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posted: 5/26/2014 8:00 AM

New Wauconda mayor gives himself a 'C'

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  • Video: Mayor Bart's first year

  • Frank Bart

      Frank Bart

  • Frank Bart has bounced from one political battle to another since being sworn into office as Wauconda's mayor in May 2013.

       Frank Bart has bounced from one political battle to another since being sworn into office as Wauconda's mayor in May 2013.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
 

Of all the new Lake County mayors elected in 2013, Wauconda's Frank Bart had the most controversial rookie year.

Bart has bounced from one public battle to another during the past 12 months, from fights over personnel changes to disputes about the village's water supply.

Of course, there have been some positive developments, too.

Wauconda officials finished plans for a special taxing district near routes 176 and 12 that should raise money for future public improvements. They also hired a new village administrator and have worked to bolster the local economy with a hotel study and other maneuvers.

When asked to grade his freshman performance, Bart acknowledged things haven't gone smoothly.

"I think (we earned) a C," he told the Daily Herald. "We've had successes, but we've also had failures that we need to address."

Now that his second year as mayor is under way, Bart is looking to build teamwork between himself and the trustees with whom he serves.

"We know that there are issues," he said. "We need to work more effectively together and we need to communicate more effectively together."

But one of Bart's most vocal critics questioned the mayor's sincerity when it comes to changing his style.

"I just don't think he has a pulse on what he needs to be doing for this town," local business owner Maria Weisbruch said.

Narrow victory

Bart, 44, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve who served in the Middle East, defeated incumbent Mark Knigge in the April 2013 mayoral election. It was a tight race -- Bart won by a mere 33 votes.

Bart promptly came under fire from residents who criticized his decisions and his political intentions.

In June, the ouster of police Chief Douglas Larsson drew community outrage and public protests.

That was followed by the sudden departure of village administrator and finance director Zaida Torres in July. Bart's decision to name Sgt. Patrick Yost as police chief without getting the village board's vote and his ongoing push to close the police department's 911 dispatch center are among other controversies.

Week after week, village board meetings have been packed with angry residents. Three meetings were shifted to the cafeteria at nearby Wauconda High School to accommodate larger-than-usual audiences.

Weisbruch, who owns Bliss Wine & Gifts on Main Street, addresses the board at nearly every meeting when it's time for public comments. She's not surprised by the sizable turnouts.

"I think it shows how passionate this town is," Weisbruch said. "If I was in his position, I'd take note of it."

The biggest dispute erupted in September, when the Central Lake County Joint Action Water Agency said it no longer would consider Wauconda for membership because of the village's continued delays and other issues. Agency board members specifically blamed Bart, as did Wauconda's trustees and the public.

The agency has since reconsidered, and a deal to bring Lake Michigan drinking water to town is nearing completion -- but only after Bart agreed to stay out of the process.

Although he said a lot of the controversy regarding the water plans has been "political theater," Bart acknowledged the poor communication that led to the deal's temporary collapse.

"We could have been better synced on that," Bart said. "I'm happy that we've moved past that now and are on the right track."

'Lead by consensus'

Bart blamed some of his early missteps as mayor on his initial approach to the job.

"My experience is leading from the front," he said. "But that really doesn't suit village government. You have to lead by consensus."

Take the police chief controversy.

Bart was behind Larsson's dismissal from the police department. He publicly claimed he wanted Larsson gone to save the town money.

Bart made several other unilateral personnel changes in his early days on the job, too, including doing away with an environmental quality director he said was unnecessary.

"I hit the ground running," Bart said.

But Larsson was popular with residents and business owners, and Bart's choice for a successor, Sgt. Patrick Yost, immediately drew criticism from the community.

Rather than asking trustees to approve Yost's promotion, Bart named him interim police chief -- a move that doesn't require a board vote.

The maneuver drew public criticism. Some people in town still derisively refer to Yost as the "interim" chief when they talk about him in social media.

So, when it later came time to find a new village administrator, Bart took a more democratic approach and involved the board in the search and hiring process.

Doug Maxeiner eventually got the job.

"That way, the board had a hand in it," Bart said. "They walked through every step of the process together."

Trustee John Barbini, who has occasionally butted heads with Bart over issues in the past year, agreed on the need for teamwork.

The big lesson of the past year, Barbini said, is "to listen to advice and to be flexible enough to take that input and move forward."

"I would call it a learning year," he said. "Not just for the mayor but for all of us."

Ending dysfunction

Bart's critics have taken full advantage of the public-comment portions of meetings, peppering him with questions and comments about his job performance. Heckling and snide comments occasionally can be heard in the audience.

For the most part, Bart has allowed people to express their feelings at meetings without interruption. He typically responds or answers questions, too.

Still, he believes people should be able to disagree "without being disagreeable."

"You can have disagreement in a way that's respectful to each other without creating dysfunction," Bart said. "That's really what we have to work on."

Courtesy aside, Bart said he has three primary goals for the next year: improving Wauconda's financial stability; implementing a strategic plan that will cover economic development, public safety and the Lake Michigan water proposal, among other elements; and building the feeling of community in town.

When he ran for office, Bart told people he intended to serve only one term as mayor. When asked if he's thinking about running again, Bart said no.

"What I'm thinking (about) is getting this community on the right path, and I don't think we're there," he said. "We've gotten some things accomplished ... but there's a lot of work to be done."

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