Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm
The Waukesha County Action Network (WCAN) was formed last year to "inspire change and take action." The organization of corporate and community leaders hopes to be a driving force as a "do tank" in lake country.
WCAN recently took its first stance on a public policy issue by endorsing the notion of the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha partnering with the U.W.-Milwaukee. Although critics fear such a partnership could minimize the autonomy of the Waukesha campus, supporters say such a venture will increase the opportunities for Waukesha County residents to gain four-year degrees.
Former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow of Elm Grove founded WCAN with the help of some key corporate contributors. Farrow and Carla Rutley, who has been hired as the executive director of WCAN, recently were interviewed by Small Business Times executive editor Steve Jagler. The following are excerpts from that interview.
SBT: My first question is that in Waukesha County, you’ve got the Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce and the Waukesha County Economic Development Corp (WCEDC), so how is WCAN different and why is it needed?
Farrow: "The Waukesha Chamber sees itself a little broader than just the city of Waukesha. There’s an interesting interplay going on. We had Patti Wallner from the Waukesha Chamber and we had Bill Mitchell from the WCEDC at our initial meetings, so they knew exactly what our motivation was. We had them kind of vet us in a way to say, ‘You know, what would be disturbing to you?’ They just said, ‘Don’t duplicate what we’re doing.’ Which is what we had in mind. Whenever we decide on an issue, we’re going to look around the table and say, ‘Are we the best ones doing this? Or should someone else be doing it?’ And hopefully, we’ll collaborate with the other groups.
"We’re not just looking at business. We’re looking at the whole climate of the county, which does impact economic development. We’re looking at education, infrastructure, including things like transportation and the consolidation of services."
Rutley: "And public safety."
SBT: So, with all the new emphasis on regional cooperation, and the Milwaukee 7 project, where does WCAN fit in?
Farrow: "We pattern ourselves after the Greater Milwaukee Committee. We want to make things happen. That’s why ‘Action’ is in our name. Our focus is to be on what’s good for Waukesha County as part of the region. We clearly are not trying to be parochial.
"For example, when we met with Tim Sheehy (president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce) and Julia Taylor (president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee) and their presidents, they said that up to this point, there’s been no one they can contact (in Waukesha County) on an issue that was regional, like the Zoo Interchange, for example, or water. They wanted to have somebody collaborate with them in Waukesha County. By default, the first call they made was to (former Waukesha County Executive) Dan Finley, historically. There wasn’t a counterpart in Waukesha County.
SBT: So, the other chambers in Waukesha County, were they suspicious of you at first?
Farrow: "Oh, I think there’s a level of that. I think even now. They want to serve their members. What we have to do as the new kid on the block is to prove our value, not only to the county, but to them. For example, on this U.W. merger issue, we’ve offered to ultimately down the road make a presentation to their general membership, which will have them serving the interests of their membership without them having to put forth the energy themselves."
Rutley: "As we get out and speak with the chambers and other organizations, I think they’re beginning to see what differentiates us from Bill’s group or the chambers, is that we’re really looking at broader public policy issues. Bill’s doing more in the sense of traditional economic development, and Patti’s county chamber and other chambers are to promote with business and networking and the things that they do. What we’re taking on, again in consultation with the chambers and economic development, are issues that will benefit everybody overall, but are issues that don’t fit their mission. They fit ours."
SBT: Let’s look at the U.W.-Waukesha merger issue as a case study. How do you get to the point where you say, "This is the stance we’re going to take on this issue?" What is the procedure?
Farrow: "Right now, we’ve got a very busy working board. Our bylaws are very carefully put in place and put in place by design. The organization is never going to be huge."
SBT: Quality over quantity?
Farrow: "Exactly. The board, for example … Let’s start at the beginning. The board will endorse an issue. Then a subcommittee of the board volunteers to carry the issue, to research it, to do the interviews, to go out and do the legwork. On those subcommittees, by design, we can ask others to come on board. Our membership will not include public officials, but it is in those subcommittee operations that we’re hoping to partner with public officials and have them join us in some of this. Then we came up with our findings, which we scrutinized as a board, and the board had to be comfortable with it. We know we have unique expertise on the board."
SBT: The founding members, they were required to contribute $5,000 or more. That certainly provided seed money to get the thing off the ground. You said your intent is not to become some kind of macro-membership organization. Fiscally, what is the model? How does the organization sustain itself financially?
Farrow: "We have just adopted a membership structure at our last meeting. Again, after a lot of research. Carla pulled a lot of things together. We will have a membership for businesses, for individuals. The membership will be scaled on the number of employees you have in Waukesha County. If you’re a non-Waukesha County member, there will be an associate membership for that. Once we have that membership in place, we will ask them to approve annually what we’re going to say, so they will have a direct voice. And then we will report back to them to put out any findings we have. And we don’t need to get a unanimous vote, because on some of those issues, you’ll have people that are all for it, and others will say, ‘Ahhhh, no …’"
SBT: Well, one issue that comes to mind immediately is Aurora Health Care’s proposed hospital for the Town of Summit. You’re either on one side of the fence or the other with that one. Is that an issue that your organization will be taking a stand on?
Farrow: "No. Because the issue is so gelled, and the battle lines were so drawn before we ever came on the scene. And there are members on our board who have been board members with both groups. We just feel it’s an issue that is already going to be pretty well covered. I mean, Aurora is spending more than any private entity has ever spent for a media blitz before. They’re setting a record. ProHealth (Care) is certainly doing, not that much, but something of the same.
"I guess what we’re looking at are more the issues that nobody else really chews into, issues such as the U.W.-Waukesha. The next issue that we will be putting a report out on is the (emergency) dispatch service of Waukesha County. People still are looking for the justification of the countywide dispatch. Is it good? Is it meeting the needs?"
SBT: Within the notion of advocating for what is best for both Waukesha County and the region … Nothing could be more basic to life than the drinking water supply issue. Is that an issue you will be playing a role in?
Farrow: "I hope so. One of the reasons we haven’t done aggressive research on it is there is other research going on."
SBT: As far as I can tell, from a layman’s point of view, is that the only solutions are going to be either building a pipeline system of water from Lake Michigan to Waukesha County or investing in the creation of expensive filtering to get the radium out of the water that is out there. Both of those options would require a tremendous amount of public taxpayer dollars. I don’t see anyway out of that.
Farrow: "The interesting thing is Milwaukee has a huge surplus of water. The brewers, the malters are gone. They have the water, and you’re right, the pipes are going to be what’s needed. If you look at Lake Michigan, the (surface water) basin goes way inland, except for right here. And right here, you stop at that hill at Sunny Slope. That’s where the basin ends. That basin is based on surface water, whereas ground water follows a different flow.
"I think there’s a way to work through it. We would like Waukesha to ultimately be to Milwaukee something that Milwaukee would be happy to have as a partner."
SBT: I understand exactly what you’re saying. To that point, just the other day, Rep. Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield) said Waukesha County will not be willing to be "junior partner" in any type of regional collaboration. You have John Gard (R-Peshtigo) complaining about his constituents paying taxes for roads and highways in Milwaukee County. My first reaction to those kinds of comments is, "Yeah, there’s regional collaboration."
Farrow: "The problem is, and I was upset to see that too, quite frankly, we can’t do one-upmanship here. We really have to do togetherness. We really do."
SBT: So, Margaret, you’ve served as a village board member, as a village president, as a state senator, as the state’s first female lieutenant governor … That’s a lot of public service. I know you enjoy muskie fishing a lot. Why doesn’t Margaret just retire, take it nice and easy and go muskie fishing? What compels you to continue to serve?
Farrow: "I’ll quote my husband. He says I love to quilt and I love to muskie fish. And every now and then, I say to John, ‘I really wish I could just quilt.’ And he says, ‘Yeah, that would be good for two weeks.’ (Laughs) I don’t want to hang it up and just muskie fish. Although, I’d like to catch one this year. I didn’t catch one last year."
Waukesha County Action Network (WCAN)
"To evaluate unique issues of public interest and recommend improvements towards efficient delivery of services."
Aurora Health Care, C.G. Schmidt Construction Inc., Century Fence, Chase Bank, Country Springs Hotel, Fabco Cat, Godfrey & Kahn, Halquist Stone Co., Husco International, InPro Corp., NAI-MLG, Novo 1, Pabst Development Inc., Pabst Farms, ProHealth Care, Ruekert-Mielke, Roundy’s Supermarkets Inc., Spancrete Group Inc. and Wauwatosa Savings Bank.
President Margaret Farrow, former Wisconsin lieutenant governor; vice president J. Michael Mooney of NAI-MLG; vice president Don Fundingsland, retired president of ProHealth Care; secretary Saul Winsten of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C.; and treasurer William Milke, Ruekert-Mielke.