Editor’s note: This story has been edited to include comments from Wausau City Attorney Anne Jacobson, which were received after publication.
By Shereen Siewert
City officials in Wausau canceled all “non-essential” meetings last week amid the COVID-19 public health emergency, but some residents and local candidates are questioning why public meetings are still being held for anything other than urgent, ongoing business.
Four meetings remained on the city’s meeting calendar for Tuesday, March 24, including a 5 p.m. Plan Commission meeting that lists public hearings regarding amendments to the project plan for five tax increment districts. The meeting is being held in person and via teleconference. Members of the media and public are allowed to attend in person or email comments in advance of the meeting.
The Finance Committee also meets on Tuesday to discuss millions of dollars worth of spending issues including authorizing a Board of Commissioners of Public Lands State Trust Fund Loan in the amount of $2.986 million, purchasing blighted property from Marathon County, $240,000 for a proposed west-side hotel and up to $899,000 for Riverlife Phase 3, among others. A full council meeting follows.
Like the Plan Commission meeting, members of the media and public are allowed to attend in person or email comments in advance. But Tom Kilian, a candidate for Wausau City Council Dist. 3, said he is deeply concerned that the meetings may not be “essential” business and could violate open meetings laws. Kilian points to Department of Justice guidelines that say “appropriate accommodations should be made to facilitate reasonable access to the meeting for such individuals” that do not have internet or telephone access to observe the meeting remotely.
“I have not seen any such accommodations made or announced by the City in terms of facilitating or providing such a technological nexus,” Kilian said. “Perhaps this is occurring and I am just not aware of it. If not, the manner this week’s city meetings are being handled does not appear to be in full compliance with the guidance from the Wisconsin DOJ’s Open Government Advisory regarding Covid-19.”
Kilian noted this is not simply an ADA matter or consideration.
Wausau City Attorney Anne Jacobson said the city has not yet officially determined which actions are essential versus non-essential, but but by e-mail requested the chairs of the approximately 37 board, committees and commissions of the city to consider limiting meetings to taking care of necessary items.
“Members of the public are still permitted to physically attend public meetings, subject now, to the new order requiring social distancing requirements are met, which we will meet,” Jacobson said. “I believe we are looking at technology to allow viewing from other rooms other than the Council Chambers. And, as always, anyone with an accommodation request can make one; notices in this regard will remain on all agendas.”
Lou Larson, who is seeking to represent Wausau’s Dist. 10, called the meetings an attempt to pass spending without public knowledge or input just before the April 7 election.
“Thousands, maybe millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake here,” said Larson, who called for an immediate halt to meetings for anything other than crucial business.
Emails to Wausau Mayor Robert Mielke and City Council President Lisa Rasmussen early Tuesday seeking clarification on what the city deems “essential” and how the city is overcoming hurdles to open meetings issues have so far gone unanswered.
Katie Rosenberg, who is challenging Mielke in the April 7 election, said the COVID-19 crisis has thrown all levels of government into uncharged territory.
“We’re asking people to work in new situations whether that’s remote or with greater caution,” Rosenberg said. “We’re ensuring essential services are provided while keeping our community safe from exposure to the virus.”
Pointing to the governor’s closure of non-essential businesses statewide, Rosenberg said Wausau needs to consider what is essential business — and focus on that.
“It’s not ideal to leave projects on hold but that’s what a lot of Americans are doing in their own lives,” Rosenberg said. “We should want robust debate and input on millions of dollars worth of projects. If governments cannot ensure the safety of meeting in person and cannot ensure they are following the legal guidelines for meeting remotely, the only answer is to postpone them until meetings can be held safely and legally.”