Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Rare Challenge to River Hills Incumbents

Challengers oppose development plan, charge that board too secretive and Milwaukee Country Club dominates village.

By - Apr 4th, 2022 02:13 pm
Peter A. Stanford and Gene Braaksma.

Peter A. Stanford and Gene Braaksma.

The 2020 purchase of the 53-acre Eder Farm by the Village of River Hills for $2 million and a change in zoning to allow 60 homes on the parcel faced overwhelming opposition in the community. Due to tax levy limits and increasing costs trustees felt they had no option but to acquire and develop the property, the largest vacant parcel in the wealthy village of 1,500 residents, most of whom live in single-family homes on 5-acre lots.

Citizens allied with Save River Hills, a group formed to maintain the status quo in the village, objected not only to the decision of the board, but in the manner in which it proceeded. After a lawsuit to stop the development failed, opponents proposed Direct Legislation in the matter. A writ of mandamus to compel the board to comply is in court awaiting further action after the election for two village trustees Tuesday.

A Rare Challenge to Two Incumbents

River Hills Board incumbents rarely face challengers, but this year the two on the ballot have drawn opposition. The village has a six-member board, elected for staggered three-year terms, as well as a president. Current trustee R. David Fritz, Jr. is a Financial Representative for Northwestern Mutual. He attended the University School of Milwaukee, Phillips Andover Academy and is a graduate of Williams College. Fritz is a Past President of the Milwaukee Country Club, where he holds a handicap of 7. His fellow board member up for re-election is Christopher B. Noyes, a third-generation resident of the village. He is also a Williams grad, with a J.D. from the University of Wisconsin. He is a shareholder in Godfrey & Kahn, Chair of the Nature Conservancy, Wisconsin and is also a member of the Milwaukee Country Club, with a handicap of 15.

The opponents are Peter A. Stanford, 63, an attorney in private practice, and psychologist Gene Braaksma, 73.

I spoke to each challenger in person to find out why such a placid village faces such a contentious election.

Stanford serves on the Plan Commission, chaired by the Village President. He graduated from Washington & Lee University, has a law degree from Saint Louis University School of Law, and was admitted to the Wisconsin Bar in 1987. The Village Board’s actions supporting the Eder Farm plan drew his ire and motivated him to run, he tells me. “Some things are worth fighting for. This is one of them. Yes, I have ruffled some feathers. I am the red-headed stepchild at the Plan Commission meetings.”

According to his website:

The Eder Farm is an excellent example of how far we have fallen as a community with a transparent Government. The Board’s plan, crafted and adopted by the Board, was done so without resident input, contrary to our zoning laws and not in compliance with the Village’s comprehensive plan. Despite opportunities, the Board never placed one issue regarding the Eder Farm’s use up for public input, a free or open exchange of information, or most critically, referendum.

Stanford says the village was obliged in January to adopt the petition for Direct Legislation signed by 289 residents. Instead, the board went into closed session, prompting the subsequent lawsuit. He also mentions that of the six board members, and president of the village, five of the seven are members of the country club, which he says is underassessed. About 8%-14% of the village residents are also members, he says. “The club is the tail wagging the dog. The residents subsidize the Milwaukee Country Club.”

Braaksma has lived in the village for ten years. This is his first run for public office. He got his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Michigan, and a PhD. from Marquette University. He has held a Wisconsin psychologist license since 1986. In addition to the issues at hand, he, too, has problems with the operation of the village. “Eder was the impetus to get more involved,” he tells me. “Eder is symptomatic of how things have been done for a long time. It really woke people up. We need a buy-in for a huge project. Not behind closed doors. … For too long, the Village of River Hills and the Milwaukee Country Club have been synonymous.” Braaksma also fails the village for failing to discuss the entirety of the Eder development, including such unsettled issues as access to municipal water, which would need to come from an adjoining utility, most likely in Mequon.

According to his website:

Gene strongly believes in the importance of openness and transparency. If elected, that transparency will be evident as he commits to being your voice at Village Hall and to conduct less business in closed session.

Noyes, the incumbent, says his personal inclination would have been for the preservation of the Eder Farm in its natural state, but due to the village’s fiscal crisis, he and other board members had no choice but to vote for the purchase and the rezoning. Fritz did not respond to a request for comment. Neither candidate has a website, and both declined to attend a candidate’s forum on March 29th. [Link to forum video.]

Milwaukee Country Club “Is Oligarchic”

The Milwaukee Country Club predated the village which surrounds it. It has been said that the incorporation of River Hills was designed to provide a buffer around the golf course, widely recognized among the Top 100 in the nation. Its governance may have rubbed off on that of the board, where a majority are club members.

According to Legendary Golf Clubs of the American Midwest (2013) by John de St. Jorre and Anthony Edgeworth:

The governance of the Milwaukee Country Club is oligarchic, self-perpetuating, and consensual. Officers and board members are not subject to term limits, although presidents do not serve more than five years. If you are elected to the board, you can stay there until the age of seventy. Committee chairmen sometimes serve for two decades or more. The dictionary defines “committee” as “a body of persons delegated to consider, investigate, take action on, or report on some matter.” Not so at the Milwaukee Country Club. Committees invariably consist of one person, the chairman, and that is that.

For elections, members are presented with a slate of names and send in their proxy votes. They are rarely consulted on anything. A former president and veteran board member could only recall three instances in the club’s long history: when the club was formed (1895); the building of the new clubhouse (1928); and the decision to install the swimming pool (1955). Two other major policy matters, the move to River Hills (1910), and the restoration of the golf course (2008) were taken by the board behind closed doors. “On the face of it, every member has a vote,” he commented. “But voting in a new board is very difficult to do. In fact, it’s impossible.”

In a postscript to an e-mail he sent with the above item, St. Jorre adds, “I had forgotten the passage. … I have just re-read it and was amazed at how retrogressive the governance of the club was, and no doubt still is.”

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