Damakant Jayshi

Long a target of conservative members of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors and some residents, the Diversity Affairs Commission, an advisory body, has been marked for dissolution.

The Rules Review Committee of the Board of Supervisors, which has been reviewing the existing Marathon County Board Rules and identifying potential revisions, is proposing eliminating the Diversity Affairs Commission (DAC). It has also proposed axing the Capital Improvement Program Committee, along with some other changes.

The new Board of Supervisors sworn in after the April 5 local elections will decide on the proposals. They can accept, modify or reject some or all of the changes.

The supervisors behind the move to dissolve the commission have said that the group “tried to make policy changes,” has citizen members who have not been elected and has only three elected supervises who he says are trying to impose their policy preferences on the 38-member Marathon County Board. Critics of the proposals point out that most boards and committees also have citizen members and further say that an advisory committee can’t actually make policy decisions. Rather, they recommend them.

Notably, every single member on the Rules Review Committee is a member of an advisory board or committee that also has unelected citizen members, with some of them sitting on more than one such body.

Board of Supervisors Vice-Chair Craig McEwen, who heads the five-member Rules Review Committee, defended the move to eliminate the diversity commission. McEwen represents Dist. 18.

“I believe the Diversity Affairs Commission has tried to make policy changes,” McEwen told Wausau Pilot & Review in an interview. “It has just three supervisors. It started with ‘No (Place for) Hate.’ My constituents have complained about why unelected citizens are making these change.”

Bill Conway, Dist. 16, is one of the three supervisors on the Diversity Affairs Commission. Conway strongly disagreed with the Rules Review Committee’s proposal.

“The Diversity Affairs Commission cannot make policy decisions or affect governance or operations of county affairs in any way, shape, or form,” Conway told Wausau Pilot & Review. “We exist as an advisory committee and can only make suggestions and recommendations to the Executive Committee. That is all. To say otherwise – when knowing it to be untrue – is disingenuous at best and smacks of Jim Crow at its worst.”

McEwen said he is not trying to knock out discussions. “But we wanted to involve the entire Board of Supervisors,” he said.

McEwen chose not to answer questions about other members, including himself, sitting on committee with unelected members, but added that this was not the only complaint against the commission. He also said the issues that the commission is dealing with are more appropriate for discussion by the entire Board, though he later acknowledged in an email that the DAC is only an advisory body.

Conway said the argument that unelected citizens were making policy decisions “is quite plainly incorrect. And the fact that those who say so indeed know better, makes it something quite a bit worse. Citizen members exist on all our committees, yet Diversity Affairs is the only one targeted for disbandment. I see no hubbub with the Library Board or the Parks Commission.” 

McEwen denied that the group is singling out the commission. “We aren’t picking on the Diversity Affairs Commission. But we need to have discussions with the whole Board.”

Eliminating the eight-member diversity commission has long been the goal of several supervisors who have blamed the group for pushing the ‘Community for All’ resolution, a diversity and inclusive initiative which they contended was divisive and unnecessary.

Every member of the Rules Review Committee except for Dist. 4 Supervisor John Robinson voted against the CFA resolution in August last year. The resolution failed on procedural grounds after the vote was tied 18-18.

Robinson is helping prepare the draft of the changes being proposed, but denied that he is behind the effort to disband the diversity commission.

“I was not the one who proposed abolishing it (the commission) but I also want to see how we can develop tasks for each of the standing committees, and what is their role as relate to diversity and inclusion,” Robinson told Wausau Pilot & Review.

After sensing that other members were adamant on eliminating the commission, Robinson said, he sought to have diversity and inclusion integrated with standing committees. He proposes including “diversity and inclusion responsibilities” for each of the standing committees, which only have supervisors as members.

When asked about his view on the commission, Robinson said he had no opinion one way or the other. Still, Robinson said, the group has “not listened to the opinions of others.”

During heated debates over the ‘Community for All Resolution’ last year, a number of supervisors and residents had complained that the diversity commission was ignoring their concerns. Members of the commission, as well as supervisors who first proposed the resolution, countered by saying that commission meetings were open to all and included hearing opinions from everyone, including those opposed to the diversity initiative. The commission did hear from opponents of the resolution and in one of the meetings, they were accused of being racists who were pushing a divisive agenda.

Robinson admitted that some of his colleagues appear opposed to the Diversity Affairs Commission, no matter what the group proposes.

“It has a role but unfortunately once they highlighted the need for diversity and inclusion, it met with opposition from other supervisors who were opposed to its proposals, irrespective of the merits,” Robinson said, adding that those proposals did not move forward with the full Board of Supervisors.

That accomplishment yardstick was also mentioned by McEwen as a reason behind the proposal to dissolve the commission. The chair of the RR Committee said other advisory bodies did manage to accomplish their goals, unlike the diversity commission. When asked if accomplishment was a fair assessment in view of the opposition by at least half of the County Board, he replied, “We go through these rules’ revisions every two years. It is up to the new Board to make a decision on them.”

Conway said the move to dissolve the body is wrong.

“I do not agree that dissolving the Diversity Affairs Commission is a practical or warranted move; people who live right here in Marathon County are not experiencing the same level of acceptance across the board, and silencing their voices and shuttering their avenue for understanding flies in the face of empathy, courage, and sound judgement,” he said. “People should be given more opportunities to express themselves, not less. We should listen more, rather than talk more. Again and again, we’ve heard from people experiencing discrimination and prejudice and now we aim to move from ignoring them to actively working against them.  That is not the Marathon County that I know. Not even a little bit.”

He said some “lame diversity language” was being added in the draft of the changes, “but unless there’s someone actively pursuing it on each committee (which I’m dubious of), nothing will happen with it and it’ll be ‘business as usual’.”

That fear was also expressed by Christine Salm, one of the citizen activists behind the push for CFA, in her letter to the editor submitted this month to Wausau Pilot & Review. She also shared remarks she made during public comments at the Rules Review Committee meeting on March 10, in which she accused some members of pushing “a political agenda” in their effort to have the commission dissolved.

In her letter, Salm accused McEwen and Dist. 35 Supervisor Jacob E. Langenhahn of pushing the dissolution of DAC. Langenhahn did not respond to Wausau Pilot & Review’s questions.

McEwen pointed out that the Rules and Review (RR) Committee has only put forward a recommendation and that it is up to the new Board to decide on the proposals. He also clarified that the Commission has not been dissolved and will remain in existence – at least until April.

Conway, too, is looking at the April elections.

“What scares the hell out of me is that this year, we have more than one segregationist candidate running for the county board and if people aren’t looking close, they might get themselves elected under the guise of ‘bringing common sense’ to local affairs,” Conway said. “But candidates who publicly say that ‘all the Muslims should be deported’ or that they want to allow neighborhoods to be able to vote on whether minorities could be ‘allowed’ to move in (with a 75% threshold, no less) are NOT representative of their districts. I refuse to believe that.”

Rules Review also proposes public comment limits

Last year, during the debate on the CFA resolution, residents used the public comment portion of meetings to express their views on both sides of the debate. During some meetings, the public comments period lasted as long as an hour.

That could change under another Rules Review Committee proposal, as members sought to limit the scope of public comments.

According to the minutes of the meeting of Sept. 30, 2021, members propose amending the Public Comment rule read: “comments before County Board must pertain to an item on the agenda,” and “comments before the Committees must be germane to the jurisdiction of the committee.” This sentiment was expressed one month after the CFA resolution failed at the County Board.

The final proposal now says that “any person who wishes to address the County Board during the ‘Public Comment’ portion of County Board meetings may only provide comment pertaining to an item on the agenda.

As for the comments before the committees, “any person who wishes to address any subordinate body of the County Board during the “Public Comment” portion of the meeting of the said body may only provide comment that is germane to a topic within the jurisdiction of the body.”

Under the existing code [2.01 (9).(b)], the rules are more accommodative. “Any person who wishes to address the County Board, or one of its committees, during the ‘Public Comment’ portion of meetings must provide his or her name, address, and the topic he or she wishes to present to the Marathon County Clerk, or chair of the committee, no later than five minutes before the start of the meeting.”

The proposal retains the Board or committee chair’s discretion. “The Chair shall have discretion to apportion, limit or extend time according to the number of persons wishing to speak. In the event more than five persons wish to speak, the Chair shall give preference to those persons who have not previously addressed the Board, or its committees, or to persons who represent viewpoints that have not yet been expressed.”

(To read the proposed changes, click here. The section on Diversity Affairs Commission is on page 35 of the document. The one on public comments is Rule 9 on page 7.)