Mayor Jason Gonzalez believes two years of economic development can win him re-election. Challenger and Ald. Aaron Richardson (Dist. 3) hopes voters will appreciate his long-term commitment to the city.

That, and other key contrasts, were on display at the Feb. 20 mayoral forum hosted by the Fitchburg Star.

With about 25 people in attendance in council chambers at City Hall, the candidates spent around 90 minutes answering questions about some of the biggest issues likely to come up in the one-year term they’re running for on the April 2 ballot.

The length of that term, part of facilitating a staggered election cycle in the future, set up one of the first disagreements of the night.

Gonzalez has previously said he would not run for re-election to the three year term that will follow, but he changed course Feb. 20.

“Politics is politics, I can’t say for sure I won’t run,” Gonzalez said. “I will consider 2020 when that time comes.”

Richardson, during his answer to a question about the term length, stressed that he will run for re-election if he’s elected this year, and said stopping after the one-year term would be “bailing in the middle” of long-term projects.

Richardson focused his campaign announcement in the fall – and again Feb. 20 – on three main priorities as mayor: the scheduled comprehensive plan rewrite, negotiations on the Town of Madison dissolution scheduled for 2022 and leadership.

“You want someone that has that long-term commitment to Fitchburg, someone who’s going to be here long-term,” Richardson said during his closing statement. “Someone who you can be proud of as mayor, and someone who isn’t going to bring a lot of controversies to the role.”

Those controversies, or “negative headlines” as Richardson referred to them earlier in the discussion, have included some clashes between Gonzalez and residents, as well as the recent news reports about Gonzalez’s conduct in 2007 while at the Oregon Fire Department.

Gonzalez defended his leadership record and said it’s been a challenging council to work with at times over the past two years.

“This council has been less than respectful to residents, to developers, to business leaders,” he said.

He added that he’s had to reach out to city staff after some meetings to apologize for how they were treated. Richardson said the behavior of the council “really starts with the mayor,” who needs to “be a leader.”

“It’s embarrassing for me when I sit up here and there’s some of these things going on,” Richardson said. “You really need to be that leader that is holding other people accountable and setting the standard. I think the standard can be raised.”

Development

Gonzalez touted the development the city has seen over the past two years, specifically mentioning Phoenix Neutron Imaging Center building its headquarters on Lacy Road and a “huge project” coming from Meriter on the city’s north side.

“These are family-sustaining jobs,” Gonzalez said. “We are at an exciting time in which we’re seeing hundreds of millions of dollars invested in Fitchburg.”

Richardson credited city staff, rather than the mayor, for working with developers and businesses to bring them here, and said he supported the use of tax-increment financing when necessary, though he does not want to “give away the farm for businesses to come in.” He stressed the importance of the mayor being at meetings with potential developers as often as possible.

He specifically mentioned bringing more retail to the city in a campaign ad in February, as well.

Gonzalez rebutted, saying retail jobs did not pay well enough, and he wanted to “dream big.”

“We put in for Amazon’s second headquarters. We put in for Foxconn’s Dane County location,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve reached for the stars, and we will continue to reach high under my administration.”

He added that the work on the city’s northeast side is the beginning of what he hopes can come to the rest of the city – specifically, redevelopment in the North Fish Hatchery Road corridor, which he described as “our gateway” and a potential “destination point.”

Housing

That redevelopment could be a challenge to balance with something both candidates agreed is a need here: affordable housing.

Richardson, who was part of the committee that helped create the recently approved Fitchburg Housing Study, advocated for allowing the Dane County Housing Authority to operate in Fitchburg – something the city has resisted in the past.

“They have access to funding that we don’t have as a city,” Richardson said.

Gonzalez disagreed, expressing a concern that the city would lose some “autonomy” with such a step, but he acknowledged a need to add workforce housing and senior housing. Both candidates agreed keeping TIF districts open for an extra year and using that money for affordable housing investment was a good strategy.

Where that housing could go will be part of the comprehensive plan process set to begin this year. The candidates both said it will be an important process, but Richardson said the city “should build less apartments,” based on what he’s heard from residents.

“When you’re building a neighborhood, you can’t have more apartment units than owner-occupied units in that area,” he suggested.

Gonzalez defended renters, saying many are “engaged citizens in this community,” and he said there needs to be a “multitude of affordable housing options.”

“We need to really look at a comprehensive approach as to how we’re gonna grow this city to be inclusive,” he said. “We need to work on our affordability in this plan.”

Town of Madison

One of the starkest differences between the candidates was their plans for the Town of Madison.

The 150 acres and 1,500 residents in the Rimrock Road area set to become part of the City of Fitchburg in 2022 would add both tax revenue and potential services costs.

It was part of the reasoning behind the location of the new fire station under construction on the city’s east side at Clayton and Syene roads, and Richardson said the revenue was outweighed by the cost.

He said he’d like to “look at other options” for the land, including having the City of Madison take it over. He suggested a potential swap with land in the North Fish Hatchery Road corridor, or even just giving it away.

Gonzalez said the town land offered “a lot of opportunities,” and said changing the 2003 agreement is challenging, anyway, given that it involves three parties.

“I’m committed to the Town of Madison,” he said.

Discussions of a change came up two years ago, but Town of Madison officials made financial demands the cities considered unreasonable – including that their staff be offered jobs of the same level in the city governments.

Richardson said he was concerned about the potential costs to serve the area with public safety, and he said some of the lower-income housing there could be a challenge.

“We’re not doing enough with those parts of the City of Fitchburg as it is right now,” he said.

Contact Scott Girard at ungreporter@wcinet.com and follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.