Sarah Lim: Former Merced official’s playbook diagrams winning public service strategy

09/13/2013 12:00 AM

09/13/2013 11:16 PM

As campaign signs began to sprout on our lawns and adorn our streets, Merced’s municipal election is in full swing. While only two contenders are running for mayor, eight candidates are vying for three City Council seats.

These bold and dedicated individuals are, no doubt, passionate about improving the lives of Merced residents. Whether they are challengers or incumbents, once elected they can definitely take a page from ex-Mayor and Councilman Louis J. C. Wegner’s playbook.

Wegner was first elected to the council in 1902 and served for close to 30 years, including time as mayor from 1936-38. He died in January 1940 while in office. To pay tribute to his public service, the council issued a special resolution that reads:

“WHEREAS, during his almost 30 years of service to the City of Merced he ever gave unstintingly of his time, energy and experience for the betterment and up-building of our city; and

“WHEREAS, many of our public improvements were in no small degree attributable to his vision and untiring work as a member of this council.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, Merced was also in transition with population growth and the coming of modernization. While electric street lights gradually replaced the kerosene lamps, streets remained unpaved and sidewalks were nonexistent.

Immediately after he was elected, Wegner took over as chairman of the street committee and implemented several measures to beautify the city. For the next several decades as a public servant, he played a vital role in the improvement of streets and sidewalks, and he even attempted to develop a public utility system.

He was architect by trade, and the beautification of Merced was dear to his heart. In 1903, with his committee’s recommendation, the council ordered the first installation of sidewalks on M, L, and K streets from 16th to 24th streets. In 1906, provisions for the first paved streets in Merced were made. By 1913, about 20 miles of cement sidewalks and 10 miles paved streets were complete throughout the city.

When the Merced Improvement Club presented its application to beautify N Street by planting palm trees in 1905, Wegner not only supported the application, but also voted to donate $10 toward the purchase of the trees. These stately trees remain standing today 108 years later.

Wegner was a true believer in the benefit of public utilities. Aside from the street improvement project, he concentrated much of his efforts on developing municipal ownership of the waterworks and an electric plant. Since 1889, Merced has received its domestic water from Lake Yosemite, which was owned and operated by the Crocker-Huffman Land and Water Co.

In February 1903, the council passed an ordinance to reduce the water rate that Crocker-Huffman could charge the property owners in Merced. Crocker-Huffman then took the city to court to remove the ordinance. The council continued to explore avenues to obtain water including the construction of a municipal water plant.

On Aug. 11, 1903, a special election was held to determine the electorate’s support for these public works projects. The water plant bond was defeated because the citizens did not want to incur more debt. The citizens were still paying off the $40,000 sewer bond passed just three years earlier. Also voted down in this election was the building of an electric light plant.

Even with such public sentiment, Wegner did not give up on his vision of a publicly owned waterworks. Unfortunately, he never lived to see his vision become a reality. In 1917, domestic water was changed to a well system after the first well was sunk just north of Canal Street by Bear Creek. On May 1, 1973, the city of Merced purchased the Merced Water Co. for over $3million and created the modern city water system.

Wegner’s faith in government was evident not only in his decades of service, but also his constant attendance at council meetings. Only when he fell ill did he miss meetings. This kind of work ethic and dedication was also shown in his work as an architect and builder.

Wegner received his professional training in Germany before emigrating to America in 1882. He designed and constructed many homes and public buildings in Merced from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. One of his better-known works that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places is the Kaehler-Rector home on 408 W. 25th St. The home was built for George Kaehler, one of the three Kaehler brothers, in 1891 and it became the home of Merced Superior Court Judge Elbridge N. Rector in 1903.

So, as we are entering this election season, be mindful about the importance of public service and the humility of the public servant who, just like Louis Wegner, puts the public interest before political affiliation and personal ambition.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at info@mercedmuseum.org.

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