If District 1 Alderperson Bill Siebers could sum up his life story in one word, it would be “sure.”
Siebers has served on the Appleton Common Council since he was first elected in the 1970s. He was born and raised in Appleton and has lived in the same neighborhood his entire life, excluding his college years. Siebers attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he majored in business.
Though he initially planned on studying in Europe and becoming an attorney, a research opportunity in college shifted his focus. While researching discretionary sentencing, where judges consider individual circumstances so that two people who committed the same crime could receive two drastically different sentences, Siebers met with prison wardens and inmates and got observe courtroom proceedings. He felt that he had to do something to give back to the inmates that helped him succeed in his research and at school. He learned about a priest in Appleton, Timon Costello, who had started a halfway home to help recently released inmates integrate back into society.
When Siebers returned to Appleton, the priest offered him a position helping to run the halfway house. Siebers said “sure.” According to Siebers, the job was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and he only earned $400 or so after a month of work. Although it wasn’t a high-paying job, Siebers is grateful to the priest for giving him the opportunity to follow his interests. After his work at the halfway house was noticed by a state worker, he was offered a job helping to keep at-risk young people out of the criminal justice system. Siebers and the other staff, which included four Lawrence students, rented two houses — Waples House and Meridian House — from Lawrence University.
“Were it not for Lawrence University and the students who staffed our first home, I would not have had this opportunity, and the youth that we did help may have likely ended up in an institution,” Siebers said. “Lawrence University…has played an important role in the quality of life of this city.”
Siebers recalled that the Mayor of Appleton at the time, Jim Sutherland, was up for reelection around the time these houses were opened. One of Sutherland’s staffers put a campaign sign on the property, and the residents of the house felt that it was disrespectful, so they tore down the sign and all the other signs in the neighborhood and burned them. When Sutherland’s father came by to complain the next day, Siebers used it as a teaching opportunity to teach his residents about respect, and they agreed to put new signs up. After Sutherland was reelected, he suggested to Siebers that he run for an open seat on the common council. Siebers said “sure.”
Siebers was reelected in 2021, defeating progressive challenger Wendy Bolm. Siebers, who is more moderate, said that he appreciated Bolm as an opponent because they stuck to the issues and added that he often found himself agreeing with them. Although he does not always agree with his colleagues, he spoke highly of them, including progressive alderpersons Denise Fenton, Nate Wolff and Vered Meltzer, as well as conservative alderpersons Chad Doran and Sheri Hartzheim.
For many of his colleagues, that respect is mutual. Siebers sits next to Meltzer, who is Wisconsin’s first openly transgender elected official. Siebers admitted that gender identity was a largely taboo topic in the society he grew up in. He feels that, although he did not grow up talking about, learning about and knowing transgender people, sitting next to Meltzer has given him an opportunity to learn more and grow.
“Just because I’ve been around a lot doesn’t mean I don’t have much to learn,” said Siebers. “I do have a lot to learn, and I’ve grown in my respect for [the other alderpersons].”
When he was first elected, Siebers remembers being taken aback by the intensity of the policy discussions on the council floor, while at the same time observing those same alderpersons going out together for drinks after arguing. He feels that this spirit is missing from politics today. Although he does not believe in personal attacks, he has strong opinions on city policy, and he believes that it’s important to debate these issues.
Siebers also sees the importance of respecting peoples’ identities. Although he understands that Appleton still has a long way to go, he recalled growing up in an Appleton that was extremely segregated. Black players on the baseball team weren’t allowed to share facilities with the white players, and Hmong migrants were mistreated when they first arrived in Wisconsin in large numbers.
“When I was growing up in Appleton, we were a very, very, very segregated city,” Siebers said. “We had a baseball team called the Fox City Foxes…there were Black people on the team, it was fine, but after the season was over, they were told to leave.”
He also recalled incidents when a member of the Hmong community would get a new car or a house and people would scornfully question how they could possibly afford it without getting to know them.
Siebers appreciates the diversity in District 1 and hopes that his constituents can appreciate it too, instead of feeling that it’s a bad thing. He spoke fondly about his neighbors, which have included a gay couple, two Black men and a Puerto Rican family.
One of Siebers’s top issues is the integrity of Appleton’s neighborhoods. According to him, Appleton’s neighborhoods have aged, and over the years, the amount of housing owned by the occupant has decreased, while the number of absentee landlords has increased. Siebers clarified that he believes most landlords care about their properties and their tenants, but there’s a significant minority who only care about money, whom he characterized as “a thorn in my side.” He feels that the integrity of the neighborhood is affected positively by the existence of schools and police.
Although Siebers believes that it’s important to support the police, he feels that it’s also important for those officers to make an effort to build connections with communities, especially minority communities, by reaching out during times when there isn’t an emergency happening. He feels that these connections are crucial for public safety.
“Is having more police officers going to improve public safety?” Siebers asked rhetorically. “One would think so. But then again, you can have…the right amount of police officers that don’t have a community connection and then…you have a George Floyd type of incident.”
He added that Appleton’s police department now has a social worker on the force, a move that he agrees with because he feels that there are some situations that can be better addressed by a trained social worker than an armed police officer.
Siebers also wants to address Appleton’s infrastructure. According to him, much of the plumbing in his district is over a century old and isn’t being maintained properly. He worries that waiting to fix roads and pipes until they’re broken, rather than maintaining them consistently, is more costly and saps resources that could be better applied toward important sustainability projects.
He also wants to address Appleton’s budget problems. According to him, in the 1990s, the state government put a cap on municipal tax increases and promised to share state tax revenue with the municipalities. However, in Siebers’ opinion, the state hasn’t contributed a fair share. He wants to come up with more creative solutions to keep the city funded that don’t rely on perpetual borrowing.
Siebers currently chairs the Municipal Services Committee and serves on the Finance Committee.
In Siebers’s eyes, politics is personal. He told the story of his late wife, who died years ago near the end of her pregnancy. Siebers said that the city at the time had decided to end the city’s ambulance services. His wife suffered a heart attack and due to the delay in getting her medical attention, she died after spending seven weeks with her husband in the hospital.
“I think we’re getting to the point where we’re going to be getting back into ambulance service,” Siebers said. “I regret that I lost that fight, and I’m hoping to be around to fight another day.”