Our View: Again and again, Wausau leaders exclude the public

1:42 PM, Aug. 3, 2013  |  Comments
A Wausau committee proposed a plan in closed session to buy the Oriental Fine Foods property at 1331 W. Thomas St. without giving public notice.
A Wausau committee proposed a plan in closed session to buy the Oriental Fine Foods property at 1331 W. Thomas St. without giving public notice.
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Wausau's leaders have actively sought to shield city business from the public view. They have behaved as if public input or consensus-building is a nuisance and have treated the law as a formality. And when caught, they've dissembled and covered their tracks to avoid being held accountable for their actions.

Is that too harsh? Does it overstate the case? Certainly it is not true of everyone in leadership positions in Wausau, elected leaders or city staff, and it is not true all the time. But the revelation last week in a Daily Herald Media report that Wausau City Council broke open meetings law around a Thomas Street property purchase raises too many red flags to ignore.

Let's consider what has happened:

? Last year, Daily Herald Media reported that Wausau had been denied federal funding for the Thomas Street road-widening project when the feds, after a lengthy investigation, found Wausau had been negligent in the way it acquired properties there, failing in some cases to appraise properties, provide relocation costs or inform property owners of their legal rights - rules that are in place explicitly to ensure that the public is protected from abuses of government power.

Instead of holding anyone accountable, instead of instituting changes or apologizing to homeowners or taxpayers, Mayor Jim Tipple held a press conference to declare that "city staff did nothing wrong." City officials continued to imply that they would, in the end, be eligible for federal funding for the road project right up until the point that the Federal Highway Administration said that no, it had actually been serious about enforcing its rules.

? The loss of funds threw the project back into uncertainty, and has only served to extend the brutal limbo for homeowners and business owners along the street. The city has yet to decide on the scope of the project - five lanes? three? - or whether or not it is legally eligible for funding from tax increment financing revenue. (This is a complicated question, but the upshot is that if it cannot use TIF funds, the city simply may not have the revenue to devote to the $15 million reconstruction plan.) With plans still undecided, owners cannot sell, because who would buy a property that might be demolished next year? They're stuck.

? And the indecision isn't just costing those who live and work on Thomas Street. It's costing taxpayers. As Daily Herald Media reports in today's front-page news story, the city has budgeted more than half a million dollars on consultants around the project. And so far it hasn't even settled on a plan.

Closed session maneuvering

With that as the background, the city this month tried to sneak past the public - there is no other way to put it - a discussion around a new taxpayer-funded purchase of one of the properties targeted for possible demolition in the still-hypothetical road-widening project. In a closed session of the city's Finance Committee, Wausau Public Works Director Brad Marquardt brought up the purchase of a foreclosed Thomas Street property despite the fact that it was never on any agenda and the public would have had no way of knowing about it.

Marquardt is not a novice. And City Council member Bill Nagle, who is on the Finance Committee, was the longtime city attorney. They should know that this is illegal. Certainly it goes against any commonsense notion of open government to bring up new items out of the blue during a closed session.

What's more, Marquardt told the Daily Herald that the property, Oriental Fine Foods at 1331 W. Thomas St., was not being purchased in connection with the Thomas Street road project, but rather as part of a separate economic development plan. It is just a coincidence, then, that the address was one of 47 on a list of properties the city sought to acquire for the sake of widening Thomas Street.

Does that sound plausible?

No. It sounds like more of the same response we've seen since the city's troubles with this project first surfaced: circling the wagons, willfully ignoring criticism, treating the public as a nuisance, not a part of the process.

The TIF tiff

In a separate matter, a Daily Herald Media report recently revealed that Tipple successfully lobbied for a change in state law extending the life of its riverfront TIF district without ever taking the issue to City Council or to other affected units of government: Marathon County, Northcentral Technical College and the Wausau School District.

This is pretty simple: Tipple did this wrong. He should have sought broad buy-in before lobbying state legislators for the policy change.

And this, too, has a connection to the Thomas Street fiasco. Even after the federal investigation was completed last year, Tipple never brought the information to the City Council, let alone to the public. It was not until after the Daily Herald's report that members of the Council and even some members of Tipple's own staff learned of the federal sanctions.

In that environment, perhaps it is not surprising that Tipple would go so far as to successfully urge the passage of a new state law without consulting with the Council or other leaders.

Not surprising - but still disturbing.

What it adds up to

We believe that Wausau's leaders have the city's best interests in mind. There is no evidence that any of them are out to get personally rich or to abuse their offices in the traditionally corrupt ways. Wausau's city staff and its elected leaders work hard to implement a vision for the city that they believe in. And we see - and write about, frequently - a number of great developments happening in Wausau. There are new businesses opening; there are great community events. It is a great place to live. Frankly, we would prefer to focus on those positive stories, too.

But what we simply do not see from City Hall is a commitment to openness - not from the mayor, not from the city staff and not, on the whole, from City Council. We see a cloistered, closed system where top leaders reinforce the worst tendencies toward defensiveness and secrecy.

That's not how our city should run. And we should not be satisfied with it.

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