By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — Wausau’s first female Hmong-American member of the city council says she has been subject to bullying, racism and acts of aggression since being elected earlier this year.
Mary Thao, who represents Dist. 10, said she is ashamed and disappointed by the systemic bias that exists in the council and city staff, treatment that is forcing her to rethink whether diversity is truly welcomed by city officials.
Now, Thao is calling for leadership training for council members and key staffers, training she believes is crucial to ensuring all Wausau residents are represented fairly and all future council members are treated with respect. Mayor Robert Mielke said no such training is necessary.
The controversy first erupted on Aug. 15 when the group went into closed session to discuss a pressing matter that left council members sharply divided. Toward the end of the meeting, Thao called for a roll call vote, a move she already knew from past experience on the Wausau School Board is a useful tool and a legal procedure as outlined in Wisconsin State Statutes. This procedural action provides transparency and accountability as a governing body. But the council had never before used such a tool and members instantly reacted, flatly denying her request and questioning Thao’s understanding of council rules. Wausau City Attorney Anne Jacobson said a roll call vote couldn’t be done, Thao said, and the requested vote was not taken.
Thao later was able to contact an Attorney from Madison only to have the Wausau City Attorney obstruct the information from being shared with her. It was only afterward that Jacobson, Rayala, Rasmussen, and Mayor Rob Mielke learned that Thao was right.
For weeks, Thao’s only request was that Mielke and Jacobson acknowledge that Thao was within her rights to ask for the vote. As time ticked on, Thao said, her request was met with silence and then was ultimately met with a series of aggressive push back that attempted to discredit, belittle, and humiliate her. She felt increasingly ostracized not only from her colleagues in the City Council and staff who were directly aggressive to her, but also from those who stood silently and allowed that behavior to persist.
Then on Oct. 9, the council again went into closed session. This time, members discussed the roll call issue at length. A heated discussion ensued, something Council President Lisa Rasmussen later compared to a “family around the kitchen table.” But Thao describes the interaction much differently. While heated arguments can be a healthy component of discourse, Thao describes this situation as being different from the usual disagreement. The aggressive and personal nature of their comments and their questions about her credibility and knowledge of her role as an elected official led Thao to experience a situation where, she was dismissed, minimized, and made to feel uncomfortable.
“For a whole hour, I had to endure a whole room of white people attack me or make me look like the problem,” Thao said. “Even when state statutes gave me the right to my request, they had different ways of turning down my request. Those who were silent in the room were also the ones quietly perpetuating the bullying along with those who were verbally abusive.” She had to leave the closed session because it was going down a very destructive path.
Thao said one male council member yelled at her and told her how “stupid” the issue was.
“Another council member told me I’d had it my way all night,” Thao said. “Another told me not to roll my eyes at her. The covert tactics used by city staff, council president, and mayor intentionally worked to condemn and discredit the validity of my request for a roll call vote in closed session.”
Finally, in an effort to move forward, Mielke earlier this month called for a meeting with Thao along with Jacobson, Rayala and Rasmussen. During the Oct. 18 meeting, Thao made one request — that Mielke send out a letter to all council members and city staff who were present on Aug. 15 clarifying that Thao’s request was legal and valid. She also requested the letter remind members of the city’s core values: to treat each other with respect while accepting responsibility and taking ownership for their actions. Mielke agreed to the request and offered to allow Thao to review the letter before the communication was sent.
But the letter Mielke wanted to send included specific language softening the city’s responsibility for the error and stating that the city’s position about the roll call vote was meant to minimize closed session voting and enhance transparency. Thao asked for changes to simplify the message. Mielke refused.
“Other than Mrs. Thao, everyone else involved in this matter, the Council President, our City Attorney and our City Clerk is in full agreement with what was written and of what occurred at that meeting and all that was involved leading up to that meeting to try to resolve Mrs. Thao’s concerns,” Mielke wrote, in response to a Wausau Pilot and Review email asking for comment. “As with everything, the truth will come out and will hopefully be presented in an honest and accurate manner.”
Rasmussen said there was no effort to dismiss Thao’s concerns and no intent to minimize Thao’s point of view.
“Throughout this situation, we’ve been trying to find a solution to Mary’s concerns,” Rasmussen wrote, in an email to Wausau Pilot and Review. “However, to date, nothing anyone has done seems to be enough. We continue to seek ways to find common ground.”
Rasmussen said council members are committed to working hard for their residents and are passionate about what they do, without making debates personal.
“This term, we have three new members, all of whom have brought new insight and perspective, which is appreciated and valued. I think the best way we could have proven that to Ms. Thao was to make the changes she was seeking, which is what has happened,” Rasmussen said.
But Thao says what started as simple procedural request within any council member’s legal right turned into something much bigger. She is calling on city officials to apologize to her, something Mielke says is unnecessary.
Throughout this ordeal, Thao said the most disappointing aspect is that the aggressive and dismissive behavior enacted by the leaders of the city was motivated by their interest in silencing, belittling and discrediting another elected official.
Such actions call into question the city’s commitment to transparency, accountability, and a diversity of perspectives, Thao said.
“They continue to not want to be held accountable for being wrong and allowing their privilege and pride entitlement get in the way of acknowledging a simple mistake was made,” Thao said. “How hard is it to just say you were wrong?”