Rest in Peace, Alderwoman Joanne Suomi
Councilwoman Joanne Suomi, lower right, jokes with fellow council members during a May, 2013 photo shoot. (City-Times photo)
By Patrick Lynn
Stevens Point Councilwoman Joanne Suomi passed away on September 2, leaving behind her a legacy of progressive ideology, fair play and strong sense of community.
Suomi was a teacher at SPASH and also had coached youth sports.
Suomi, who represented the city’s second district, had been suffering from a sudden but undisclosed health problems for several months. She had also served simultaneously as a Portage County Board Supervisor but resigned from that position earlier this year.
At the time, Suomi said the additional workload from her service to the county was too great a stress on her health.
“I had to cut my workload in half. I just had to,” Suomi said in June. “The 10 to 12 meetings each week, it was just real hard. But it was also real hard to make the decision, but it’s one I had to make to keep myself and my family healthy.”
Suomi had been serving her second term as a city councilwoman and had been outspoken on various issues facing the community. She was well-known in her district for her stance on public education, parking regulations, expansion of insurance benefits to domestic partners of municipal employees and the environment.
Suomi would often hold town hall meetings at the city’s Rec Building, where she invited her constituents to meet with her informally to discuss issues. “People don’t always show up,” Suomi said at one such meeting in March of 2013. “But I think it’s my responsibility to make myself available as often as I can to the people who elected me.”
Suomi admittedly spent a lot of time during her first term in the background during City Council meetings, listening and learning procedure. But in 2013 Suomi became a force to be reckoned with over issues she and her constituents found important. In June of last year Suomi lead a movement to expand insurance benefits to domestic partners of city employees. The city approved the measure, with Portage County following suit in 2014.
In December of 2013 she brought her constituents to meet with Community Development Director Michael Ostrowski, Stevens Point Police Chief Kevin Ruder and Scott Schatschneider, director of public works, during an informal town hall meeting. During the two hour meeting Suomi moderated a discussion between frustrated residents and city leaders over lack of on-street parking as well as concerns with illegal parking in the area. Many residents brought potential solutions for the problems which Ruder, Schatschneider and Ostrowski have since taken ideas from to answer the complaints.
Suomi later went on to become the sole no vote over putting the Bus. 51 reconstruction project on the city’s backburner, in favor of focusing on a proposed railroad crossing overpass on County Club Drive. Despite widespread controversy over the Bus. 51 project, Suomi said the remodel was essential to improving safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.
But Suomi wasn’t a one-sided politician. While it could be argued her politics were more liberal than many of the older demographic on the Council, she aligned herself with her conscience and her constituents- which at times meant voting with the majority.
Suomi was, along with much of the Council, torn during talks over the city’s new pay plan- unwilling to do nothing, but unsure that what was presented was the best idea. It was the same with the controversy surrounding a possible sale of Edgewater Manor- the city- owned senior-living apartment complex located along the Wisconsin River.
Suomi moved that the city move forward with collecting proposals from area engineering firms to determine the best fiscal eventuality of the building, which the Council approved.
In March of this year Suomi was appointed to the city’s new Municipal Court Oversight Committee, which helped work out logistics of the new court system. But she was instrumental in bringing together area residents and city leaders to discuss parking problems throughout residential neighbor- hoods surrounding UWSP, of which he district was largely comprised. Suomi followed the goings-on of committees on which she did not serve, including progress of the city’s search for a new fire chief. Her inquiry on that progress was one of her last public statements on the City Council.
Mayor Andrew Halverson was aware of Suomi’s illness, but said last week he had no idea it had progressed so far.
“We were not aware at all of the situation being anywhere near this grave,” Halverson said on Thursday. “So we were extremely surprised. She was a very aggressive about what she stood for.”
Halverson said he last heard from Suomi last Sunday via email. Upon hearing of her death, he informally notified some council members in person during the September 2nd City Plan Commission meeting. “Very sad,” said Alderman Jerry Moore. “I didn’t always agree with her, but I always respected her, and I liked her as a person.”
“Joanne brought an energy to the Common Council that, quite frankly, we don’t see very often,” Halverson added. “Her district is one of the more residential in terms of the density and characteristics of the neighbor- hood; she always had those concerns at the forefront of what she was fighting for. When she would make a stand she would always do her research and then formulate an opinion. The city will miss her.”
Suomi was 57.