Wisconsin has 72 Counties, 190 Cities, 1,246 Towns, and 414 Villages. It takes A LOT of people–more than 70,000 Wisconsinites–to do the nitty-gritty work that keeps our communities ticking. Celestine Jeffreys is one of them.
Celestine Jeffreys | Green Bay, WI
This is one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the U.S. and a big part of our Bay Beach Amusement Park. I said, “Okay, what happened?” A few kids had minor injuries and we put more safety measures in place. I had to make decisions after an hour on the job: to figure out what happened, what we were going to do next, and how we were going to ensure that we don’t have any more injuries for the rest of the summer because it was early June.
That first day was a good indicator of what this job would be like—never knowing what any day was going to bring.
When my husband and I moved here to Green Bay, I was a stay-at-home mom. I wanted to get involved in my new home, get to know my neighbors and be a benefit to the community where I lived. I was going to grow where I was planted. We bought a house in a downtown neighborhood. I went to some city meetings, and a city staff person suggested I start a neighborhood association. I thought that sounded like a good idea.
This was a neighborhood constantly in transition. A lot of the people who lived in the neighborhood sixty or seventy years ago worked at Larsen Canning before that plant closed. Now it is a mix of rentals, young families, and older people. My main project, as head of the neighborhood association, was connecting the residents with the city. How do we get city staff to come and talk to us? How do we better understand what happens in the city? How can we better connect with city services? That is what got me interested in working for local government. I thought, “Well, clearly the next step for me is to get involved in government.” I moved from being a community advocate with the neighborhood to doing it as an elected official. First I became a city alder and then a school board member. In 2016, the mayor asked me to be his chief of staff.
Every day as the chief of staff was a good day because no day was the same. It was exciting work. On any given day I might be dealing with a flood that forced us to reroute a large event, or a debate on fluoride in the water, or publicizing a new ordinance that city residents needed to know about.
One of the strangest days was when a ship ran into CityDeck, a boardwalk along the east side of the Fox River. The Fox River is a working river. I was outside my home doing gardening, and a neighbor came by and said, “Oh my God, a ship ran into CityDeck.” I picked up my phone and called the police commander, who was already down there. Since I only live a few blocks from the river, it was easy for me to get down there and be a point person for the mayor.
People in Wisconsin like their local government; we like the responsiveness of their leaders being personally in touch—the idea that if you pick up the phone, you can potentially talk to the mayor. I think this helps keep our community stable because you have people who are accountable to you as a voter, a taxpayer. You can have a relationship with those who are elected, as well as the city staff who do the work.
When I was a kid, I really liked public speaking and had a vast network of friends. A wide variety of things sparked my curiosity. I’m still curious about lots of things, and I still love talking to people. Quite frankly, I love trying to serve people. The other day a gentleman called. He said, “I think my dog license has expired.” I said, “Okay. Do you have a way to get online?” He said he didn’t. So, I sent him the form and an envelope with a stamp on it so he can send it back to us. There is a continuity between twelve-year-old me being helpful and supportive to the work that I do now. It’s just on a larger scale and for pay. I really enjoy what I do and feel grateful that I can use my talents in these different capacities in this community.
Everyone I work with is dedicated, smart, and trying to make things fair for people. I’m not sure how much people understand the breadth of talent that you find in your basic city hall. People who are planners and creative, people who are engineers and math-oriented, security experts, the police department, the politicians, and so on. We live in the communities that we serve. Government workers are your neighbors. We care about the community as much as you do. And we’re here to help. We want to do our best for you, for our neighborhoods, for our co-workers, and for the future.
This story was produced by Jen Rubin and is part of our Wisconsin municipal workers’ series. Want to learn more about local government? Check out the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Citizen’s Guide to Wisconsin’s Cities and Villages.
This series was funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.