By Keene Winters
Is it time to declare victory? Could free speech be returning to the Wausau City Council?
I read with interest the August 30th front-page article in the Wausau Daily Herald regarding some of the over-the-top statements made by Alderperson & County Supervisor Sherry Abitz. In the last four paragraphs, one learns that city officials plan to do nothing about it, and their list of reasons for not acting concede all the points raised in my legal dispute with the city.
But, did we just see a reversal in city policy regarding council member speech? Did the dispute change city officials’ minds about what they can and cannot do?
To refresh people’s memories, then Council President Robert Mielke hand-delivered me a letter on November 24, 2015, stating that he (1) was unilaterally placing me under investigation (which council presidents have no authority to do) for possible violations of the core values mission statement, (2) directing me not to speak to anyone about it except my personal attorney (which meant I had to hire a lawyer), and (3) threatening to take disciplinary action against me (which council presidents have no authority to do). The so-called investigation—in reality a prosecution—was then turned over to the city human resource director to figure out how my past statements as an alderman could be interpreted as violating any city employment rules. (That human resource director was then summarily scapegoated and fired shortly after the settlement).
Prior to this, punitive investigations were launched against dissenting alderpersons Christine Van De Yacht in 2006 and Ed Gale in 2010 by city officials.
Here is the good news. In the last four paragraphs of the August 30th article, city officials recant their prior position and state the following:
- There is “nothing the council can do to prevent” statements by elected officials.
- The core values mission statement is an aspirational “suggestion” and not an enforceable rule.
- There is no language in the Wausau Code of Ethics or Standing Rules of the Common Council that “regulate” what council members can say, other than a prohibition against releasing confidential information.
- “Council members are elected officials, not city employees, so they’re not subject to City Hall’s employment rules.”
That is pretty much what we were arguing point by point.
Finally, a recognition of the free speech rights of elected officials! Citizens can again criticize their local government without fear of reprisals.
To be clear, I cannot condone what Sherry Abitz has said and done. Nor can I recommend rejoicing about this apparent new-found understanding.
Rather, my guess is this reluctance to act is more about defending a political ally than it is about any new understanding. I suspect that dissenting council members still know that they ought not say too much or write any op-eds, or they might find themselves being slapped around in some dubious closed session or shelling out big bucks for legal services to defend against a city investigation.
In my opinion, we have lost meaningful debate in our democracy here in Wausau, and we do not vet important spending plans like we should. Only time will tell whether robust opposition voices will be allowed to return to the council. Hopefully, it won’t be too long.
Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review gladly publishes thoughtful letters from readers and city officials on matters of wide public interest. To submit a letter for publication, email firstname.lastname@example.org.