Wausau City Council President Lisa Rasmussen speaks at an economic development committee meeting on Sept. 3, 2019

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect new information that Red Door Family Farm is not a member of the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce, as was claimed in city documents. Wausau Pilot & Review regrets any confusion.

By Shereen Siewert

A Wausau environmental justice resolution is once again shrouded in controversy, with at least one council member accusing another of trying to orchestrate a class-action lawsuit based on the language contained in the document.

First proposed by Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian, the Environmental Justice resolution seeks to address the contamination and adverse environmental impact in low-income areas where minorities, especially Hmong, live in large numbers. The measure is on the agenda for Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

But in a June 21 email to Assistant City Attorney Tara Alfonso, Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen questioned Kilian’s motivation and accused him of “working with a group in his area that may be planning to use such a document in a class action lawsuit over issues they feel exist in their area of the city.” Rasmussen repeated the rumor in an Aug. 5 email to a constituent, saying she was “told by a resident of (Kilian’s) district that the group there is planning a class action lawsuit once the item passes with it as the basis.”

Rasmussen, in an email to Wausau Pilot & Review, confirmed that statement but explained that her opposition is not solely due to concerns over a possible lawsuit, but also due to possible stumbling blocks she thinks the resolution could create for businesses.

Last week, Rasmussen told Meg Ellefson in a WSAU podcast that the resolution came “veiled in a lot of positive language about protecting people” but in reality created potential obstacles that could be better addressed by working directly with manufacturers in the area in a way that does not “vilify” the industrial sector.

“But, if (the class-action lawsuit) turns out to be true, the defense of it, whether the city wins or loses will have a high cost for taxpayers regardless of the outcome,” Rasmussen said. “The fact that it calls for future changes to things like planning, zoning and the like could have a serious chilling effect on manufacturers choosing Wausau as a place to locate.”

The grassroots environmental group Citizens for a Clean Wausau on Tuesday released a statement refuting Rasmussen’s allegations, calling them “verifiably false.”

“It was widely and well known at the time some of these false allegations were spread that the language in the initial draft referred to was adopted, nearly verbatim, from another municipality’s successful resolution, not something originally ‘written’ (read: written from scratch) by a CCW member or a Wausau city council member, and this is very clear in local public records, minutes, and video,” the CCW statement reads. “Due to the frequency, seriousness, and verifiable falseness of the rumors spread against us to residents and certain members of City Hall staff – and our concern that those untruths, left unaddressed, could adversely taint or skew the evaluation of an important municipal resolution intended to help local neighborhoods – We believed that it was our responsibility to address them head-on in public.”

See the full statement embedded below and read public comment submitted to the city about the resolution here.

Last week, the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce publicly came out against the resolution and urged members not to support the measure, citing concerns for the business community. Chamber CEO David Eckmann has so far not responded to requests for comment or to clarify his intent.

Though some Chamber members are on board with the group’s position, some business owners are not. Tenzin Botsford, of the Red Door Family Farm, submitted a public comment to the council that expressed disappointment in the Chamber’s email to members.

Botsford said the resolution provides a “guiding principle to keep our
governance focused on shared long term goals such as enhancing our thriving community in ways that will last for our children, and grandchildren. This is our communities greatest strength….We will can not only create a good place for our families to want to stay, but attract other young families and talented professionals by virtue of our wonderful location and strength of values.

“Our community is a special place and we should be honored to take steps to further that, rather than timidly letting a few larger players slowly erode those qualities,” Botsford wrote.

So far, most publicly submitted comments have been in favor of the resolution, though Kolbe & Kolbe President Jeffrey DeLonay submitted a letter expressing concerns about the measure.

“Achieving ‘Environmental Justice’ is a subjective measure, certainly nothing that
can be objectively measured,” DeLonay wrote. “It just becomes a politically-charged interpretive matter.”

But William Harris, a Wausau attorney who represents Dist. 3 on the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, said the council has a responsibility to ensure Wausau’s economic success and future prosperity.

…”That means dispelling with conspiracy theories and upholding the truth, that means addressing the disparities a number of our underserved and marginalized populations face, including those posed by environmental and health hazards by passing the “Environmental Justice” Resolution and in doing so you protect those residents equitable share of environmental benefits, and community assets while investing in their safety and health too, it means leading the community to meet all of our great challenges, it means exhibiting good judgment, it means standing for what you know in your heart is right, and it means bringing us together as a community,” Harris wrote in his public comment submitted for council consideration.

The City Council meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 407 Grant St., Wausau.

Public statement from Citizens for a Clean Wausau: