith responded with fire other residents questioned the lack of love being shown to the community by the Mayor.
“It takes a village to raise our kids,” said Andrea Shorter, a mother of four kids. “That means all, and not some of us. The Boys and Girls Club gives opportunity to kids by helping them have a positive atmosphere. It gives them a chance to see what love really looks like. As a mother of four children, our kids’ funding needs to come first. What would you put in place of it? What would you put in place of the food pantry? Show us something.”
Timothy Maymon, also a father, spoke at length about the impact of funding not just for the children of Fitchburg but also for everyone. He addressed the council members saying that they got to where they are in life because someone, somewhere funded things they liked or participated in.
“The children of Fitchburg deserve a fighting chance,” Maymon said. “You went somewhere and did something when you got out of school. You had something to do because someone put funding into band or sports or whatever you liked to do. You had opportunity because of funding. Take out the funding and you will take away opportunity from our kids.”
In an act that angered and frustrated many in attendance, Mayor Gonzalez took personal podium time to read letters of residents who supported his decision to gut programs designed to feed and shelter children. The letters were written by residents who did not opt to join the hundreds who were actually in attendance.
Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson called it a cowardly act on the part of Mayor Gonzalez to read letters of residents who didn’t have the conviction to show up in person while dozens who did wait to speak.
Johnson slammed the decision to eliminate non-profit funding that supports what he called the most vulnerable children in the city. Programming that keeps them in after-school programs, feeds them each day, provides transportation for them, and keeps them engaged in positive activities.
“Your budget today is a reflection of your promises and the current budget goes against the history and the foundation that this club was built on,” Johnson told the council. “This is like telling our young people that they are no longer a priority for this city.”
The visual of Johnson addressing the council with rows and rows of concerned citizens behind him was stunning in contrast to the completely empty chamber he addressed last week when he warned the Council that he would bring the community out in force if they continued with their decision.
Mayor Gonzalez, for his part, quipped at the last Council meeting that he wanted public comments to go first and then in an orderly fashion they would move past public comments into the business of the council.
“Otherwise,” Gonzalez said to the Common Council last week, “there’ll be hundreds of people here and we’ll have to listen to them all night.”
He wasn’t wrong. Hundreds did show up and spoke on their children’s behalf all night.
William Turner II arrived midway through public statements at the Fitchburg Common Council’s budget hearing Tuesday night. He was carrying a bundle of roses and asked Chair Patrick Marsh if he could bring them up to the podium and address the forum.
As a father who works at the same time he juggles sole custody of his two kids sometimes Turner needs a little help. That help comes often in the form of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County where he and countless other parents are able to trust that their kids have someplace to go where they are worked with by someone who cares.
As he peeled the petals off a rose in full view of the council, Turner likened what he was doing to the actions of the Mayor.
“If you take the petals off this rose it stops being a rose,” he said. “All I’m asking is you guys consider the rose that Fitchburg is before you tear it apart. You’re taking something beautiful and you’re tearing it apart.”