Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add additional information from Marathon County Supervisor Donna Krause, at her request.
All but one member of the 38-person Marathon County Board of Supervisors were sworn in on Tuesday and, after a challenge and debate, reelected Kurt Gibbs as their chair.
Gibbs, who represents Dist. 32, defeated Dist. 23 Supervisor David Baker by a 24-13 vote to lead the board. The apparent elected supervisor from Dist. 11, Alyson Leahy, was not allowed to attend the organizational meeting because of a potential challenge from her opponent in the spring election. Her 3-vote margin of victory was reaffirmed in a recount by the Marathon County Board of Canvass on Monday, but a five-day challenge window forced the delay.
Asking for support from the supervisors, Gibbs, who has bene on the board for 16 years, said service has always been a huge part of his life. He refuted Baker’s assertion that the board chair holds significant power.
“The role of the chair is to facilitate the will of this board, not their own personal agenda,” Gibbs said, apparently referring to Baker’s earlier remarks in which he claimed what the voters wanted the chair and supervisors to do in the new term.
Baker said it was time for change. He counted on the support of some of the board’s more conservative members, several of whom had been planning to oust Gibbs as leader. “If you are happy with the last two years, vote for Gibbs,” Baker said. “But if you agree with the voters, then we need to change. Please consider voting for me.”
In the end, his plea failed to move the majority of the board.
Craig McEwen, a conservative representing Dist. 18, was unanimously reelected as board vice-chair.
Meanwhile, an attempt by Dist. 19 Supervisor Yee Leng Xiong to block the elimination of the Diversity Affairs Commission did not succeed. The Rules Review Committee, chaired by McEwen, had recommended that DAC be dissolved. That recommendation was endorsed by the executive committee of the outgoing board.
Xiong, who chaired the Diversity Affairs Commission, said the group always considered input from the board and suggested more elected members could be added to the commission if there were concerns about unelected citizens making recommendations.
Some conservatives, including McEwen, have complained that unelected members have been making policy recommendations. Critics say the Rules Committee’s rationale is a double standard because other advisory bodies with unelected officials are not similarly targeted. Moreover, those recommendations are not binding, and it is up to the full Board to accept or reject the recommendations.
The DAC had pushed for the CFA resolution, to the great ire of many conservative supervisors and residents in the county.
Tony Sherfinski, a first-term supervisor from Dist. 16, opposed Xiong’s proposal to “reinstate” the Diversity Affairs Commission, saying it had “pushed a very hard leftist, Marxist agenda.” Later, during the debate over shortening the references to diversity and inclusion in the work of the standing committees, Sherfinski said, “All the talk about diversity and inclusion splits people into groups instead of citizens of Marathon County.” Sherfinski said he believes that it is a matter for the state and federal government to decide.
Dona Krause, who represents Dist. 10, criticized those remarks, saying the laws of the land have given opportunities to minorities and women. The reason those laws exist, she added, is because individuals do not treat others equally or fairly because of their religion, color, ethnic group, sex or gender identity.
“Maybe you individually don’t think we need these laws but they made a big difference in my life, and they probably made a big difference in a lot of other people’s lives. These are civil rights laws, these are equal opportunities laws. That’s why we have them,” Krause said.
Board of Health composition changed
The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday made changes to the Board of Health by increasing the number of elected members from three to five and reducing the term of unelected experts from 5 years to 2 years. Stacey Morache, newly elected to represent Dist. 6, introduced a motion to make the changes.
Morache said she was concerned by commentary from a doctor on the board when she attended meetings. She proposed reducing the term for experts to two years if they didn’t serve the community to the best of their ability.
This change comes on the heels of widespread debate over vaccine and mask mandates. Some residents and board members railed against experts who suggested following guidelines from public health institutions regarding the coronavirus pandemic. A handful of supervisors have shared conspiracy theories found on social media channels, while at the same time claiming they are keeping their minds open.
At present the Board of Health has nine members, including three supervisors who serve for two years. Other members serve for a staggered term of five years, a membership that meets standards set by state law. While explaining the statute, Corporation Counsel said that while the statue does not require a certain number of experts, it does require a “good faith effort” be made to have medical experts on the board.
John Robison, the Dist. 4 supervisor who chairs the Board of Health, opposed the changes. The nine-member body, Robinson said, has two positions for retired medical executives with strong public health credentials along with a member who has strong ties to the Hispanic community. A healthcare provider with an advanced degree represents the Hmong community and a member from Aspirus Health “works with us on the the community health improvement program. That involvement is critical,” Robinson said.
The vote on changing the membership of the board to five supervisors and three unelected members passed 19-17, while the vote on reducing the terms appointed experts from 5 years to 2 years passed by a margin of 21-15.