Parting Words: Kerry Kincaid

former Eau Claire City Council President Kerry Kincaid talks about her record, her resignation, and Eau Claire’s future

Tom Giffey

Then-Eau Claire City Council President Kerry Kincaid spoke in November 2014 at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Haymarket Landing, the privately-funded, mixed-used component of the Confluence Project in downtown Eau Claire. Kincaid, who resigned in June, said such public appearances were an important part of her role as council president.
Then-Eau Claire City Council President Kerry Kincaid spoke in November 2014 at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Haymarket Landing, the privately-funded, mixed-used component of the Confluence Project in downtown Eau Claire. Kincaid, who resigned in June, said such public appearances were an important part of her role as council president.

In her 25 years in public service, the last nine of them as Eau Claire City Council president, Kerry Kincaid learned that leadership can be both richly rewarding and lonely. As council president, Kincaid not only ran meetings but also served as troubleshooter for city residents and as a de facto city spokesperson. “Of course, one could say no to that, but I didn’t want to, so I started saying yes to everything I was asked to do,” Kincaid said, referring to the countless public appearances she made as Eau Claire’s cheerleader-in-chief. “I learned on my feet to speak about Eau Claire with dignity and passion and intelligence – I hope!” she added with a laugh.

“Leadership is lonely, and one should anticipate a certain amount of loneliness if you’re going to not be one of the crowd, but lead the crowd.” – Kerry Kincaid, former Eau Claire City Council president

Kincaid, who stepped down as City Council president in June, said her story of seeking elective office is a familiar one for many on the local level. In 1993, a friend encouraged her to run for the the Town of Washington Board of Supervisors. She served two terms on the board, then on a variety of public councils and committees, including the City of Eau Claire’s Plan Commission. It was from that position that she first sought a district seat on the Eau Claire City Council in 2003. She lost that race, but was elected to an at-large seat the following year. Until her resignation, she served continuously on the council since 2004, including as council president since 2009.

“I made the job more than it was before,” she said of the presidency, adding that her successors would be well served to maintain the job’s expanded role. (Council Vice President Andrew Werthmann will be acting president until a special election in April.) Yet serving as council president isn’t all ribbon cuttings and optimistic speeches. “Leadership is lonely, and one should anticipate a certain amount of loneliness if you’re going to not be one of the crowd, but lead the crowd,” she said. “That’s a hard lesson to learn. You develop a separation from the other council members, but in the end that serves them well.”

In her resignation announcement, Kincaid listed some of her proudest accomplishments. Chief among them was playing a role in the revitalization of downtown Eau Claire, including the creation of Phoenix Park and the upcoming opening of the Pablo Center at the Confluence. The new arts center is slated to open in September, and although it still faces a funding shortfall, Kincaid is overwhelmingly optimistic that it will succeed.

Other accomplishments cited by Kincaid don’t carry the same high profile, but they are still close to her heart. One is the creation of the Public Spirit Fund, a charitable fund managed by the Eau Claire Community Foundation, which was created to help raise money to pay for public needs identified in the city’s 2012 Waterways Plan. Kincaid also helped found Eau Claire PORCH Inc. – the acronym stands for “Progressive Outreach to Our City’s Homeless” – a newly founded nonprofit that helps provide permanent supportive housing to individuals and families living without homes. Another accomplishment was her advocacy for the creation of the position of Eau Clare poet laureate, now known at the city’s writer in residence.

Finally, Kincaid said she’s proud to have instilled an expectation of civility on the City Council, both between the council and the public and among council members. In many cases, coming before the council on some matter may be the only interaction a member of the public has with his or her elected representatives, Kincaid noted, and she wanted to ensure that the experience was positive.

Kincaid acknowledged that national politics isn’t always a civil affair, but she said there’s still a chance that civility can flourish locally. But will it? “I don’t know,” she answers simply.

As council president, Kincaid often declared that Eau Claire was a “city that works” – the phrase made it into public statements and even her email signature line. But in her resignation statement, Kincaid wrote, “I find it necessary to resign my position as City Council President as it has become impossible to govern in a manner befitting a city that works, and to which the public has become accustomed.”

So is Eau Claire still a city that works? Kincaid pauses to consider her words. “I’ll say this as carefully as I possibly can,” she replies. “In the short term, I think it’s possible that we might not work all that great.”

“I don’t think you’ll ever go wrong if you begin with Eau Claire. You can have vision and hope and dreams for where you’d like her to be. ... But if you always start with where you are, then you’re more honest about what you can do and should do.” – Kerry Kincaid

It was no secret that things had been tense of late on the council. Over the past year, disagreements over council members’ decorum during meetings arose. In particular, Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle’s desire to continue to nurse her young child during meetings led to a successful vote last October, supported by Kincaid, to prohibit children from the council dais during meetings. And in the April election, four incumbents who had a total of 36 years of council experience among them were defeated by a slate of newcomers.

Kincaid said that, in her 14 years on the council, there were times that she disagreed with her colleagues. Nonetheless, she said, they maintained a “working tension” that produced results. However, things changed in recent months, she said. “I think I can say publicity that the last year on the council has been one of growing difficulty,” she said. Eventually, she added, “it became impossible” to do the job. Kincaid asked herself if she could still lead the council effectively under the circumstances. “I found the answer to that was no,” she said. “A lady knows when it’s time to leave. It’s no less sad nonetheless.”

While she is now out of public office, Kincaid intends to continue her involvement in the community. She serves as president of PORCH, and she’s pursuing a doctorate in leadership from the University of St. Thomas. (Her coursework is finished, but she must still complete her dissertation, which is about the Confluence Project.) Kincaid may find herself teaching in the near future, and she also hopes to study the traits of women in leadership roles.

Despite her departure, Kincaid sounds optimistic about the city’s future. Eau Claire is moving forward, but has’t quite reached the “crest of the wave,” she said. In the coming years, community leaders will continue to rebuild the Cannery District, try to solve the puzzle of filling the empty “Block 7” on North Barstow Street, attempt to balance the interests of student renters and long-term homeowners in the Historic Randall Park Neighborhood, pursue the development of a major event center on Menomonie Street, and more. Throughout it all, Kincaid advised city leaders to “be realistic about where we live. We live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, not Paris or Fairchild or Austin.” 

She continued: “I don’t think you’ll ever go wrong if you begin with Eau Claire. You can have vision and hope and dreams for where you’d like her to be. ... But if you always start with where you are, then you’re more honest about what you can do and should do.”

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