By Shereen Siewert
(Updated, 3:57 p.m.)
WAUSAU — City leaders on Tuesday were originally planning to discuss moving a second facility from Wausau’s riverfront area in closed session, but pulled the discussion from the agenda late Friday afternoon.
The original agenda for Tuesday’s committee of the whole meeting included “discussion and possible action on the potential relocation of an existing business at 101 Devoe Street to the Wausau Business Campus Expansion Area.” That address belongs to a specialized cheese processing plant owned by Great Lakes Cheese, and is adjacent to the Wausau Chemical property.
A packet of information to accompany the agenda has not been posted on the city’s website, as of Friday afternoon. According to the standing rules of the common council: “Council and standing committee packets must be prepared and available for distribution no less than six (6) days prior to that scheduled council or committee meeting and the council packet must also contain all committee results for each measure to be considered.”
Wausau Finance Director MaryAnne Groat told Wausau Pilot & Review that no packet is available for the meeting, which also includes discussion on the city’s mounting debt and “discussion and possible action regarding Tax Increment District Project Plan creation for Wausau Business Campus Expansion, Micon Theaters and North Riverfront.”
City leaders in April approved a proposed $7.9 million plan to move Wausau Chemical to a new location within Wauau’s Business Campus to allow for redevelopment of the land. A similar plan was rejected by city council members in February 2015.
Mayor Robert Mielke said in April he envisions a potential condo or other housing development on the Wausau Chemical site, which is currently subject to EPA redevelopment restrictions based on the land’s Superfund status.
It is unclear why the discussion on moving the cheese plant would have been conducted in closed session. Economic development that happens in the government context is treated like any other public business, meaning the usual presumption of openness should apply, according to the State Bar of Wisconsin. Both the public records and open meetings laws declare that a representative government depends on an informed electorate and that accordingly, “it is … the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government.”
Mayor Robert Mielke referred questions to City Attorney Anne Jacobson, who has so far only said that the original agenda item, as worded, appeared appropriate.
An email and call to the Great Lakes Cheese headquarters in Hiram, Ohio, the owner of the Wausau plant, have also not yet been returned.
Closed sessions are only allowed in narrow and specific instances. Recent appellate opinions have clarified Wisconsin’s open government laws, particularly as applied to economic development issues. The specific statute allows closed sessions for “deliberation or negotiating the purchase of public properties, the investing of public funds, or conducting other specified public business, whenever competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session.”
But a private entity’s desire for confidentiality does not permit a closed meeting, nor does the city’s belief that secret meetings will result in a cost savings, according to a 2007 court ruling that still stands.
In that case, State ex rel. Citizens for Responsible Development v. City of Milton, the Milton city council had discussed a potential ethanol plant development in 10 closed meetings over several months, approving a development agreement in the final closed session. The court of appeals held the meetings should have been open, because of the “weighty burden” placed on the city to show that competitive or bargaining reasons made the closed session necessary.
This story will be updated.