Damakant Jayshi

Wausau City’s Committee of the Whole on Wednesday advanced a new version of a proposed Environmental Justice resolution, but not before robust discussion and several changes.

The City Council will discuss the amended draft from Mayor Katie Rosenberg later this month. Among the changes: adding the word “equity,” a word used frequently in environmental justice discussions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental justice aims to address environmental challenges by being proactive and has a long history of targeting untenable practices that lead to disparate impacts, according to the EPA. Redlining, infrastructure decline, housing deterioration, lead poisoning, industrial pollution, concentrated poverty and unemployent are related issues, EPA officials say.

“In the context of environmental justice and planning, equitable development improves public involvement; supports collaborative problem solving; and makes a visible difference in communities that are underserved, under-resourced, and overburdened,” the EPA states, in its environmental justice overview.

The COW approved the mayor’s draft over two other versions – one proposed by Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian and a second version developed by Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen. Although neither council member was fully satisfied with the amended version, both ultimately voted to send to the City Council for final consideration.

Wednesday’s decision stemmed from an Aug. 10 decision by the council to refer the matter to COW to flesh out a workable and acceptable resolution to at least a majority of the group. COW meetings are held as a way to have a comprehensive discussion on a topic where council members participate and the public is invited to weigh in.

Rosenberg, who is now tasked with preparing a draft of the resolution with the proposed changes, termed the meeting “productive” through a Tweet.

“We had a highly productive Committee of the Whole tonight and we even ended up with an environmental justice resolution that almost everyone on council can support,” she wrote.

A series of votes indicated that most members were on board with the proposal, though some expressed reservations.

The word “equity” previously stirred significant debate in city and county discussions over diversity resolutions at both levels. That word was absent from drafts presented by Rasmussen and Rosenberg but will now be added back in.

Among the language in the document: “The City of Wausau will use environmental justice principles during policymaking and develop a plan with clear goals for meaningful public engagement.”

During the public comments phase of the meeting, four people spoke in favor of the resolution and two representatives from local business entities opposed.

Former Alder Gary Gisselman, has spoken in favor of environmental justice and acknowledged that the word “equity” has been made toxic.

Terry Kilian, co-spokesperson for the grassroots environmental group, Citizens for Clean Wausau (CCW), accused some city staff and council members of disputing disparity that exists in the community.

Bruce Grau, a gerontological nurse practitioner and palliative care provider who supports the resolution, said “equity” doesn’t provide special treatment to anyone. Without equity, Grau said, there is no equality.

Marathon County Supervisor William Harris said it was in the interest of businesses to support the environmental justice proposal and environmental cleanup efforts. He added that the resolution was not aimed against businesses.

However, Kolbe & Kolbe representative Michael Tomsyck questioned the need for a resolution exclusively devoted to address environmental justice. He suggested instead to make it a part of the City’s comprehensive plan, throwing his weight behind the Rasmussen version of the resolution if one is approved.

Pointing to Kilian’s op-ed published in Wausau Pilot & Review, David Eckmann, President and CEO of Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce, said anti-business rhetoric appears to be increasing. He said the resolution will adversely impact businesses, and told the committee members that “businesses are your constituents too.”

Kilian defended his article and added there was a deliberate misconception about the proposal. He denied the resolution would open the way to lawsuits, if passed.

The amended resolution passed by a 10-1 vote. Dist. 11 Alder Deb Ryan was the sole dissenting vote.

For the approved draft of the environmental justice resolution, click here, and scroll to page 98.

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.