When Al Foeckler took over as Oak Creek mayor following the shocking death of Dick Bolender, he simply wanted to "keep the ship steady times of rough waters."
But with his tenure now about to come to an end, Foeckler admitted the last four months haven't always been smooth sailing.
"Given the time, given the decisions that had to be made, I think the ship definitely moved forward," he said in an interview with Oak Creek Patch.
"But I also have to admit that it did rock, in some people's opinion. But everything was coming to a head at that point. I took it at as an opportunity and a challenge, as opposed to wanting to back down from it."
It was his tie-breaking vote to move the and to the former Delphi site that brought on the most turbulance. that an unelected official made a decision that large, and thought he should have left it to the council until it could reach a majority.
The vote came at the end of a two-hour, sometimes heated discussion on the future of the library and city hall. But it was more complicated than that - it encapsulated the school district, the Delphi redevelopment area, the Civic Center site and a planned business park on Oakwood Road.
It also came two weeks before the primary election for mayor. Two aldermen, Steve Scaffidi and Tom Michalski, were running for the open seat and had staked out their positions. The third candidate, School Board member Mark Verhalen, had done so as well.
In the middle of it was Foeckler, who just two months earlier couldn't have imagined he would be looking at a full house in the council chambers, with residents and city officials anxiously waiting his verdict.
Into the spotlight
Foeckler was no stranger to the inner workings of city government, having served as an Oak Creek alderman from 1999 to 2008. He exited public office when his wife gave birth to their fourth child, and at the start of December 2011, going back into that world was the last thing on his mind, for a variety of reasons:
- His mother was diagnosed with cancer in February of last year and passed away the next month.
- He had four young boys and was heavily involved in their activities, like coaching Little League.
- His wife is wife was pregnant with their fifth child, due at the beginning of March.
- In his work as a personal-injury attorney with Cannon & Dunphy, he was (and remains) deep in litigation over the 2010 O'Donnell Park parking garage collapse that resulted in the death of a 15-year-old boy.
But when Bolender passed away on Dec. 10 at his home, inside of Foeckler rose a sense of civic duty and an urge to help in the time of need.
"I firmly believe - and it's something I want to pass down to my kids - when someone needs help or something needs help, you help out," he said.
"I could just see it at the funeral. There was just a lot of pain and anguish. At that point, there's no question that in that situation, if you can help out, you help out. At whatever level."
Foeckler contacted Oak Creek city staff and let them know he would serve if called upon. On Dec. 20, the Oak Creek Common Council met for the first time since Bolender's death, in an emotional meeting attended by Bolender's family.
Following a tribute to the late mayor, the council began discussions over appointing his replacement. On a 3-2 vote, aldermen , choosing him over former Mayor Dale Richards and Scaffidi, who was serving as acting mayor.
It was the first time the city ever had to fill a vacancy in the mayor's office.
"I don't cherish stepping into this role," Foeckler said after that meeting. "It's simply a means to fill a civic duty brought about tragedy."
While he turned his attention to the city's business, his primary concern was respecting the Bolender family, he said. He kept his swearing-in low key - it was attended only by his family, Oak Creek Patch and a television crew - and spoke with Bolender's family to make sure he proceeded in a respectful way.
"I had lost my mom in March of 2011," he said, "so I knew how hard a loss of a parent was."
Down to business
Awaiting Foeckler were some large issues that had picked up momentum over the previous summer and fall.
Out of three public meetings about the former Delphi site came a - a mix of housing, retail, residential and commercial properties, resembling something of a "Bayshore light."
As a first step, Oak Creek wanted to relocate the library and city hall there. Few disagreed the buildings were aging and needed to be replaced eventually, but opinions differed on where to construct those buildings.
And if those buildings were relocated, a decision would have to be made on the land where those buildings stand now, the Civic Center site at the corner of Puetz and Howell.
So the idea was hatched that instead of building a second high school on 50 acres of empty land on Oakwood Road, as was the current plan, the school district could take ownership of the Civic Center and expand Oak Creek High School. On the 50 acres at Oakwood, meanwhile, could go a business park to be developed by Wispark, which also owned the Delphi site.
Bolender favored the proposal. But Foeckler said he needed to do what he thought was best and not just follow Bolender's lead, a stance supported by Bolender's family.
It just so happened that he agreed with Bolender that the library and City Hall should be moved, he said.
"I didn't feel an obligation to vote a certain way or push issues because I was filling in for Dick or standing in his shoes," he said. "It just happened on that one big issue I shared his complete vision."
Foeckler said he didn't make up his mind until forced to, hoping a tie would be avoided. But looking back, he doesn't have any regrets.
"I couldn't step away from it. I truly believed in it and I knew that, in my mind, that was the right decision," he said.
Foeckler's tie-breaking vote came on Feb. 7.
The next day, the three candidates for mayor participated . Scaffidi, Verhalen and Michalski couldn't get away from constant questions about Foeckler and the council's action from the night before.
Foeckler said Wednesday the timing of the vote so close to an election likely added to its divisiveness. But he said he wasn't bothered by the criticism.
"Whatever decision I would have made in that situation, someone would have been critical. If I wouldn't have broken the tie vote, or if I would have broken it the other way, there would have been people angry with me then," he said.
"I've learned over (my) nine years in local politics to have a pretty thick skin. With the job as attorney, to have a pretty thick skin. I just always firmly believe you do what's right, you make decisions based on what's right."
Less than two weeks later, on Feb. 20, his fifth child - and first daughter - was born.
He presided over that night's council meeting.
"I hadn't gotten much sleep, but hey, that's part of the job and you just roll with it," he said.
Continuing to move ahead
More decisions awaited, decisions some residents disagreed with just as much as the library and City Hall relocation, but ones the council found a consensus on.
The aforementioned land swap with the school district, city and Wispark was . The council also agreed, unanimously, to purchase a 30-acre parcel at the lakefront for the redevelopment effort there.
They are measures that could potentially have a huge impact for years to come. To put another way: the way things are now in Oak Creek won't be the way they are in the future.
"I felt like it was sprinting for a full marathon," Foeckler said. "What was accomplished in that period of time, time-wise, was the time of a sprint. But really, I think there was almost a marthon that was covered."
Foeckler also made news when along with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Racine Mayor John Dickert questioning Waukesha's quest for Lake Michigan water.
And he represented the city at . The company, headquartered in Oak Creek, was highlighted in the president's State of the Union address and again in his visit Feb. 15.
On April 3, Oak Creek voters went to the polls and elected Scaffidi as mayor and retained the three aldermen up for re-election. When they are sworn in Tuesday, Foeckler's brief time as mayor will officially come to an end.
He believes he's leaving a city government that's in a good position fiscally and is excited about the future of Oak Creek, particularly a growing sense of community with the town center's creation.
"I think there's going to be a lot of excitement for younger families, kids, things like that," he said. "Oak Creek is unique in Milwaukee County right now, no question about it."
Foeckler said he'll look back with pride on the things that were done and the activities in which he was able to partake. It's not only the actions the city took, but meeting with two second-grade classes from he'll look back on years later, he said.
It's a job he never wanted, but if it had to happen, he's glad it turned out the way it did.
"I would have preferred to never have had that opportunity because we would all want Dick to be around," he said. "But having had that opportunity, I had a lot of fun."