Damakant Jayshi

Members of the City Council on Tuesday declared Wausau ‘a community for all,’ capping three months of intense effort from several council members and Mayor Katie Rosenberg.

The 11-member Common Council adopted the renamed ‘We Are Wausau’ resolution by a 9-2 vote. Members Lisa Rasmussen and Dawn Herbst voted against the measure.

The vote was preceded by a more measured discussion than the one witnessed at the Economic Development Committee which discussed the proposal and voted to move it forward. Of note, the diversity resolution retains the word ‘equity’ and the phrase “help us all gain entry to the American dream but we realize that we don’t all start in the same place,” both of which were subject to significant past debate.

Equity, which means “the quality of being fair and impartial,” was characterized as a Marxist lexicon and recently tied with critical race theory (CRT). As such, the phrasing attracted a great deal of debate not only in City Council committees but also with various bodies of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, which is considering its own version of the ‘community for all’ resolution on Thursday. 

“It is not a mean word,” said Alder Becky McElhaney from Dist. 6. McElhaney, who is City Council President, said she was taken aback by the vehemence of the opposition to the proposal and was called racist and bigot for supporting it. She said people who oppose the measure failed to understand what the marginalized and disabled people go through. “You are fortunate…you do not have the experience that I have and there is a problem.”

Alder Pat Peckam also said the concern over the word is “bogus.”

Those who defended the resolution called it necessary; its opponents branded it as divisive, ideological and biased against the white community. But many whites supported the resolution, a fact noted by Tom Neal, Alder from Dist. 4 and chair of the Economic Development Committee which approved the resolution last week by a 4-1 vote. 

“The We Are Wausau resolution is meant to acknowledge that people’s differences aren’t consistently respected and to express the determination to move above and beyond all forms of bias and exclusion,” said Neal, just before the vote. “The resolution to anyone who reads it clearly does not declare that bias is running rampant. It simply states that we still see an uneven playing field with barriers that disproportionately affect certain marginalized segments of our community.”

Neal further said that those who opposed the proposal “represent a very small fraction of our population, really.” He added that the resolution envisaged equal treatment and opportunity and not equal outcomes.

Alder Rasmussen, a steadfast opponent of the proposal, said her goal was not to stop or stifle a healthy discussion. She added that the amended version of the proposal was far better than the previous one. 

“My goal was to find a product that would get more backing,” she said. 

But Rasmussen also said that the Council still hadn’t found common ground on the subject, pointing out there are people in the community who oppose the measure who feel strongly that their voices were not heard. “

A section of the community was maligned viciously.” She repeated that the resolution was not going to make any meaningful difference in the community. Previously, Rasmussen commented that resolutions aren’t necessarily what local governments should be focusing on.

Alder Tom Kilian took issue with the idea that declaring Wausau an inclusive community is not an essential use of the council’s time.

“I have heard comments, let’s get back to business…’we’ve got roads and infrastructure and this is not government business,’” Kilian said. “We monetize people’s plight for federal funds and spend the money…Is this a community for all?

Among those who played a key role in the adoption of the measure was Mayor Rosenberg. 

“The city wasn’t really engaged in this conversation at all but when I heard a version was going to the (Marathon) county executive committee in May, I went to the public comment portion to express my support,” Rosenberg told Wausau Pilot & Review. The diversity resolution was developed by the Diversity Affairs Commission of Marathon County last year.

As for next steps, the Mayor said “we have a lot of really important planning and it will be important that we infuse those plans with a multi-cultural, multi-ability, multi-experiential mindset so they address the needs of Wausau residents.” 

She added that she was referring to the City’s strategic planning that “we’ll be kicking off shortly and the transit development plan we’re working on in conjunction with the Marathon County Metropolitan Planning Organization.” Rosenberg said she expects heavy public engagement for both of those processes and “we want to make it as easy as we can to include as many voices as possible.”

At the beginning of the Common Council meeting, Neal was criticized by name by Orlando Alfonso, a Wausau resident and husband of the assistant city attorney. Alfonso also accused Neal and others of demonizing conservative opposition and asked the group to stop “race-baiting.”

Ka Lo, who is a Marathon County Supervisor and Wausau School District Board member thanked Neal for his support of the resolution. 

“Thank you Neal for all you said last week,” said Lo, who is Hmong American, a minority community in Wausau. “I feel seen.” 

Neal, who was sharply criticized by Alders Rasmussen and Deb Ryan for his past remarks at the ED committee meetings, told Wausau Pilot & Review that he regretted some of his remarks he made previously. 

“I will say that my offhand comment about some people’s qualifications for parenthood was dumb and unnecessary. I’ll own that,” he wrote in an email statement. “I also once referred to an imaginary “jasper” who might confront me regarding my stance on the CFA issue and how I’d respond. Some folks saw jasper as a derogatory term referring to an ignorant rube. That wasn’t my meaning, but I understand their reaction.” 

He added he was concerned that some people “latched onto and are offended by a single word or offhand phrase while apparently not acknowledging or addressing the overriding content of what I or others say at length on an issue. That’s just cherry-picking to the extreme and does little or nothing to illuminate the discussion.”

Though the diversity measure passed, another measure under consideration that seeks equitable treatment for all area residents, the Environmental Justice resolution, was referred to a Committee of the Whole and did not pass on Tuesday. 

Among those who supported the resolution, Christine Salm said the people who opposed the resolutions were trying to have it both ways. “They think these resolutions have no teeth and they are not going to do anything,” Salm said. “And in the next breath (they say) these resolutions are going to destroy the city, that they are going to take away all the economic growth…You can’t have it both ways. Which is it?” 

She added the resolutions were a statement of commitment by a local government to recognize inclusion and equity are important and essential for a healthy, safe and prosperous community.

??The approved We are Wausau resolution can be viewed here. Click and go to page 119.

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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