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.

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 or mail to 500 Third St. Suite 208-8, Wausau, Wis., 54403.

15 replies on “Guest column: It’s time for an administrator in Wausau”

  1. Sounds like a job for Keene to fix Wausau’s problems. Wausau, small town with big city problems. Few weeks ago, reading about 3M pollution issue, made me wonder if they are trying to get them out of the city.

  2. The thought of an Administrator is tempting but I hesitate to say “Let’s go for it!” because if the Administrator is chosen by the current city council members … are we not getting more of the same like mindedness?

  3. Possibly they are correct. Running a city the size of Wausau requires a professional manager. However, another part of the problem is perhaps we need a more intelligent economic development director. One that recognizes a bad deal when he sees one and walks away.

    As I see it, the mayor should devote his time to being a cheerleader for the city. Promote it as a great place to live and to bring your business that will create jobs. Not jobs popping popcorn at a movie theater, but high tech and skilled manufacturing jobs

    We need to stop our love affair with the riverfront. We need affordable housing to the average Jane and Joe, not luxury apartments for the rich. The deal with Wausau Chemical stinks. The city is financing 8 million dollars of an 11million project, plus throwing in the land in the industrial park for one dollar. And what did the city get, a piece of polluted property next to the water plant. It is nuts.

    We need to take a serious look at a city administrator.

  4. What ever happened about Kwik Trip wanting to by the property on 17th? From what was in the council meeting back in February or March they wanted a decision right away. Something about a turn lane on 17th. If we need another one in a diferent topic. I did see the put a new one in on 28th for new ‘not another’ clinic.

  5. To keep saying the same thing, the Economic Development committee has provided no oversight to the staff, nor the Mayor. The Council has not stepped in. The Chair Tom Neal has not appeared in any of the news stories.

    The Mayor inherited a badly functioning City Hall, and for all the talk about it being under control, he has clearly failed to provide any leadership.

  6. No. What this city needs is a COMPETENT mayor and a city council that are held responsible for their duties. How exactly is Wausau different now than it was 15-20 yrs ago? Population has grown of course, but not any more than (and somewhat less) than other surrounding communities. So what has happened? For some insane reason, our city leadership feels that it needs to be in the real estate business. Pretty much EVERY fiscal problem this city faces is because of land/real estate issues. Can someone name any other problem as huge as that is? I can’t. Of course the city should look at opportunities to expand the tax base, but when it comes to forcing real estate deals, committing millions of taxpayer dollars and having completely incapable people heading the committees that run those projects, here we are. Look at all of the private (non city/government) buildings and construction that goes on in this city every week, month and year. These projects get done and with minimum (if any) financial messes. Yet pretty much EVERY project the leaders of this city have plowed into is a HUGE mess, with the Riverlife fiasco front and center. There is NO easy solution to the colossal fiscal mess that Tipple and Mielke have created, but I honestly don’t see how hiring a city manager (and at most likely a SIX figure yearly cost) will magically fix things. Mielke needs to go, period. Schock, Neal and Peckham need to go. There needs to be some…….hell, ANY kind of responsibility for those positions. If a city administrator can be fired by a city council, what exactly is this person supposed to do to reel those fools in? There are MANY communities across the country that are the size of Wausau (and even larger) that do NOT have another taxpayer funded position to do the freaking job a COMPETENT mayor, staff and city council should be able to do. We’ve heard from a lot of politicians and pundits that “elections have consequences”. Wausau is a prime example. Unfortunately, it’s not until 2020 that we can clean our own swamp here. It’s embarrassing how completely incompetent, defiant and narcissistic this current clan is. I don’t know if there’s any way a thing such as a vote of no confidence could be presented on an upcoming ballot, but other than that, I don’t see how the citizens/taxpayers of the city of Wausau can do anything to stop the bleeding.

    1. call1911, you have accurately summed it up, painfully so. The problem I see, is what happens when we have what we have today? Live with it for four painful, out of control years? A good deal of damage can be done in four years, as we see from your examples, and we’re not even done, yet. Like you point out, damaging back to back administrations have hobbled this city. Three in a row could possibly bury Wausau. We should consider an administrator, BUT there would be zero need for an additional Mayor layer to feed.

  7. The basic proposition is that TIDs, economic development and a growing debt load have made city management so complex that we need to “staff-up” to the tasks and hire an administrator.

    This op-ed started with conversations between me and a couple of former council member that I keep in touch with. However, there are a lot more retired council members than that, and I suspect many of them read this newspaper. So, I would like to know what they are thinking. I invite Matt Kaiser, Jim Brezinski, Ed Gale, David Oberbeck, Romey Wagner, Jim Rosenberg and any other former council members to add to this discussion.

  8. I posed something like this on CW Buzz, thought I would replicate it here. ALL OF THIS IS SELF INFLICTED. Sure, there are differences in how we govern, and that is fair, but our Mayor and the ED committee have failed to act in even the smallest ways to reclaim this, they could do this, “From the Office of the Mayor: In consultation with stakeholders and being sensitive to criticism of the Riverlife Project up to this point, the Office of Mayor Mielke has initiated a 360 degree review of the processes, departments, and individuals involved in this project on the City of Wausau side. It is our hope to get a handle on what did occur, create processes to stop it from happening again, and to be as transparent with the public as possible. We understand that our credibility has taken a hit, and those criticism while harsh, are valid. But, this is a first step to reclaim the public confidence in the leadership of this City. We will do this by having an independantly appointed commission empowered to get any and all documents related to this work. We will also hold public hearings in which this commission will be allowed to question the members of the City staff, and council that worked on this project. A report will be made available to the public on or before November 12. The City of Wausau is committee to transparency.”

  9. That being said, the arrogance of the council and the Mayor in regards to this and other matters is creating a situation in which these critical voices are amplified. Their unresponsiveness is causing this. When they do act, they do so in a less than transparent matter. I get that people have personaility issues with these folks (it is politics afterall) but the City of Wausau is failing even the most basic communication strategy work. Everyone could win if Mielke and the council could get past its own hubris and humble themselves even slightly.

    I have no idea if an administrator is the right thing, I live in Weston and that all went sideways.

    I think the Council has a role in holding the Mayor accountable, and have been absent in doing so.

  10. The thought of an administrator is tempting but if the current city council is the one who hires the administrator and they hire someone of like mindedness, aren’t we just going to get more of the same?

  11. Everyone seems to want things at city hall to change, but no one seems to be offering a road map plan to get that done. It is doubtful that anyone with talent and ability will soon aspire to be mayor. Between the staff and council, he or she would be completely hamstrung on getting changes.

    Why run for council? You’ll be one of eleven, and if you push for change you will get more push-back than you bargained for.

    There is a need for good and capable people to run en masse and overturn the status quo. Picking-off this seat or that seat or even the mayor’s chair is not enough.

    How do we get enough candidates united for change? You have to have an issue to run on. Look to the recent past. Wausau had a school board member recall over partnership schools, and a group of new people stormed into city hall in opposition to a downtown convention center. There was a casus belli that brought candidates out en masse.

    We are suggesting that reconfiguring city government to have an administrator who can be fired at will (at any time and not just once every four years) and department heads that can be supervised, hired and fired by the administrator could be sudh a cause. It is certainly a workable plan for restoring accountability. Granted, it will take a strong council that is committed to get the job done. But, unless we can offer a cause and a plan of action, capable professionals are not going to volunteer to run for council, and we’ll be stuck in this cycle forever.

    1. You make many valid points, Keene, but here’s the ONE thing that (I feel) crashes the entire city administrator question to the ground:
      -The city council could be fired AT WILL by the city council and as you also stated, at ANY time. Not just once every four years.
      Okay, so a city administrator would have the power to hire and fire department heads. So let’s say that it’s a “reasonable” hire or fire, but the rest of the “good old boys/girls” in the city council find that hire/fire egregious and then hold a closed, “special meeting” (just like our neighbors in Weston recently did) and fire the administrator. So we then buy out the administrator to the tune of nearly $100k and we’re RIGHT BACK to where we are now.
      “A strong council that is commited to get the job done”……..LOL No offense, but you’re hardly looking at a “strong and/or reasonable” city council right now and you damn well know that.
      A solution? The only one I see is either a recall of the mayor and council or a vote of no confidence to be put on an upcoming ballot that would render any further taxpayer financial commitments invalid. Having said that, I’ll freely admit that I have NO idea if that can be done or if it’s honestly practical. So here we sit…..

      1. Sorry……typo: -The city ADMINISTRATOR could be fired AT WILL by the city council and as you stated, at ANY time. Not just once every four years.

        I wish there was an edit feature here. 😉

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