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This week the Wausau City Council deferred voting on an Environmental Justice resolution to consider concerns from businesses and citizens. The same day, a statement from advocacy group Citizens for a Clean Wausau was issued accusing me of spreading “false allegations” over the potential for a class action lawsuit.
The group’s statement indicated they, or an Alderperson did not write the resolution, but copied it mostly from one done in Evanston, IL. Therefore they claim the idea that the resolution, if passed, could spur such a lawsuit is “verifiably false”.
Think about that for a minute. With any public policy action, do you have to be the author of it to use it or gain benefit from it? Certainly not.
I’ve always been up front with people as to what feedback I receive on issues. Last spring, after this resolution emerged from two advisory committees where most members are appointed, not elected, I received a phone call from a gentleman indicating he lived in the Thomas Street area and had concerns. He stated he had attended a discussion where this resolution was brought up. Specifically if the passage of it could be the basis of a class action lawsuit against the city from residents in their area and if the possibility was viable. He had concerns about the cost to taxpayers.
It should be noted alders receive calls and emails all the time from citizens that don’t reside in their districts. Sometimes because people choose to contact all of us, or they are not sure who their alder is. My advice to this caller was to contact his alderperson and share his concern, because alders need to hear from residents to understand their views. I advised him any resolution like that must clear many process steps, including legal review, and thanked him for taking time to call me. Shortly thereafter, I learned the Assistant City Attorney had concerns over statements in the resolution, that were added when the Evanston, IL version was tailored for Wausau by an alderperson, sounding like admissions or acknowledgements by the city for things that had not been proven or disproven. That caused me to recall what the caller said.
Previous council training has advised if an alder becomes aware of potential for litigation against the city, we are well served to advise the City Attorney’s office of it early on so they are aware. If nothing happens, at least they knew about the matter in case they are called to defend it, so I told the Assistant City Attorney what I heard. At the time, many city staffers were wondering out loud where this resolution and some statements in it came from and the purpose. Some found it surprising because there had been no prior research done by professional staff before the committee was asked to consider the draft presented by one alderperson.
After debate between that alder and the legal team, he revised the draft. To claim the item was not written by an alder, at least in part, is false. Normally, the public policy process begins with a request that professional staff research options on a topic and make a recommendation before committees act. That was not done here, and it is indicative of the lack of training our council has received. This was partly due to restrictions on gatherings after the election, but we’ve been meeting in person for over a year, yet we haven’t met to set any goals and priorities or receive training about everything from applicable laws to the available resources and policy tools and the role of alders and others in policy actions so we can be most effective. In spite of my requests for these sessions, we have yet to have one and we’re 15 months into the term. This is partly why we appear dysfunctional and conflicted.
Decorum is often hard to come by in meetings this term, and when I think we’ve finally hit the bottom for the awful things people are willing to say to or about one another, some create a new basement level. Recently we had a disagreement in a meeting where a fellow committee chair was so unable to contain his emotions that a simple disagreement triggered a rant, ending with a statement about people’s qualification to be parents if they don’t agree.
Another alder made spiteful statements about peers in a recent op-ed and about businesses and manufacturers last Tuesday, likening business advocates to the same status as a drug dealer. Some of these businesses have been employing citizens and putting food on family tables in this city for decades. I was stunned and embarrassed for our council. Most council members act professionally, treat others with respect and work to represent constituents without creating constant controversy and flinging accusations. Many of us have been caught in a web of social policy moves that we know are outside the scope of our influence or authority. Others are committed to pitting people against one another based on race, political view or financial status. To what end? This cannot be good for Wausau.
Recently a local radio host referred to me as the only adult in the room. I’m here to tell you that is not the case, because we have lots of smart, hardworking council members, but we also have some who are afraid to speak up at times, because they’ve seen what can happen when you do.
Our council needs to hit the reset button on how they treat one another and people they disagree with. I sincerely hope if this Environmental Justice item passes, it will not become the basis of a legal matter, but legally, attorneys I asked say it is possible. Time will tell if it happens or not. If it does, taxpayers will pay for the defense, win or lose. I continue to hope it will not breed future actions that will stall job growth or cause jobs to leave here. Our area depends on manufacturing and we need to find ways to work with neighbors, business leaders and regulators without passing resolutions that just further these disagreements.
Lisa Rasmussen, Alderperson District 7, Wausau City Council