Kids these days like to use a term they call “gaslighting.” Wikipedia defines this as psychological manipulation in which a person sows seeds of doubt, making people question their own memory or perception, or even their sanity.
This week, Wausau City Council President gaslit the people. Put plainly, she lied. Whether intentional or unintentional, Lisa Rasmussen is not telling the truth about a proposed ordinance for downtown Wausau. She claims the ordinance is not about targeting the homeless population in our community.
This is demonstrably false.
During an Oct. 21 meeting of the city’s public health and safety committee, documented in this video, Council President Rasmussen uses the words “homeless” and “homelessness” at least twice in her opening description of the ordinance. Fast forward to about the 42-minute mark to hear it for yourself.
In the course of the discussion council members Dawn Herbst and David Nutting use the words “homeless” or “homelessness” repeatedly, as does Wausau Police Deputy Chief Matt Barnes, as they advocate for what the courts have repeatedly called action that is unconstitutional.
I oppose any ordinance that targets a vulnerable population, fining them rather than engaging them. This is what this ordinance does. It empowers the police and the city to fine homeless people $50 for sleeping in the ramps.
This is a misdirection of focus. Rasmussen stated, as others have, that the mayor is working with some mythical groups to help the homeless. It would have been easy for the council president, in her opinion piece for Wausau Pilot and Review, to document those efforts, but she did not. Or could not. And sadly, given the history of the mayor and the current gaslighting from the council president I do not believe any such work is taking place. No agency representatives spoke at the meeting. The lack of presence makes me wonder if there is truly a public need for an unconstitutional ordinance that is likely to spark a lawsuit.
One important question is how we choose to use our city resources. On one hand, we have funding for any business that wants to open on the water, any initiative to move large businesses from one piece of private property from one place to another. We have funding for all kinds of things. According to the Community Development Block Grant report, the city of Wausau invested $134,790 on rebuilding a street, $138,000 to replace Oak Island playground equipment. But just $10,000 was invested in the Catholic Charities program to support homeless folks.
Deputy Chief Barnes said officers don’t like to put people out into the rain if they don’t have somewhere warm and safe to take them, but it happens. This is important to point out, because this is literally the mechanism of action for legal attacks on past ordinances nationwide that have sought to do the very same thing. There is Supreme Court precedent for this. This court case was documented right here in Wausau Pilot and Review.
For City Council President Lisa Rasmussen to somehow want to write that this is not about homelessness is simply not true. The entire discussion was about homelessness.
Rasmussen wrote, “The ordinance was never intended to apply only to homeless people and is not intended to fine or punish them.” This is not true, which is clear in her comments captured on video in the Oct. 21 meeting. Her own words, the words of Deputy Chief Barnes, the words of David Nutting, and Dawn Herbst. They each mention homelessness, repeatedly.
To close, Rasmussen wrote, “In the end, solving homelessness is a community effort that leaders are seeking to be part of, but we cannot turn a blind eye to the needs of the rest of the community in the process. Keeping parking ramps clean and safe is a duty we have to taxpayers who own them, and people who pay to use them. We cannot ignore that, any more than we can ignore homelessness as a growing issue in the area.”
Clearly, the homeless are the direct target of this ordinance. Even the Department of Justice took a position on this, calling such action cruel and unusual punishment.
Instead of gaslighting, instead of lamenting the media coverage of their activities, instead of equating bad public reaction to media coverage, instead of giving the public more credit for actually opposing bad policy, it’s time for our city leaders to use their resources to make this community better.
The City Council, the Police Department, the Mayor all have resources. Alderman Pat Peckham is on the board of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Homelessness, yet he voted in favor of this proposal. WCAH Executive Director Joe Volk has been to our community, and he spoke out against this ordinance. The City of Wausau has consistently had a member of our community sitting on the board of the ACLU of Wisconsin.
The City could choose to work with the ACLU and the WCAH on coming up with a legal mechanism to solve this highly specific issue that is not a violation of the Constitution of the United States. I sincerely hope this is the route they choose.
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