By Richard Anklam, Deb Hadley and Keene Winters, former members of the Wausau City Council
It is time to say it again. Wausau needs a city administrator.
For the better part of this century, the three of us have held front-row seats to the dysfunction at city hall. With mounting debt and complex legal and development issues on the horizon, Wausau needs to take its management team to a higher level.
Now, with the 2019 budget being drafted and the likely departure of Economic Development Director Christian Schock imminent, there is a window of opportunity to address the fundamental lack of accountability in the city’s governance structure.
What does lack of accountability look like? Remember back on Jan. 9, the city council voted to replace Barker Financial, LLC, with Quantium Ventures, LLC, as the developer for the east side riverfront project. Yet no one on the staff bothered to draft the agreement as directed by a council resolution signed by the mayor. That is a good example of no one being accountable.
The fact that directives are not followed is a problem on its face. Neither the finance director, the economic development director nor the city attorney took up the task in January, February, March or April. Under the current system, the department heads are co-equals. Each of them can say that he or she was not in charge of giving direction to the others.
This particular failure, however, created a situation where the city effectively had two alternative developers for the same project. On paper, the only signed agreement is with Dave Barker of Barker Financial. Yet, from Jan. 9 going forward, Mike Frantz from Quantium Ventures was everywhere playing the role of developer. He could be found introducing new partners, signing up tenants, directing the subcontractors, giving updates to the council and announcing plans to add more floors. Meanwhile city officials repeatedly assured the council and the public that Frantz was “the guy” and that he largely had his financing in place and was meeting all project benchmarks. So, when the liens finally burst that bubble on May 8, the council and everyone else was shocked to learn that Barker Financial was still the developer of record.
Now, the city enters this legal entanglement where the defacto developer and the developer of record are different entities. Because of the development agreement fumble, both erstwhile developers now have a plausible legal position that someone else was responsible.
It is unfortunately beginning to look like the most expeditious way through this mess is for the city to pay everyone off and absorb the legal fees. If you thought the loss of $2.5 million in federal funds for Thomas Street was an expensive staff error, just wait. A new record is coming.
The fact is that these type of errors should not happen in a city like Wausau. We are the 17th largest of 600 or so municipalities in Wisconsin. Wausau’s staff include two attorneys, two CPAs, engineers and senior economic development professionals. By definition all of the city’s department heads are in the top three percent of their profession statewide. There should be no multi-million mistakes.
Things just are not going to get better until we end the current structure that allows city department heads to disclaim responsibility for any given task with impunity. What we need is an administrator who the council can fire at will and who has the ability to supervise, hire and fire the department heads at will. We need clear lines of responsibility.
The budget is the vehicle to do this type of restructuring, and the fact that at least one department head position may soon be vacant is a bonus for restructuring. The time has come for the council to direct the mayor to develop a budget that redefines the lines of responsibility at city hall and includes an administrator.
Lastly, we acknowledge that we have not said much about the mayor to this point. It would be fair to observe that in course of four months of weekly staff meetings the mayor apparently never assigned the task of drafting the development agreement nor inquired about its progress. Clearly, that is a failure. If the voters want to hold him accountable in 2020, they can — assuming he has an opponent. But, until then, he is an unsupervised person who is legally entitled to his current salary whether he is good at administration or not.
Lack of mayoral accountability in the time between elections is another weakness of the current system. One of the reasons we may be at a tipping point is the number of people who see Mayor Mielke’s unwillingness to acknowledge any error in the Frantz debacle as both incredible and out of touch. However, it should be remembered that Mielke is not the first mayor to inhabit the bubble at city hall and become oblivious to the staff failings around him. It has been a chronic problem.
This is an appeal to the council for corrective action. We urge them to schedule a vote on whether to include a city administrator position in the 2019 budget as soon as possible.
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