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Guest column: Sometimes a debate is just a debate

in Opinion

By Lisa Rasmussen, Wausau City Council President

City Council members are hearing a common question lately: What happened between the council and Alderperson Mary Thao? This follows allegations of racism, poor form and bullying, compounded by Ms. Thao’s recent decision to not participate in closed sessions. This leaves more questions than answers for many, including her constituents. Curious, since the procedure change Ms. Thao wanted was made last month. Yet, she continues to portray the council in a negative manner.

City Council President Lisa Rasmussen

I am grateful for those who have taken time to ask questions to understand how we got here. Others have taken sides with limited, one sided information. This wrongfully paints people with a broad brush, and has taken a routine process question and made it a dramatic mess.

I attended these meetings and witnessed efforts to find solutions to Ms. Thao’s concerns. I firmly believe the council has been accused of behaviors that did not occur as depicted and it is time that someone stands up for the council using the facts. On August 15, we debated legal options and were asked to select one. After an hour of debate, there was no decision. To determine what the majority supported, I requested a show of hands to get direction for the legal team. This is key, since the legal staff and clerks have always advised councils not to vote in closed session if consensus can be determined by lesser action. This is to ensure that voting actions occur in open session, in public view to the greatest extent possible. Ms. Thao requested a roll call vote in closed session, which both attorneys present advised against. Based on this, we did not conduct a roll call vote. Ms. Thao offered to obtain an alternate legal opinion on the topic. She exited early, but did not give any obvious indication of being offended by the debate.

In the weeks that followed, city staff researched the matter and determined that legally, a roll call vote is permissible if requested by a member. This took time, since the city attorney and Ms. Thao both had time off that delayed their dialog.

On September 25, the city attorney emailed council members to offer her findings on closed session voting. Ms. Thao was irate that she was not invited to view the material before her colleagues received it. When the city attorney advised she felt it was inappropriate for any council member to preview or critique legal communications to the client ahead of the other members, Ms. Thao called the Mayor to complain about the city attorney, informing him that her intention was to start a public fight over this issue. There were witnesses to this conversation.

The council met in closed session October 9, to view the August 15 minutes, amending them to reflect Ms. Thao’s concerns. We were asked if anyone remembered events differently than the clerk noted. All indicated the clerk’s draft appeared accurate, with the exception of Ms. Thao. Discussion was heated about how to amend the minutes, as some of what she wanted added was not accurate. Before we finished, Ms. Thao stormed out of the meeting.

To be sure the revised minutes and a new procedure going forward was satisfactory, on October 18 a meeting was set by the Mayor including the city attorney, city clerk, Ms. Thao and myself. All seemed satisfied, and Ms. Thao asked the Mayor to write a memo to the council informing them of the outcome. The meeting ended amicably with handshakes.

Before sending the memo, the Mayor shared it with us to review. Ms. Thao wanted edits to remove disclosure that she was accompanied to the meeting by a reporter, and to remove detail about our history of not voting in closed session to ensure transparency. The Mayor felt these details mattered, and refused to delete them.

Shortly after, Ms. Thao alleged bullying and racism against the council. Ironically, the only person who mentioned race in the discussion was Ms. Thao as she described her colleagues in multiple interviews. In reality, we never refer to each other using race or gender labels. We are all just members and we are equals. We are all elected to do the same job, and it is not an easy one.

We challenge each other in debate, but we do not make personal attacks. We are human and are not perfect. Sometimes we bicker, but if we are sharp in tone with one another, we are as quick to apologize and move on as we are to defend positions. We compartmentalize, so you may see us fight over one item and then unify on the next and work as allies in the same meeting.

To be clear, the council values all members and their knowledge. Mary Thao has been and always will be welcome. We encourage her to participate in all sessions, but whether she does is her choice. We made changes she was seeking. In a subsequent closed session, a roll call vote was taken. I believe the recent allegations are exaggerated and some are outright false. The council wants to work cooperatively, but they should not be expected to own things they did not do.

Sadly, it is tough to resolve this because Ms. Thao keeps moving the finish line. First, it was about voting, then meeting minutes, then bullying and racism. Now it wanders into generalizations, conveniently as there are no recordings the council can release to defend itself. This was never about Mary personally. We argued about how to best resolve things, plain and simple. Council members have now received racial accusations, expletive laced calls, and social media attacks about things we did not do based on an unverified story told by one person. Our community is better than that. I know we can work together as professionals in spite of this conflict, and we will. We owe it to our constituents to show up, be informed, and do the job we asked them to give us when we earned their votes.

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 or column for publication, email editor@wausaupilotandreview.com or mail to 500 N. Third St. Suite 208-8; Wausau, WI 54403. Letters of any length are welcome; anonymous letters are not published.

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