Damakant Jayshi

Wausau’s Economic Development Committee on Tuesday passed a diversity-focused resolution after a heated and prolonged exchange over the language and intent of the proposal.

By a 4-1 vote, the committee passed the ‘We Are Wausau’ resolution, formerly named ‘A Community for All,’  which will now be sent to the City Council. Chair of the committee, Tom Neal and members Becky McElhaney, Sarah Watson and Tom Kilian voted to pass the measure after adopting some minor changes suggested by member Lisa Rasmussen, who cast the sole nay vote. Mayor Katie Rosenberg crafted the resolution.

However, the majority of the committee voted down Rasmussen’s attempt to significantly alter the language and intent of the resolution, which has been making the rounds in committees and the full City Council since June 2020. The idea for the resolution was prompted by nationwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the hands of police in Minneapolis. 

In June, the City Council voted by a majority to send the measure back to the Economic Development Committee. Rasmussen, representing Dist. 7, had suggested the step, a move that some members saw as an attempt only to delay the measure.

At Tuesday’s meeting, each of the other four committee members rebutted Dist. 7 Alder’s arguments, which she has been repeating in every meeting discussing the measure. They challenged her assertion that the declaration is divisive, they rejected her assertion that the language in the proposal is inflammatory and that it vilifies certain people in the community. Neal also said he “vehemently disagreed” with several of her points.

The discussion got animated after Rasmussen proposed significant changes to paragraph 6 of the resolution: “WHEREAS, we are Wausau. Because we want our community to be an open, inclusive, and diverse place to live, we will continue to work to achieve equity and to foster understanding. We recognize that words have power and when we say equity, we mean sustainable and just access to resources that will help us all gain entry to the American dream but we realize that we don’t all start in the same place.”

Instead, Rasmussen offered this alternative: “WHEREAS, we are Wausau. Because we want our community to be an open, inclusive, and diverse place to live, we will continue to work to foster understanding and embrace opportunities. We recognize that to achieve this, people need sustainable and fair access to opportunities that will help us all pursue the American dream.” 

Rasmussen’s proposed version left out the sentence that acknowledges structural barriers that communities of color face in pursuit of their goals. She also remarked that “we pursue the American dream; we do not gain automatic access to it, that not everyone starts at the same place.”

Economic Development Chair Tom Neal

Chair Neal, from Dist. 4, could barely hide his frustration at yet another attempt by Rasmussen to weaken the resolution again with her now-familiar talking points – stating that people in Wausau have had enough of it. 

“When these people hear about white privilege, or racial bias, or inequity or lack of access, they get emotionally defensive about it,” Neal added. “They don’t want to acknowledge it. We are grown-ups and as grown-ups we must go beyond lofty aspirational talk and deal with acknowledgement of realities.”

The chair said Rasmussen’s changes deny that acknowledgment and said the verbiage is not “mean” or “accusatory.” Instead, Neal said, the community should deal with reality.

The City needs to make a statement that “we not only have aspiration…but need to work together to get past things that aren’t really great about our society and we need some element of that in this document,” he said.

Rasmussen said members of the city council cannot fix a national problem at the municipal level, another of her now-familiar talking points.

Lou Larson, who represents Dist. 10 but is not a member of the ED committee, accused Rasmussen of shutting down the people who support the resolution. 

“This is miscarriage of justice,” said Larson, speaking as a citizen. “The same Alderperson who says we need to get on with city business, like discussing finance, budget and stuff – well, this is city business. Because the people out there want it.” 

City Council President Becky McElhaney, who represents Dist. 6, also objected to Rasmussen’s characterization of the phrase gaining access to American dream, saying it “is not inflammatory.” 

Neal said the people who have a problem with white fragility do not want to acknowledge lack of opportunities for others.

“You are going to work 10 times harder than me but I am going to get there first is their attitude,” Neal said.

Neal is not off in his statistics. According to a Black-white wealth gap study, the net worth of a typical white family is 10 times more than a typical Black family.

Similarly, Dist. 8 Alder Watson said the resolution was a positive document and “not vilifying anyone.”

Mayor Rosenberg told the committee that she drafted the resolution to address the charge that the resolution document was not City-owned and that she wanted the members to decide on its language and intent.

Soon after, the members took a vote on Rasmussen’s proposed changes. They accepted some language changes, including replacing the word “progressive” in paragraph 7 with “forward-looking,” but they rejected her proposal to water down the resolution and remove the word “equity.” Rasmussen had objected to the word, and yet used the word “equity” during the same meeting when discussing relationships the city has with developers.

Near the end of the meeting Neal blamed the County for bringing a bad name to the community by their “ill-advised action.” He was referring to Marathon County’s Executive Committee’s decision to vote down their version of the community for all resolution on May 13, a move that attracted national attention. This prompted Mayor Rosenberg to proclaim Wausau a community for all of May 18.

The proposal now moves to the full council for final approval. 

To view the resolution drafted by Mayor Rosenberg and passed by the Economic Development Committee, click here and visit page 101 of the packet.

See the full video below.

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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