Ask Me Anything: John Stehr, Mayor

The retired WTHR-TV anchor kicks off the new year with a new job: mayor of Zionsville. He defeated Jane Burgess in the Republican primary in May and ran unopposed in November. He sat down with one of his former colleagues at WTHR to give her the scoop on what drove him into the hot seat.
Photography by Tony Valainis

So, how is “Mayor Stehr” sounding?
My daughter Meredith’s nickname is Marestehr, so now the joke is we have two “Mayor Stehrs” in the family. Some people have been calling me mayor since right after the primary. It’s different, but yeah, I’m getting used to it.

At 65, you could be traveling and taking up hobbies. Instead, you jump into what some would call a thankless job. Why?
When I retired, I wanted to do something for the community. When I became president of the park board, I could see what I thought was really dysfunctional inside of town government. The many roadblocks in the way of progress just frustrated me. I thought we could do a lot better. What it takes more than anything is good communication skills, and I’ve honed those over a long period.

Was running for office one day always in the back of your mind?
I was a political science major.

Do you see any parallels to your broadcast career?
When I first got into media 40 years ago, I felt it was an important service, facilitating the free exchange of information. But it’s changed so much. There are so many other sources of information now. I felt a lot of that service component was lost, and it became more about attracting enough eyeballs to sell cars for advertisers. So I see this as a return to serving people and moving the community forward in a positive way.

You ran on the GOP ticket. Are you a lifelong Republican?
I’ve voted in every election since I was 18, for Republicans in the vast majority. But I really don’t think this needs to be partisan. The people who pay the taxes, who need the services, they should be at the center of everything, not a political ideology.

What’s your top priority?
It comes back to communication. Job one is going to be lowering the temperature on the politics here, because it’s been a very political, very divisive situation the last few years.

You’re referring to the administration of outgoing Democratic mayor
Emily Styron … ?
Yes. She won in 2019 by a thin margin and had a rancorous relationship with the all-Republican council. As for what happened … you can’t lay blame squarely on one person. It takes both sides. For multiple reasons, communication completely broke down between the mayor and the council. For one, the mayor let the fire chief go, even though the council didn’t want her to. The ensuing court battle and appeal cost a lot of money. The chief kept his job in the end; her relationship with the council never recovered. But she’s been nothing but open and collegial with me.

What else is a pressing matter?
Zionsville hasn’t done a comprehensive plan in 20 years. Obviously, Zionsville has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, with the population nearly tripling to more than 33,000. The town council and former mayor recognized this, so we have money in the 2024 budget to create a comprehensive plan. Once that’s done, we can consider zoning changes, adjustments to the transportation plan, and a new fiscal plan. The comprehensive plan will inform all of that. It’s the way forward for the next generation.

Your new job includes overseeing eight departments and 250 employees. That’s a big responsibility.
The buck stops with me. I’m committed to sitting down and talking with every single town employee and trying to chart a new way forward, hopefully helping them feel better about where we are and where we’re going. I think morale is not what we would like it to be among our town employees. I take the role of being the chief cheerleader of the town very seriously, so I plan to be as visible and involved as possible.

How has your career prepared you?
When you’re in a public enterprise like TV news, there are always going to be people who are critical of you, and they’re not shy about it. That’s given me an understanding that not everyone is going to love everything I do all the time. I joke with my wife that after a year or so, residents are going to be mad at me. She said that would only mean I’m doing something right.

Did she support this move?
Very much so. I’ve learned when you run for office, it becomes personal. Amy has been uber encouraging. I don’t know how anyone could do this without support from their partner.

What bugged you about politicians as a member of the media?
Probably a lack of accessibility. If you’re an elected official, you owe it to your constituents to answer questions. You should never duck reporters.

So then you’re ready to address a gaggle of reporters when big news, or perhaps even a scandal, breaks in Zionsville?
I am. We do have a crisis communication plan here, and we’re talking about refining it even further. The number one rule is to share the information you have. Avoiding questions or holding back the truth is never productive in any way.

Is it true that reporters will have your cell phone number and can call you 24-7?
Yes! I will always take calls and try to give an answer, even if it’s only, “I don’t know,” or, “We haven’t decided yet.”

I can’t resist: Are you going to wear makeup and use a teleprompter for news conferences?
No, and no! Absolutely not!

Did you reach out to any former candidates who helped you decide whether to run?
Yes, it was someone who’s held a significant office and whose advice I embrace. He said, “OK, if you’re going to do this, you need to give me a 10-word reason why.” My answer came pretty instantly. Holding up my fingers one at a time, I said, “Because I want the town we love to do better.” He then said, “Now give me 10 words on why you’re the guy to make it better.” That answer was, “Because I have the communication skills to do the job.” Finally, he said, “OK, you’re ready.”

I filed the paperwork the next day.

Have you connected with your counterparts in Indianapolis suburbs?
I’ve talked with all of them. I think it’s important we engage, because we’re not just competing against each other for economic opportunities. We’re competing against Nashville, Tennessee; Columbus and Cincinnati in Ohio; and Chicago. So we need to cooperate. I was pleased that all the mayors signaled the same idea.

What’s the biggest challenge Zionsville faces?
Most of our tax base is residential. We need a larger commercial tax base, so a focus will be developing the South Village south of Sycamore Street.

Do you anticipate competing interests in how Zionsville grows?
Everyone recognizes it’s only going to grow. But they want it to grow in a way that’s complementary to what’s already here, not damaging to our brand. And our brand, so to speak, is our brick Main Street. I recognize that it really is the heart and soul of Zionsville. But the best way to protect it is by encouraging those in proximity to Zionsville to go to the restaurants and shops and enjoy it. You don’t protect it by putting up a wall, not changing anything, not moving forward. I want to energize Main Street further so that even more people will use it. And to the folks farther north, their rural and historical heritage is really important, so we need to protect that, as well.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next four years?
I hope to have calmed down the rhetoric and animosity between the players involved and to have moved ahead on a comprehensive development plan that builds on the town that we love, while being supportive of our Main Street business district, our school system, and of all our constituents.