Former Wausau Economic Development Director Chris Schock speaks to council members about the former Connor Forest Industries property during a February 2020 meeting. Wausau Pilot & Review file photo

By Shereen Siewert

Wausau’s plan to host two roundtable discussions with candidates for office and key members of city staff could violate state campaign ethics rules designed to even the playing field for challengers seeking public office, critics say.

“City staff deserves better than to be treated as propaganda machines,” said Katie Rosenberg, who is challenging Mayor Robert Mielke in the April election. “Wausau residents deserve better than to have government resources and time spent trying to convince candidates who have raised real, substantive concerns about the process that we should go along with the status quo. And frankly, candidates and residents deserve better than to have their ideas cast off as misinformation at every opportunity in government meetings”

Economic Development Director Chris Schock proposed the roundtable discussions Feb. 4 during a meeting of the city’s Economic Development Committee. The public discussions, a plan between the mayor’s office and economic development, would provide information related to the city’s economic strategy, and explain how different development programs work in the city, officials said.

Schock said he and other city staff members would be present, and the city will send an invitation to all candidates and post the meetings for the public.

Tom Neal, who represents Dist. 4 and is being challenged by Judith Miller, said election season brings heightened concern that the city is being managed appropriately.

“This is an opportunity to make sure candidates understand, and the people who are in office are reminded” of processes and the public can “make an informed decision,” Neal said, on Feb. 4.

Mayor Robert Milke, during the Feb. 4 meeting, said the initiative is being put forward “because there is so much misinformation out there.”

Critics are pointing to state campaign standards of conduct that appear to prohibit such events.

Rosenberg said said she is deeply concerned about city government being asked to get involved in campaign politics in such a manner. “Arranging or assisting in arranging a campaign-related event” is prohibited under state ethics rules. A campaign activity means activity that “contributes to, enhances, or furthers a person’s…chance of election or reelection to public office,” the rules state.

Council President Lisa Rasmussen, who is being challenged in this year’s election, said in an email that she thought the meetings simply presented an educational opportunity.

At least two challengers don’t see it that way.

“Education is important but it should be infused in the governing process, not used as political tool during the throws an election season,” Rosenberg said. “It’s just another example in a pattern of misuse of government resources for politicking.”

Tom Kilian, who is challenging Dave Nutting for the Dist. 3 seat, also questioned the proposal.

“In my opinion, there should always be separation between government committees or staff and campaign-related activities. This does not appear appropriate and I do not plan on attending. And during those times, I had already intended to be out talking to District 3 residents about their goals and concerns.”

Wausau Pilot and Review sent an email to Mielke on Friday asking if the roundtables, which were planned for Feb. 20 and March 3, would still take place.

“I will try to get an answer for you on this question but it will take some time to get the correct information, hopefully next week,” Mielke replied.

The proposed meetings also appear to violate the city’s own rulesin the employee handbook, which reads:

“Political Activity: City employees shall not take part in any political campaigning in their capacity as a City employee. Employee are not precluded from being an active citizen and engaging in the political process provided it does not interfere with normal work performance and is not during normal working hours. When engaging in political activity or engaging in discussion of issues of public importance, you are expected to ensure that your actions and positions are not attributed to the City. Further, City resources may not be used for promoting a particular candidate or a political party.

So far, the events do not appear on the city’s calendar.

Previously, Rosenberg filed a state ethics complaint against Mielke, accusing him of using taxpayer funds to spread his campaign message to residents. The complaint, filed Jan. 30, remains under review.

Wausau mayor accused of violating state campaign ethics rules