Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna champions culture of acceptance and respect during his 24 years in office
APPLETON – Tim Hanna certainly has a couple of strange bookends to his 24-year career as Appleton mayor.
His arrival was anything but smooth. He seemingly lost the 1996 mayoral election to incumbent Richard “Reg” DeBroux and then won it in a recount. Hanna lost it again in circuit court before an appellate court declared him the winner.
“The election was in March, and I got sworn in in November,” Hanna recalled. “I didn’t exactly come in with a mandate.”
Hanna’s departure was no less bizarre. His last Common Council meeting earlier this month was Appleton’s first virtual council meeting as the world copes with the coronavirus pandemic and safer-at-home orders.
In between the bookends, Hanna became the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history. He presided over nearly 600 council meetings. He promoted and defended community facilities like the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center and the Fox Cities Exhibition Center. He guided extensive development on the city’s north and southeast sides. He influenced and celebrated Appleton’s evolving, thriving downtown.
Hanna said he hopes his greatest accomplishment, though, is how he shaped the culture of Appleton into one of acceptance, diversity and inclusion.
“That’s what I want to be remembered for, creating that culture where it’s OK to disagree because in the end, we all live together, and we all need to respect each other,” Hanna told The Post-Crescent.
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Hanna, 63, didn’t seek re-election this spring and will be succeeded by Jake Woodford, who defeated former Alderman James Clemons in the April 7 election for a four-year term as mayor.
After leaving office, Hanna will become the executive director of the Local Government Institute of Wisconsin, a nonprofit corporation created to educate the public and policymakers on ways to improve local government services.
“I have a passion for local government,” Hanna said, “and I still have a lot of energy in that direction.”
‘We’re in good financial shape’
Hanna said he feels good about how he’s leaving the city and would be available to assist with the transition to Woodford. He endorsed Woodford as his successor in the days leading up to the election.
“We’re in good financial shape,” Hanna said. “The culture I don’t think has ever been better. We’ve got great employees. They know what the city’s mission is, and they know how their job relates to us accomplishing that mission. They’re passionate about what we do. They’re proud to work for the city. Those are things I wanted to accomplish when I first started.”
Hanna worked with 74 council members and 43 department directors in his 24 years as mayor. He led the city through the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Great Recession and the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
He oversaw the 1,032-acre Purdy annexation on the north side of Appleton that increased the city’s land by 10% and watched the southeast section of the city rise to prominence, first with Walmart and then with Southpoint Commerce Park.
“When I started, there was nothing on the southeast side,” he said.
During his tenure, Hanna served as president of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities. He said Appleton has been a leader in cooperative agreements with its neighbors and that cities around the state look to Appleton for guidance.
In short, Hanna tried to make Appleton the gold standard for local government.
“Part of my philosophy is you need to understand best practices, but the goal is to be the best practice,” he said. “That means you have to be open to change, be open to risks and be open to try different things.”
‘What a mess that was’
Not every project under Hanna’s leadership went as planned.
Appleton’s $54 million water plant, touted as a state-of-the-art facility with ultrafiltration tubes when it opened in 2001, failed to produce at its promised capacity and required fixes totaling millions of dollars.
“What a mess that was for a while,” Hanna said. “But we learned our lesson. We rolled our sleeves up and fixed what needed to be fixed.”
Hanna and Appleton also came under fire from neighboring communities in 2017 for arranging a series of private loans to finance the Fox Cities Exhibition Center. The loan package carried an adjustable interest rate and was rejected by Appleton’s municipal partners, who opted for revenue bonds with a fixed interest rate.
Hanna, though, has no regrets.
“Have we made mistakes over the years? Absolutely,” he said, “But you don’t grow if you’re not willing to take risks and make mistakes and learn from them.”
Two other major projects — striking a deal to bring U.S. Venture’s headquarters to downtown Appleton and the construction of a new $34 million public library — have stalled in Hanna’s final term in office and will pass to Woodford’s administration.
Hanna is confident the U.S. Venture project will come to fruition.
“U.S. Venture wants to be downtown, and we want them to be downtown,” he said. “If we all agree on that, then we can come to a common position that will get us there.”
Hanna leaves legacy of diversity
Hanna hesitated when asked to assess his imprint on Appleton.
“There are going to be some people who are going to say, ‘Thank God he’s gone,'” Hanna quipped. “About 30%.”
After some thought, he returned to the culture he has fostered. He talked about collaboration, acceptance, diversity, inclusion, dignity and respect.
“When I became mayor, my goal was to change the culture of our organization to one that maybe the next person wouldn’t want to change, and I feel like we’ve accomplished that,” he said.
Karen Nelson, Appleton’s diversity and inclusion coordinator, said Hanna made racial equality a priority during his first term as mayor and helped establish the coordinator position in 1997. At the time, Appleton had a growing Hmong community that felt marginalized.
The position since has expanded to serve as a liaison to other refugee groups and to the Hispanic, African-American and LGBTQ+ communities.
“I can say with great certainty that diversity is definitely the legacy of Mayor Hanna,” Nelson said. “Not only did he say yes initially, but that position now has actually been moved to the mayor’s office.”
Alderwoman Patti Coenen credited Hanna for always having “the best interest at heart.”
“People don’t do jobs like this because the pay is so great,” Coenen said. “They do it because it’s a passion.”
Basketball setback leads to new interest
As Hanna reflected on his years at the helm, he was ready with the story of how he became mayor.
“The short answer is I got cut from the basketball team in high school,” he said. “So I blame (junior varsity coach) Ron Parker, and he knows it, because I’ve told him that.”
Hanna’s goal as a sophomore at Appleton West High School was to make the basketball team. After tryouts, he was the last player cut.
At a loss of what to do, a friend suggested he join a YMCA program called Youth and Government. Hanna wasn’t particularly interested but agreed because participants got to stay overnight in Madison.
“Sophomore in high school, overnight to Madison — sounds like a good time to me,” Hanna said.
Youth and Government is a mock legislature in which students propose and debate bills in the Capitol. Hanna wrote a bill to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving from .15% to .10%. The year was 1973.
Hanna’s bill not only passed, but he also was selected as one of 12 Wisconsin students to attend a national conference.
“All I did was stand up and say what I thought,” he said. “That’s how my interest in good government started.”
Contact Duke Behnke at 920-993-7176 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DukeBehnke.
Timeline of Hanna elections
Tim Hanna is undefeated in eight Appleton elections.
Source: The Post-Crescent archives
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