John Dickert has been Racine's mayor since 2009. This summer, he’ll abandon that post to take a job with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities initiative.
The organization represents mayors from more than 120 American and Canadian cities.
Last January inside Racine City Hall, Dickert addressed a swarm of journalists. They were there to learn about the contentious plan allowing the City of Waukesha to divert drinking water from Lake Michigan.
Dickert has been an outspoken critic of the plan, but prefaced his comments by expressing pride in his Racine heritage. “Our family has been here since 1880, so this is us, we have very, very deep roots here,” he said.
Dickert has continued to insist that the health of Racine residents and its waters could suffer under the diversion. Waukesha plans to treat the lake water it uses, and then return it via the Root River. It makes its way through Racine, on its path to Lake Michigan.
Dickert loaded on worries about a declining fate of Racine's prize-winning North Beach. “I’m talking about my people, that’s who I’m sworn to protect and that’s what I’m going to do. And if some people don’t like what I have to say about it, it’s fine. But I’m representing the 80,000 people I represent in this city, and I’m doing my best to do that,” he said.
At the time, Dickert was simply a board member of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. It works to protect the massive water resource, and is challenging the Waukesha water diversion, which all eight Great Lakes governors approved.
Now, three months later with a new career on the horizon, Dickert has ratcheted down his tone a notch or two. Yet he’s no less concerned.
“The next mayor – whoever that would be – I hope would work as hard as they could to protect the citizens of Racine….we need far better monitoring and we need the results and we need that done by professionals,” Dickert says.
When Dickert takes the helm at the Cities Initiative, its board will dictate his actions. But he believes education will be essential to protecting the Great Lakes.
“We have to constantly educate - not only our people, but also the legislative bodies on why it’s important and what it means if you don’t protect it,” Dickert says.
Dickert says the lead contamination and mismanagement that surfaced in Flint, Michigan has been a painful but powerful educational tool. “The people of Flint have had to suffer through a bunch of horrible decision making processes, but the people of the planet have come to realize from it that this is precious, very fragile system. And if you don’t protect it, look what can happen,” he says.
Dickert says the danger of lead in drinking water is a drop in the bucket when it comes to threats facing Great Lakes communities.
He hopes to sway decision-makers through lessons he’s learned at home. Racine invested years and massive sums of money to clean up and keep its North Beach swimmable. Now it draws crowds and revenue.
“It’s a $5 million dollar value for me per year, than what does it mean for all of the other beaches along the Great Lakes. But more importantly, what does it mean if the beach is polluted and I’m not getting that money in and if you don’t fix it, it may cost 100 times more later,” Dickert says.
Dickert anticipates turning in his keys at Racine City Hall early in July, and in the next breath will catch a train to Chicago for his new job.
It will become a regular commute. "C’mon!" He says, "My family goes back six generations in Racine."