By Damakant Jayshi

The Executive Committee of the Marathon County Board will postpone taking up an amended ‘Community for All’ resolution that attracted sharp reaction among its proponents and those opposed to the measure.

According to a District 3 Board supervisor, William Harris, who is among those spearheading the effort to pass the diversity-focused resolution, the measure would likely be taken up next month. The resolution was prepared by the county’s Diversity Affairs Commission.

A previous version of the resolution was voted down 6-2 by the 10-member Executive Committee on May 13. Chair Kurt Gibbs, Vice-Chair Craig McEwen, supervisors Matt Bootz, Randy Fifrick, Jacob Langenhahn and E.J. Stark voted against the measure. Supervisors Alyson Leahy and John Robinson voted in favor and two supervisors – Sara Guild and Tim Buttke – were excused. The rejection drew national attention with a The New York Times report.

Supporters of the initiative expect approval despite opposition to the measure from a section of the community, members of the executive committee and the Marathon County Board.

“With the changes made to the resolution, we hope it gets approved by the Executive Committee,” Harris, tells Wausau Pilot & Review. “We have tried to address the concerns of the people in the community as well as Board supervisors.” 

William Harris

Harris, an attorney who grew up in Florida, is Marathon County’s first Black supervisor, elected in 2020. Among the changes was defining the word ‘equity’ in the resolution, a word that drew fierce backlash from those opposed to the initiative.

Skeptics of the move are unmoved, though.

“Why do we keep talking about this resolution? We are a caring and welcoming community for law-abiding people,” said Joanne Leonard, a former board member. 

Leonard, who is white, has taken issue with the word “equity” in the resolution. 

“This is nothing but an attempt to cast whites as bigots and racists,” Leonard said, adding that the initiative  is “elevating one minority group over another minority group or any other community.”

These charges are denied by both Harris and another supervisor, Yee Leng Xiong from Dist. 19, who supports the measure. Xiong, who chairs the Diversity Affairs Commission, said Harris has made efforts to address the concerns of those who feel the initiative is “divisive,” opens the community to lawsuits and opens the door to “redistribution of wealth.” The two contend the resolution does no such thing.

“This is a resolution meant to unite our community,” Xiong said. “In fact, we need it more than ever.” 

Yee Leng Xiong

According to a 2019-2021 LIFE Report by United Way of Marathon County, more than one-third of the survey respondents reported one or more experiences of discrimination, an increase of 7% since 2017. Another key finding of the report – on income disparity – shows about 45% of Black residents living below poverty level. The figures for American Indian or Alaska Native residents is almost 30%, Asians at 30%, and Hispanic or Latino more than 40%.

The figure for white residents is just 8%, the survey shows.

“How do you deal with inequality if you do not even want to acknowledge it?” Xiong said.

Xiong and Harris are in talks with other supervisors who have been opposed to the resolution to see if more changes can be made to the document that would ensure their support. One is Chris Dickinson, supervisor from Dist. 29.

“The document contained wording and action items that went beyond a simple declaration that we are a community for all, making it problematic for unanimous support which I feel is necessary for such a resolution,” Dickinson said, referring to the older version which he has opposed. He said he hasn’t yet read the new version and would decide on voting after reading it.

If the executive committee rejects the resolution again, Harris and Xiong plan to bring it to the full Board. As per the Board rules, any two supervisors can bring a measure to the full Board.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.

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