By Shereen Siewert
WESTON — As a closed session looms in which Weston trustees are expected to discuss the fate of the village administrator, questions are growing about what may have prompted such action.
The meeting is slated for 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the Village of Weston Municipal Center, 5500 Schofield Ave. In a closed session requested by Trustees Wally Sparks and Mark Maloney, the board will “consider the dismissal, demotion, licensing or discipline of any public employee or person licensed by a board or commission or the investigation of charges against such person.” The village administrator, Dan Guild, is named as the employee at the center of the action.
In a March interview leading up to the spring election, Sparks, who retired earlier this year as Everest Metro Police Chief, was sharply critical of what he called a “lack of transparency” within the current administration.
“For residents that want to attend a meeting to find out what is going on in the village, they will walk away disappointed,” Sparks stated in his interview. “Unless residents go online to read through a sometimes 200-300 page board packet, which is posted about 5 p.m. on Friday evenings for a once a month Monday village board meeting, they will have no idea of what is occurring in the village.”
But Guild said he and other members of his team have worked for years to implement new strategies that increase transparency for residents, rather than limiting it.
In a March 9 guest column, Guild outlined seven specific initiatives village officials have undertaken to improve communication with residents in the village. In addition to public meetings with online packets, Guild wrote, the village also has an enhanced social media presence, an interactive website, a weekly emailed newsletter and a bi-monthly printed newspaper. The village also participates in Nextdoor, a neighborhood-focused social media platform for Weston’s 11 distinct neighborhoods,” Guild wrote.
“We not only maintain that presence on social media, we respond to every comment we receive,” Guild said. “I would hold up our transparency standards to any other municipality in the state.”
“Our team does a darn good job to be available, accessible, and communicate with our residents through multiple channels,” Guild said, pointing out that the village enjoys “gold” status in the ConnectWI program, which recognizes municipalities for excellence in providing easy access to online information on local public officials and open meetings.
Read the full column here.
Some of the controversy could stem from the proposed Camp Phillips Centre, a $150 million development expected to break ground in 2019. Sparks, in his pre-election interview, expressed concern over the cost of the project and stated that the village had already signed off on a $20 million loan to support infrastructure the project.
But a review of village documents shows no such loan has been approved.
The village is poised to pay off all its general obligation debt by the end of 2020, a figure that sits at roughly $7 million today, Guild said.
In his interview, Sparks openly questioned whether such a development could prosper in a challenging retail environment.
“Brick and mortar retail outlets are struggling mightily in face of e-commerce retailers, which are currently seeing 17% annual increases and we have seen the rise of ‘dark stores’ as many retail outlets are going under. Under current dark store legislation, municipalities are seeing decreased revenues from closed retail locations.”
Former Village Administrator Dean Zuleger, who resigned in 2011 after 11 years in the position, weighed in on the controversy Wednesday, telling Wausau Pilot and Review that relationships between police chiefs and municipal administrators can often be difficult as they work together to balance the needs of the community with limited resources. Zuleger, the son of a police officer, said he is a strong supporter of law enforcement but struggled to develop a positive working relationship with Sparks during their tenure together.
“I worked very well with Chief Dan Vergin and with Steve Meilahn at the fire department, but I was never really able to strike up a good relationship with Wally,” Zuleger said.
Meanwhile, Guild, who was hired by the village in May 2012, has received dozens of emails, letters, and Facebook messages of support from residents, colleagues and business owners from both inside and outside the village.
On Facebook, James Daly, co-owner of Basil, wrote:
“As a small business owner in Weston for the last eight years I can honestly say that Daniel Guild has always a supporter of our business and since our inception a great supporter of Irish Fest He has been our biggest champion. He has a great vision for Weston.”
Mary Thao, who was elected in April as a Wausau City Council member, expressed her support for Guild on Facebook and said Guild inspired her to run for office. She expressed dismay that Guild is facing such scrutiny.
“I recall last minute asking Administrator Daniel Guild to speak at the Hmong New Year this past October because the mayor of Schofield or Rothschild didn’t show up,” Thao wrote on Facebook. “He never hesitated and went up there and represented. Thank you Daniel.”
But Sparks, too, said he has received calls and messages of support for his actions. Reached by phone on Wednesday, Sparks declined to comment further on the issue in order to protect the integrity of the closed session meeting.
“I wish I could tell you more, but I just can’t,” Sparks said. “I pride myself on my transparency, but we have to do this the right way.”
Maloney has not responded to a request for comment.