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Mayor’s proposed diversity committee draws praise, criticism

in News

By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU — A proposed committee to promote inclusivity and diversity in Wausau was met with a mixed response Tuesday by city council members and led to a sharp exchange between the mayor and City Council Member Mary Thao.

Mayor Rob Mielke’s proposal for a committee to encourage a welcoming and diverse Wausau consists of one council member and seven community members, five of which have already been chosen. Thao, the only minority member and one of five women on the 11-person council, was not chosen for the committee. Instead, Alderman Tom Neal, who represents Dist. 4, will represent the council’s efforts to seek out ways Wausau can be more diverse. Community members chosen by Mielke for the committee are Blake Opal-Wahoske, Paige Heinrich, Tony Gonzalez, Fong Moua, David Deon Stuart and Tom Rau.

Council President Lisa Rasmussen said the committee is meant to be a “think tank of sorts” that can help the city in its efforts to be more inclusive and welcoming and said members could help provide a positive influence and point of view for city officials in their decision-making processes.

But Thao questioned the need to create yet another commission in Wausau when significant efforts are already underway that Wausau officials could choose to participate in. Specifically, Thao named the Marathon County Diversity Commission, a group Wausau was previously involved with for more than 20 years, and Toward One Wausau, a community project tasked with finding common ground for action on addressing diversity issues in a constructive way.

“Great things are happening here,” Thao said. “We could be a part of that synergy. We have every opportunity to be a part of that. Instead, we could be choosing to go off on our own, to build another silo.”

Thao also openly questioned how Wausau could form such a committee when her own issues with the council have yet to be resolved, a subject that was brought forward by a community member during the public comment portion of the meeting. During public comment Ka Lo, who is a member of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, praised the idea behind the committee but requested the council delay any decision until the rift between Thao and the council is mended. Thao in August publicly accused some members of the council of subjecting her to bullying, racism and acts of aggression since she was voted into office last year.

Mielke, however, described the committee as a positive development.

“I’m not going to get into a knock down drag out,” Mielke said. “I just don’t really understand why you’re making this a negative thing.”

The mayor said members were chosen because they have been involved in community and diversity issues in the past. He told council members, “in the point of openness and transparency,” that one member of the committee, David Deon Stuart, had a minor criminal incident in 2004.

“There isn’t anything improper,” Mielke said. “People deserve a second chance.”

Court records show Stuart was convicted in 2004 of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old child. As part of a plea agreement, his original felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor sexual assault charge. A second charge of exposing genitals to a child, involving a separate alleged victim who was 16 years old, was dismissed but considered at sentencing. According to court records Smith received a suspended sentence but served five months in jail when his probation was revoked for testing positive for cocaine on a urine test, traveling out of state without agent approval, failing to attend his AODA assessment, and drinking alcohol, all of which violated the rules of his probation He is not on the sex offender registry and is not currently under any supervision.

Council members also debated the name of the committee, which was originally called the Welcoming, Diversity and Inclusivity Committee, a name Thao said is deceiving.

“If we’re looking for advice and not real solutions, I don’t know why we’re calling this a welcoming, diversity and inclusivity committee,” Thao said.

But Neal said the committee will likely choose its own name to reflect the goals and mission of the group once an initial meeting takes place.

Council members approved the committee and its members by a vote of 7-3.

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