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Guest Column: On the river to Abilene

in Opinion

By Doug Diny

The good news on the RiverLife lien situation is that we can finally snap out of denial, wishful thinking, and group think about the perfect sales pitch. Let’s be careful to learn the right lessons and not scapegoat one or two people and chicken out of real corrective actions. I’m sure Mike Frantz really believed he could pull a rabbit out of a hat, but he’s now potentially financially ruined in part by our own willingness to go along with the pipe dream.  We’ve been on the “Road to Abilene” from the start of the RiverLife project.  Let’s accept our new challenge openly and wallow in the past only long enough to log our lessons.

Doug Diny

Local social media is exploding with “experts” piling on to the obvious.  Let’s tame the social media firing squads and start floating solutions, not fix blame on a past we can’t change. Painting Mike Frantz, Chris Schock, and city council with the same broad-brush hampers those left to fix the mess.  We just put a new council in place, we, as a community, voted on April 5th knowing then virtually everything we now acknowledge today.  Collectively, we, not they, decided our course of action and we, not they, ignored the warning signals along the way.

For simplicity, Wiki says: “In an Abilene paradox a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections.”

Recognize this is a group dynamic.  It’s a kind of group think that organizations fall prey to for various reasons.  Here I think, it’s the mix of personalities and leadership styles on staff and city council that lulled us into the illusion that asking pointed questions or running one’s own calculations on staff figures is contrary to getting along with one another.

The important decision makers are today’s council members, not us Monday morning quarterbacks.  They can right the ship. They need to understand the business case, follow their gut on the personality conflicts, moderate social media, ignore the glossy sales pitches, and accept that this may likely get worse before it gets better.  Resist the temptation to tamp down any questions or suggestions.  In times of crisis, if we aren’t over-communicating, we’re under-communicating.

Proceed with caution on another request for proposal (RFP) to find a new developer. Change orders could drive costs exponentially and further harm the tax payers.   The best way out is usually to salvage the team already in place.  Settling the liens with Samuels (as suggested in yesterday’s WPR) with a land payment may have merits; they’ve already mobilized and gotten their hands dirty in this soil, they may be our best bet.    But moving forward with the current team structure will only work if ALL the cards are on the table.

The developer agreement was amended several times to transition developer heads. A simple amendment would put the project back on track with Samuels in the lead and the collections piece could play out with Frantz and Barker, away from the project.  We can’t bank on an outside expert riding in to save the day.  Samuels or a partner they choose is a logical choice.

A new deal should be easily defined, publicly open, and structured to compensate them fairly without losing all city leverage.  A third-party consultant could flesh out those numbers.  Ehlers originally questioned the proposed project value, the Swiderski proposal also presented a far lower cost that could be compared.  Don’t rule them out as a consulting partner.  (Frantz/Barker/Quantum turned over the plans, there’s no confidentiality issue).

The public deserves to see the numbers for a reasonable future tax assessment.  The Frantz $27 million projected assessment is questionable. A more realistic value may change our options within the TID and what a fair and reasonable tax payer would see as value.

This needs to play out as publicly as possible.  Don’t be surprised if the haircut we take upfront has a much longer payback than originally projected.  The City must prepare to cut our losses now and prove openly that we won’t dig the hole deeper.  Our bruised egos need to be buckled in the backs seat for this ride. The city council has the “conn” and the courage to help steer us off the River to Abilene.

Editor’s note: The views of our readers and guest 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.

20 Comments

  1. I would say thst instead of being on The River to Abilene it is more like we are up a well know creek without a paddle.

  2. That thought occurred to me, but I let’s never give up the ship while we’re still afloat. Damage assessments are still coming in, but we have the integrity and courage in place on city council to see this through with dignity for the taxpayers.

  3. Doug, I like your positive attitude. But this entire mess has been a soul crushing experience brought on by sheer incompetence by Chris Schock. His lack of executing his responsibilities in a competent manner has made the city a laughing stock of the surrounding communities. This coupled with the fact that the city may have to expend thousands of dollars in legal fees to get ourselves clear of this mess begs for some retribution by the mayor. However, on the radio this morning the mayor stated that nobody did anything wrong.

    Are you kidding me!

    Schock’s mishandling of this matter goes to prove that he is Not up to the job or simply doesn’t care enough to do his job in a profession manner and should be replaced.

    • Extracting the project from city Economic Development responsibility is a given with the transfer of property. The Human Resources responsibility is a separate issue I chose to ignore for purposes moving forward responsibility on the project.

      Logically, Chris Schock’s role on this project moving forward should be limited to administrative duties. Council needs to actively manage the re-negotiation; I would appoint Eric Lindman, Jamie Polley and maybe a city attorney as the point team moving forward for direct negotiations until the hand-off is made via a new development agreement.

      • This is not the River to Abilene… this is Wausau trying to improve our city and increase property values, it wasn’t a four hour family excursion, it was instead some slight of hand by one of the players and then the truth came out and we move forward… not like we haven’t had problems in the city, transit, saving money by canceling the very popular curbside pick up and community treasure hunt, building a play ground by the WOW, music by the River by the Library, and they all have a challenge or two… so Doug I agree, we solve the problem and moving forward, we can prevail… keep on advising the mayor and working with the committees.

      • So Doug, your solution is thst since we don’t have a competent economic development director we should pile his duties in a very competent public works director. Have you lost your mind?

        I am sure thst the Public Works Director has a platefull at the present time, so piling more on it makes little to no sense. How about putting competent people in responsible positions and having them do a professional job.

      • Stan, The negotiation team with Lindman and the new Parks director, Polley, would be temporary. They are already on staff, generally aware of the problem, competent, and would not face the relationship conflicts Schock would in renegotiating with the current players, minus Frantz.

        Would I fire Schock? I might have avoided the situation all together; if I was ED Chair (Tom Neal), I would have set ground rules long ago that would have better vetted his staff work. He’s a high energy pitch man that could be an asset for this city with the proper guidance.

        Principally, I don’t believe in firing people for mistakes unless they were derelict, criminal or deceitful. That has yet to be investigated.

      • Doug, think Schock makes over $90,000.00 a year. Thst seems like a lot to pay for “administrative duties” don’t you think.

  4. Doug, do you feel that Schock’s performance in this matter is not derelict. His lack of conducting due diligence on the initial developer could well cost the city thousands of dollars in legal fees and possibly put the city on the hook for millions in unpaid bills to sub-contractors. If that is not derelict, I would like to see your definition of what is.

    Now let’s talk deceit. Schock on more than one occasion told council members thst the project was on schedule when he knew work on the project had been halted for weeks. At a recent neighborhood meeting it was reported thst he told those in attendance the work on the project would start shortly and there was no reason for concern, when he knew that the next day the council would go into closed session to discuss the dire straits the project was in.

    So I’d you want to keep believing in him, be my guest, but you are on a fool’s errand if you do.

    • Stan, You listed employee handbook violations warranting investigations. My experience is that if we pull responsibilities and sideline a person, they will either find a way of redemption or self-elimination in due course.

      • With all due respect, you’re freaking delusional. Seriously. Chris Schock was (is) at the least negligent in his duties as city ED “director”. I personally think his actions are criminal. He has REPEATEDLY covered up, lied and misled everyone about not only the status of this cluster, but the entire financing aspect of it. I hardly think you need an employee handbook to realize he’s a complete fraud and should be IMMEDIATELY fired. But of course not. Mielke and everyone else on the city council are completely spineless. Can’t ruffle any feathers. Gotta protect the good ‘ol boys ‘n girls club known as city government. Tom Neal is just as guilty and should be relieved of his duties as well. Mark my words, the taxpayers will be the ones screwed……..AGAIN.

  5. Doug, I think that you are proposing no change at all. RIght? We are simply to just keep going, status quo, but what…we pay more attention? Better attention? Work harder?

    Personally, some of us are NOT Monday morning quarterbacks, and sort of find that offensive. There are dozens of people behind the scenes who have offered to use there skills and training to help this administration right the ship, and most if not all have either been ignored or rebuked.

    I do not understand at all what you are proposing here. But, what I think you are proposing is that we simply leave the structures and people in place that have failed the city in many documented ways, and somehow think that they will right the ship. But Martens is the only new voice on ED. The Mayor has not made himself, nor his ED director, nor Tom Neal available to the public to explain where we are, how we got here, and what we are going to do to get out of this.

    What they have done is offer one statement, and that is it.

    Oh wait, then he went on the radio and called (or implied) that citizens who voice caution about Thomas Streeet or the the park are liars.

    What is it you think needs to happen before the council needs to take some action?

  6. Dino, I nuanced staffing issues to a fault favoring focus on the project next actions; you and others enumerated the personnel issues more directly, thank you. More specific ED PROJECT actions:

    1. City Council controls the purse. Remove the city from being a commercial co-developer on city owned property. I argued with Neal and Schock against the city owning this ground. I think we’ve seen this movie before.

    2. Remove the RiverLife project from Chris Schock’s desk and appoint an ad hoc team of directors with the specific mission to negotiate the Quantum project to the private sector as soon as possible.

    3. Review every closed door meeting on this project and determine how many, if any, were necessary. Error on the side of transparency. The state statute allows for closed door, it doesn’t mandate it. The council should adopt a goal of demonstrably improving this track record.

    4. Communication to the Public: Project updates to ED Committee and Finance are usually seat of pants ramblings and platitudes. The public has a right to know more than what gets put in the agendas currently. Show us the timelines, spreadsheet the metrics that are always talked about but rarely published. We don’t need to overburden staff on reports and PowerPoints, but rudimentary analysis and tracking documents are reasonable.

    5. Firings/Reprimands: The crux of my OP: Cut ties with Frantz now and ban him from any future business with the city, BUT don’t make him sole blame. Chris Schock, Tom Neal, Lisa Rasmussen, Maryanne Groat and others owe the public an accounting of their mistakes. The mayor is in a pickle, he can’t fire everyone, but it’s a chance for him to ask his point people to step up to the plate with real corrections or step aside.

    Incompetence is usually self-limiting. In government, there can be an inverse relationship to that rule, transparency is the antidote.

  7. It seems like a fine set of ideas. But, I think that your piece lends itself to the sort of criticism that you are seeing. This idea that we have a true crisis of confidence with the current Mayor and his staff are over arching.

    The idea that we should simple articulate, “Lets focus on the project” like John did here, negates the real, and well reported issues that PEOPLE have created.

    I think the fact that Shock said Wausau was getting a WEDC grant to the City Council, all the while the City of Wausau had NOT APPLIED for a grant should not be overlooked. Combined with his telling a neighborhood group that hte project was doing fine (an official on the clock communication), after having gotten emails about the 2.7 million dollar in liens.

    Your piece minimizes these things.

    COmbine that with the other occurances of incompetence or something, and it almost seems like we have an actual point of trouble.

    But like all bodies of this type, unless the City Council members call on the Mayor to do something, he will simply continue along on his way.

    There have been few if any statements from Neal and Rasmussen on these issue, much less other council members. Clearly, this is a homeostasis status quo sort of crew, and they are not doing anything.

  8. Call 1911,

    The city staff doesn’t not work or report to the city council. City department heads report to the mayor and unless they have an employment contract with the city they can be fired by the mayor. But it appears that the mayor sees nothing wrong with how Schock mismannsged this mess, so he stays and we are off the the calamity.

    I wonder if the mayor understands thst this mess will eventually be hung around his neck. Good luck taking that into the next election cycle.

    • Thanks Stan. So Schock may or may not “answer” to Mielke. Basically, nothing will be done. The city……no, the taxpayers will foot the bill for the lien(s) and in the typical two day “news cycle”, all will be forgotten by next week. Lovely, isn’t it?

      • I do not get the sense that this is going away. I think we are building a critical mass. I mean Thomas Street, Riverlife, all of the other things we have seen, I do not think Mielke is going to get away with it for long. His nonsense about calling citizens rabble rousers and implying they are liars, that does not help.

      • I like metaphors. Dino mentioned “critical mass”. As a physicist, the apparent math involved here has that feeling. But maybe a better metaphor for Chris Schock to Google is “flying too close to the sun”.

  9. Doug,

    I do not think Chris has flown to close to the sun. That would somehow imply that there were structures in place that he knew about, and he knowingly exceeded them. If anything, the ED committee has in a way failed him by failing to give him the proper guidance and support. Meaning, they had to change the information as a result of the Riverlife nonsense. This, like I wrote, reflects VERY badly on all involved. They either did not know it was important, or simply did not care.

    Chris might simply be a hard charger who has had a run of bad luck. I do not think that really, but I think that he could and should claim that he was doing this all to better the city. The problem remains that the Mayor has failed to actually lead by providing a coherent strategy, and as a result all of these decisions that are turning into failures are harder to justify.

    As someone who builds arguments for a living, Mielke would be better served by intentionally building his.

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