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Campaign questions swirl, but Wausau ethics board terms long expired

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By Shereen Siewert

Terms for all members of Wausau’s ethics board expired more than a year ago, opening the door for Mayor Robert Mielke to hand-pick a commission that would ultimately determine whether he violated campaign rules by using city resources to announce his bid for re-election.

Questions surfaced Monday on social media after Mielke announced his run during a lunch-hour event at City Hall in Wausau. Candidates often announce political plans at City Hall, but some residents questioned whether Mielke’s use of the city’s podium, public address system and social media outlets were appropriate under state and local election rules. Meant to ensure all candidates are treated fairly, state elections rules prohibit the use of taxpayer-funded resources for campaigning.

Photos and an announcement regarding his plans briefly appeared on the city’s Facebook page, but the post was taken down after critics spoke up. Mielke said his assistant, Kathi Groeschel, is the Facebook page administrator who both determines and adds city-related news as it happens.

City of Wausau Facebook Page screenshot captured Sept. 9, 2019

Mielke initially forwarded questions about his campaign’s use of city resources to the city’s own attorney, Anne Jacobson, but answered Wausau Pilot and Review’s questions himself after learning that she was unable to advise him regarding campaign issues. In his response, Mielke said he was careful not to use city materials, email addresses or equipment in making the announcement and did not intentionally violate any rules.

“In using the podium and public address system, this has been a practice that has been used by many previous Mayor’s for years in making their re-election announcements and with no known complaints….no other city related materials or equipment were used in making or creating this announcement, Mielke said. “I honestly do feel that there was nothing done improperly with any type of political activity in the workplace or staff here at City Hall.”

In an email, Jacobson confirmed that candidates do not have access to her legal advice for campaign-related issues. Whether candidates or organizations are allowed to hold events at City Hall and use a podium with a PA system depend on a number of factors, she said.

“Staff at the former Government Accountability Board (during the Walker recall era) found no statute governing the appropriate or prohibited uses of government buildings,” Jacobson said. “The issue of restricting public activities on public property is a complex issue that has been the subject of many court cases, recognizing types of publicly owned forums with standards for regulation in each forum. Ultimately, the local governing authority establishes rules for the use of its buildings and property.”

But if either Katie Rosenberg or Chris Norfleet, the two candidates challenging Mielke so far, wishes to initiate an inquiry, there is no clear way to do so at this time. State officials say investigations into actions by local officials are undertaken by the city’s ethics board, an entity established in 1990 with members chosen by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. Jacobson confirmed on Tuesday that all terms of the most recent ethics board expired more than a year ago.

Ethics board members are ideally appointed during a time that makes clear to the public that the group serves the public interest and not the interests of those groups subject to the board’s oversight, according to the Campaign Legal Center.

Norfleet called the use of city resources unethical.

“I would be inclined to have a independent person appointed over the ethical commission,” Norfleet said. “I would hope for integrity from the mayor. Clearly myself nor Katie has the city’s budget to draw from which would clearly give the mayor a unfair advantage from a ethical and economic perspective. If it looks as if a complaint is valid I will look to join Katie in a complaint.”

Rosenberg said she is not planning to file a complaint at this time.

“I don’t want to be distracted from my goal of sharing my vision for Wausau,” Rosenberg said. “Obviously whoever was responsible realized it was a mistake to post campaign content on government social media because it was deleted. I hope everyone learns from this. However I do think this situation and others like the expired terms of every single ethics committee member show that Wausau needs a leader who takes stewardship of our democracy seriously. This adds up. The last thing I want is a public who no longer trusts their government.”

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