Turbo-charged mayor not content to kick backDon Richards’ educational career spanned four decades. Many will remember him as the high school English teacher, Student Council and school newspaper advisor and assistant boys’ basketball coach.
By: Phil Pfuehler, River Falls Journal
Don Richards’ educational career spanned four decades. Many will remember him as the high school English teacher, Student Council and school newspaper advisor and assistant boys’ basketball coach.
After retiring in 1998 Richards also substitute taught for seven years.
Long ago he also taught in Prescott and before that was dormitory head resident and assistant dean of men at UW-Whitewater.
“When I retired I found I had an excess of time on my hands,” said the 79-year-old Richards. “I was bored. Volunteering and becoming mayor was a way to take up my time in a useful manner.
“I’m probably busier now with meetings and appointments, but I’m not uptight about the schedule I keep nor am I overburdened. Every politician likes to play up their public service role, but for me it’s not a cliché. I believe in it as I do in volunteering.”
Richards either is or has volunteered for Meals on Wheels; Big Brothers, Big Sisters; Relay for Life; River Falls YMCA; Kiwanis; the local Martin Luther King Breakfast; River Falls Community Food Pantry; Simpson Housing Shelter (Minneapolis); Assistance & Resource Center (nonprofit, River Falls); and the Main Street Butt Pickers (picking up littered cigarette butts downtown).
After eight years as River Falls mayor, Richards hopes city residents give him another two years on the job when they vote April 3.
He describes himself as an active mayor, saying he has the time during the day to attend an array of meetings and appointments that would be impossible if he still worked.
Richards began filling up his mayoral appointment book eight years ago when his learning curve was steep.
“I always followed the local news, read the paper and I thought I knew a lot, but in fact I had much learning to do about the inner departmental workings for planning, engineering, utilities, of the business improvement district and economic development corporation,” Richards said.
“So I had to get acquainted with those by going to meetings. And then there were the various boards and commissions that the mayor makes appointments for -- I had to learn about the people serving on them and the work they did. I had to be there in person to see how these things worked.”
Richards said that legally he could be a “minimum mayor.”
“That would involve reading the reports and running the City Council and Plan Commission meetings,” he said. “You could get by doing just that, but that’s not the way I see doing this job.”
Richards strikes a decidedly environmental theme when pointing out the highlights nurtured by River Falls.
“This EcoVillage has the potential to draw a huge amount of positive attention to our city,” he said, referring to the Habitat for Humanities housing development on the west side. “At the groundbreaking in June we expect to have Habitat officials from the Atlanta headquarters here.”
Richards said the 18-unit facility plus community center is designed for “net zero energy usage,” meaning it should produce as much power as it uses.
“The aim is to have no utility bills,” he said, which should be possible with solar panels, geothermal heating, special insulation and windows, and using “grey water” for irrigation.
“The EcoVillage stands for one of my strong feelings, and that is the need to create more affordable housing in our city,” Richards said. “Along with that, the project has a green component, which is important for the environment.”
Richards backed the years of planning for the East Cascade Avenue rehabilitation project. Work on phase one between Spring and Sixth streets starts in April.
“That makeover is going to cut down on traffic accidents and will also vastly improve the ‘front door’ entrance to UW-River Falls,” Richards said. “Overall, it’ll add great aesthetic appeal on that side of the city.”
He also stressed keeping close ties with the UWRF.
“The university is our outstanding resource,” he said. “We need to appreciate that.”
Richards says that means making sure university officials “have his ear” and get a fair hearing from the city on issues of concern.
To keep open the communications link, Richards says he meets often with UWRF Chancellor Dean Van Galen as well as School Superintendent Tom Westerhaus.
The three leaders have collaborated on a “sustainability proclamation” that serves as an environmental blueprint for the city, schools and university.
The local school board already passed the proclamation. Richards expects the city to follow suit and will try to make sure that happens soon.
To read more on the Don Richards for mayor story, check out the front page of the March 22 print edition of the River Falls Journal.