Damakant Jayshi

Wausau is the first city in Wisconsin to pass a resolution supporting environmental justice, a move that was months in the making.

The 11-member Wausau City Council voted 8-1 to pass the resolution, with Dist. 9 Alderwoman Dawn Herbst casting the lone vote against the proposal. Herbst, who had voted to approve the amended version of the proposal at the meeting of the Committee of the Whole (COW) on Sept. 8, did not explain her decision. Two representatives – Council President Becky McElhaney (Dist. 6) and Debra Ryan (Dist. 11) – were absent during Tuesday’s meeting.

Environmental justice aims to address environmental challenges by being proactive, with 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 unemployment 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.

Though the resolution took months to finalize, the matter ultimately took less than 15 minutes on Tuesday to pass. Just four speakers took to the podium during the public comment portion of the meeting, all of whom expressed support for the resolution.

Two other residents thanked the council after the proposal’s passage.

“This has been a very positive, collaborative process in many regards,” said Dist. 3 Alder Tom Kilian. “Where we have arrived tonight with this resolution is a good composite of different perspectives and contributions and collaboration between the community and the government.”

Kilian has been campaigning for the measure as a grassroots activist even before he was elected City Council in April 2020.

“This has been a long time coming and there has been a lot of good contributions all around,” Kilian said.

Dist. 7 Alderperson Lisa Rasmussen, who has had sharp differences with Kilian over the measure until recently, agreed.

“Capture this moment because I am going to say I agree with Alder Kilian,” she said, drawing some laughter from other members of the council. “I think we are also in a way better place.”

Kilian and Rasmussen had been at the opposite ends of the resolution, at least initially. Rasmussen said she was concerned with the first draft “because of the impact it would have on commerce and business sector.” But after starting with many differences, the group worked together, considered alternative versions and “have emerged with a better product,” she said.

Kilian contended that the resolution will help address the contamination and adverse environmental impact in low-income areas where minority residents, especially Hmong, live in large numbers. Rasmussen countered by pointing out that some of the provisions in the original version of the resolution prepared by Kilian could impact economic growth.

Some large local businesses and the Greater Wausau Chamber of Commerce opposed the proposal, arguing the language was aimed at punishing businesses.

Rasmussen previously accused Kilian and the grassroots organization he is aligned with, Citizens for a Clean Wausau (CCW), of trying to orchestrate a class-action lawsuit with the help of the language in the resolution. CCW, which has been on the forefront of the environmental resolution fight, refuted the allegations.

But Tuesday saw a public display of unity by council members.

Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who helped prepare the approved resolution on Tuesday, celebrated the resolution as it passed.

“Wausau is the first municipality in Wisconsin to adopt a resolution in support of environmental justice,” she wrote on Twitter. “Way to go, team!”

Last month, the Committee of the Whole approved Rosenberg’s draft over two other versions – one proposed by Kilian and a second version developed by Lisa Rasmussen – with input from city staff.

The COW adopted two crucial changes suggested by Kilian and tasked the mayor to prepare a new draft after incorporating some relevant points from the one prepared by Rasmussen.

Upon Kilian’s suggestion, ‘equity’ replaced ‘equality’ in the document, among other language changes. The amended portion reads: ‘The City of Wausau will use environmental justice principles during policymaking and develop a plan with clear goals for meaningful public engagement.’

This change makes it binding on the city to not only use environmental justice principles for development purposes but also engage the public during policymaking.

The approved resolution does leave out several of Kilian’s measures, including “incorporat(ing) environmental justice into City of Wausau ordinances, codes, policies, and processes, which could include review of existing codes which will be conducted with appropriate revisions to bolster and improve environmental justice outcomes.”

The COW meeting was held after the Finance Committee deadlocked on the matter and the council decided in August to refer the matter to COW.

According to the resolution that passed this week, the principles of environmental justice can help build public policy “based on respect and equity for all people, free from discrimination or bias.”

Another notable aspect is that the City will develop and maintain an active GIS-based inventory of environmental justice areas in Wausau by using the Environmental Protection Agency’s EJSCREEN, and the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool. The resolution stipulates the inventory will be updated every two years and be provided to city council members at the beginning of their terms as well as city staff.

The resolution was first introduced by Kilian at the city’s Liberation and Freedom Committee in December last year.

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 [email protected].