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Guest Column: Is there a map through our chaos?

in Opinion

By Dino Corvino

As we enter the summer of 2018, the shine appears to be coming off the current administration in Wausau.  There is a list of many unfinished or troubled projects, lots of talk about a developer here or there, and a sense that none of this contains a strategic road map to get us through this troubled time.

We must allow for some challenges that Mayor Mielke has had to deal with.  First, he inherited a city staff that seemed to be in a state of constant conflict and infighting.  It had a sort of Lord of the Flies vibe going on and, in his defense, he seems to put much of the dysfunction behind.  He also has had to deal with state aids and a property tax base that are not growing sufficiently to cover ordinary increases in expenses.

But, one must acknowledge that the shine has come of the Economic Development penny here in Wausau.  In doing so, we must acknowledge that this state of chaos will bleed out into surrounding communities, and affect the entirety of Marathon County. That is because as the largest municipality, Wausau has long been the economic engine for the County.

Rhetorically speaking I think that one could ask, what projects HAVE BEEN COMPLETED or are not in a state of ongoing turmoil?   Let us pose some specific things, shall we?

  1. Thomas Street
  2. Liberty Mutual
  3. The Mall
  4. The Movie Theatre
  5. The Riverlife Project
  6. Misdirection of Mall Grant funds to Riverlife Road Monies
  7. Lower Bond Rating
  8. Growing Long Term Debt
  9. The WEDC Grant (seems like it is not a big story, but I think it is a HUGE story)
  10. Continued Pseudo Transparency

We must acknowledge problems in the city’s Economic Development strategy at this point.  The Economic Development committee made a significant change to the information required to be gathered prior to approval of any project.  This change is important for a few reasons, but one is an acknowledgement that sufficient background information was not being collected in a way that was needed to make good decisions.  In addition, it forces us to see that the Planning, Community and Economic Director did not think this information was either needed or important — and one can make an assumption about the reason why.

In that assumption, we can clearly deduce that ego has become a problem.  The Mayor, Economic Development Committee Chair Tom Neal, and Economic Development Director Chris Schock have NOT appeared in the media to articulate a vision through these projects.  Instead, we see Shock get dismissive with council members for asking questions that he feels are unimportant or somehow don’t need to be asked.  This is spite of all indications being that the status of these projects falls somewhere between severely challenged and failing.  These failures will have a long-term impact on the City of Wausau and the larger community around it in Marathon County since all share the partnership of Tax Increment Financing. It is hubris, at best, and malfeasance, at worst.

The Riverlife Project is clearly a case of ego running amok at City Hall.  How many different information dumps have occurred that have shown that this developer is snake bit?  Clearly, this process was flawed from the beginning.  It is equally clear that the City staff has dug in their heels and become defensive or dismissive when any constructive or not so constructive criticism is offered.

I have posted over and over for years that if the city would simply communicate more to the public about the strategic direction it is going, then it would be able to justify some of the tactical decisions it is making.  I had always believed that if we knew where the caravan was going, we would be able to support this choice or that choice.  But I have come to think that some things are structurally broken, and that significant changes need to be made.

These changes need to be made to stop an ongoing perception issue; one there are no consequences, there is no plan, there is no transparency and there no real leadership from the Mayor or the City Council.  In the case of the issues outlined here, we have seen only the smallest comments from the Mayor, the ED Chair Tom Neal and Finance Chair Lisa Rasmussen, along with staff.  The lack of communication here, or on their own Facebook pages, or the City social media platforms, allows a narrative to be constructed in the place of actual facts.  Without communication from these important leaders, we are left to make up our own minds.  Clearly Neal, Mielke, Rasmussen and Schock should make themselves more available to the media to explain where we are and where we are going.  Since they ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR IT.

The good news is, every new council brings new possibilities.  We have new members like Mary Thao, Dawn Herbst, and Mike Martens, and we can only hope that these new voices will bring positive change, real transparency, lack of ego and defensiveness, and real communication with the public through both traditional media channels, and their own social media platforms.  But, until that happens, I think the City of Wausau needs to take some active steps to hold individuals accountable, to make the leadership more available to the public to understand choices to begin to stop the growing narrative that this administrations leadership has led to our current chaotic state.

Editor’s note: The views of our readers and columnists are independent of this newspaper and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wausau Pilot and Review. To submit a letter, email editor@wausaupilotandreview.com or mail to P.O. Box 532, Wausau, Wis., 54402-0532.

16 Comments

  1. Dino Corvino’s view is spot on. Our city government has been allowed to do as it pleases with little accountability and needs to change, in my opinion.

  2. It’s a fine piece of writing, Dino. We have a system now where the mayor and the senior staff think it is okay to manipulate the council by controlling the information feed to the council. Without the proper information, the council is at a huge disadvantage.

    Many tasks, like an economic development project, require the participation of multiple city departments. Community Development, Public Works, Legal Services and Financial Services could all be involved at some point. Since no one department is in charge, responsibility for errors becomes difficult to assign.

    In 2015, I joined others in proposing that the city hire a professional administrator with an at will contract who reported directly to the council. It would have put some subject matter expertise on the council’s side, and it would have given the council a single person-in-charge who they could hold responsible. In my opinion, that is the only practical step we can take to change city hall.

    • Keene, what exactly do you believe the Mayor’s job is? For what it’s worth, I agree with 95+% of the things you write here on WP&R, but we’ll eternally disagree on that one. IF……IF this city had a COMPETENT Mayor, I honestly doubt you (or anyone else) would be calling for a city administrator. The Mayor is supposed to be at the top of the city “food chain”, but we evidently have one who is either afraid, unable or simply not competent enough to oversee anything more than pest removal.

      • call1911, the problem is that being an elected position, the job of mayor does not require any experience at all. Yes, we can hope that voters would pick the most qualified candidate, but in reality, it’s more of a likability, popularity sort of thing that gets people elected versus their training and experience in the matter.

  3. Great piece of writing Dino. I think that you hit one out of the park. I am sure they are circling the wagons in city hall as we speak. However, I am afraid that what has happened so far falls under the heading as indefensable. Let the excuses begin.

      • Dino, I’ll echo the sentiments of Stan and Keene and compliment you on a well written piece. However, I have to ask when exactly DID this current Wausau admin. have a “shine” to it? I’m honestly not being flippant. I’m at a loss as to when exactly they’ve done something that hasn’t pilfered taxpayer funds and this quickly seems to be their crowning jewel.
        Evidently (and someone please prove me wrong), there is NO accountability at Wausau City Hall. Mielke has the eternal deer in the headlights look, while Schock, Neal, et-al, graze free-range at the asylum. If the mayor of any city doesn’t have control/oversight of his own council, WHY do we have a mayor? Sorry……those questions aren’t really directed at you. I’m just rambling with my fingers out of pure bewilderment and disgust at this whole cluster____.

  4. call1911…I can answer it though. Every new administration has a shine, like all newborn babies. Mayor Mielke came in and had all the potential in the world to do, well, anything. And as a result, shine.

    But, the shine comes off in time.

  5. Excellent, concise dissection of the sad – and unacceptable – state of the City’s staff and administration performances, at the expense of the City’s taxpayers.

    Which condition will ONLY be corrected when Wausau Council finally sees the light, and hires a competent, experienced, and seasoned Chief Administrative Officer to whom all of City staff must report, and by whom they will be held accountable every single day for their job performance.

  6. I want to respond to one point that deserves clarification. The question asked was: “If the mayor of any city doesn’t have control/oversight of his own council, WHY do we have a mayor?” We have a mayor to the be chief executive officer of the city. The mayor does NOT have control or oversight of the council; they are the separate, legislative branch of the government. They do not work for the mayor; he is not their boss. (The council isn’t the mayor’s boss either, for that matter — though collectively, they have considerable power that they can exercise.)

    • Thanks for the reply/answer to my question. However, I find this (if you’re indeed correct) to be VERY disturbing. So what you’re saying is the city council has NO oversight? The city departmental “officials” such as Chris Schock have NO ONE to answer or report to? They can basically do whatever they wish with ZERO (immediate) consequences? Who appoints the Economic Development director, or the Finance Director positions? The Mayor, or does the council “elect/appoint” these positions from within?
      So we have an Economic Committee Chairman (Tom Neal) AND an Economic “Director” in Chris Schock. Umm….what exactly is the difference between the two? Is there ANY kind of “chain of command” (for lack of a better term) in the city political structure?
      Lastly, you say the Mayor is the “Chief Executive Officer” of the city. Well, that’s fine ‘n dandy, but since the city council DOESN’T work or report to the “CEO”, what EXACTLY does a Mayor/CEO do? Sounds like an Emperor with no clothes. He/she’s nothing more than a figurehead who signs papers, does press releases and has people bike to work with him? What a complete freaking joke……but I don’t think anyone’s laughing.

      • Schock and all the dept heads answer to Mayor Mielke, at least in the chain of command as written. Mielke is their boss, supposedly.

        Mielke has no idea what is going on and he also has no spine to discipline or reel in dominate personalities like Schock and Groat, no matter what they do or how much damage they cause.

  7. I think we have had good and great Mayors in my life time. It is my position that a good Mayor articulates a vision (strategy) for the city, and works with the council and staff to implement tactical choices to acheive that strategy.

    I have no idea what Mayor Mielke’s strategy is. It seems we are simply reacting. And of course telling people how good things are, when all the reporting indicates otherwise.

  8. Chris, there’s no specific reply “button” to your post above, so I hope you see this.
    Anyhoo, yes….I hope you’re right and that’s also how I’ve always believed it works. I find it surprising (to say the least) that someone who has been in local govt. for such a long time (Mr. Rosenberg) sees differently. I hope he sees my reply and responds. For what it’s worth and you’re probably aware of this, but I wholeheartedly agree about Mielke.

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