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People v. Money in Fond du Lac

Lighthouse at Lakeside Park, Fond du Lac. Photo by gobucks2/flickr

It’s a tale of big money, citizen outrage, and complicit politicians, all fighting over the fate of an iconic Wisconsin park.

Often referred to as the crown jewel of Fond du Lac, Lakeside Park is so iconic that its lighthouse is in the city logo. This landmark, built in 1933, sits inside a park whose open green space and trees have provided treasured family memories for generations of Fond du Lac residents.

Now this public space is targeted by a private investors group ready to spend $5.2 million to construct a restaurant on Lighthouse Peninsula as well as a large amphitheater on Oven Island. The project would forever change the historic park that graces the shores of Lake Winnebago.

In response, Fond du Lac residents took action to oppose development of the park, through a Facebook group of 3,700 members, a Change.org petition now up to 2,676 signatures, and testimony to City Council. More than 300 have left comments about the proposal on the city’s website, the vast majority against developing the park.

When none of that worked, Friends of Lakeside Park stepped up action. The citizens group gathered thousands of signatures on a legal petition to put any development at Lakeside Park to a vote of the people, through a procedure in Wisconsin known as a 9.20 petition.

Under Wisconsin’s 9.20 statutes, citizens can enact direct city ordinances by gathering signatures from at least 15 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election. Friends of Lakeside Park did that, gathering 3,039 signatures on a petition regarding the restaurant proposed for Lighthouse Peninsula and 2,967 signatures on a petition regarding the amphitheater proposed for Oven Island.

In both cases, the petitions would have required any developments at Fond du Lac’s crown jewel park to be voted on by the people of Fond du Lac. It wouldn’t necessarily stop such developments but would vest decision-making authority in the people rather than donors working with city officials.

Sadly, Fond du Lac city government seems determined to ram through the plan to develop Lakeside Park regardless of citizen input. On October 14, City Council rejected the petitions from Friends of Lakeside Park by a vote of 4-2, with one abstention.

City attorney Deb Hoffman advised the petitions were not proper because direct legislation cannot be used to repeal an existing ordinance — in this case Resolution 8859 to begin planning toward the Lakeside Park development plan, passed by City Council in February.

But Mary Beth Peranteau, attorney for the citizens group, disagrees. She points out the direct legislation supported by thousands of Fond du Lac citizens would not repeal Resolution 8859 but simply put it to a vote of the people.

Further, Peranteau argues, the development plan is still subject to design review and code approvals. “No plans have been submitted for approval and no funds committed to the implementation of the plan. Ultimately the effect of the direct legislation proposed by the Friends would be to add another approval requirement” – approval by the people of Fond du Lac.

So why is Fond du Lac City Council trying so hard to deny its own citizens a vote on the fate of its most iconic public park?

The answer, in short, is money. In particular, City Council members are worried that if they don’t quickly approve the proposal for private development of Lakeside Park, in the words of Council Member Ben Giles, “the money will walk.”

Indeed, the investors group is threatening to pull its $5.2 million if the controversy doesn’t reach a conclusion soon. “There have been some donors who have really expressed reluctance who keep their money allocated if there is not some certainty provided,” spokeswoman Sadie Parafiniuk said.

From where we sit, this looks an awful lot like blackmail. City Council members were elected by the people to serve the best interests of the people — and a large citizens group in Fond du Lac has clearly indicated they do not want this proposed development in Lakeside Park.

There is no reason why the restaurant could not go in a different location, either on the west side of Lakeside Park or inland along Harbor View Drive. The reason these alternate locations were not proposed is private investors want the lakeview next to the lighthouse and nearby boat slips. But such a location is not required for them to do business.

The proposed location also brings up two practical matters. First, is building a new restaurant really the right thing to do in the middle of a pandemic, when current restaurants in Fond du Lac are barely hanging on? Wouldn’t that money be better spent on helping existing businesses in Fond du Lac that are struggling?

And second, why is the city rushing to build a restaurant in the middle of a flood plain? Most of Lakeside Park is in either a 500-year or 100-year floodplain — but as we have seen, with climate change, century floods are starting to happen every few years. The floods of March 2019 are still fresh in the memories of many in Fond du Lac.

Big money shouldn’t be able to dictate all the terms of engagement with a city. City leaders should be acting on behalf of the people who elected them, and city residents should have the final word on what happens to public space their tax dollars support.

Friends of Lakeside Park has now filed legal action against the city over the rejection of their 9.20 petitions, and they need your help to pay attorney’s fees. You can support them by donating here.