Damakant Jayshi

Should the City of Wausau have a city administrator? While some city leaders are exploring the topic, others are dismissing the conversation as one engineered by a handful of people trying to create a negative impression of current local leaders.

Gerald Whitburn, a retired businessman who spent much of his career involved in Republican Party politics, is listed as the registered agent behind the organization that paid for a billboard situated on I-39 between Wausau and Mosinee that generated significant discussion on social media. The billboard reads: ‘Wake Up Wausau: Time to hire a city administrator.’

Whitburn had a long career in politics, serving as Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations and later Secretary of Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. He was also an aide to John Chafee during the Nixon Administration and later worked on campaigns for former U.S. Senator Bob Kasten and is a former University of Wisconsin System regent.

“The billboard speaks for itself,” Whitburn told Wausau Pilot & Review. “There is never a downside to beefing up professional staff and, in this instance, it’s overdue.”

Whitburn declined to clarify further and did not say how much money was spent on the effort, but suggested speaking with Wausau Dist. 4 Alder Doug Diny about the issue. Diny had previously reached out to Wausau Pilot & Review asking whether the newspaper intended to cover the administrator debate. Whitburn neither confirmed nor denied working in concert with Diny or any other city official on the effort, but on Friday said he has supported moving Wausau, which has an elected mayor, to the city administrator model “over a number of years and advocated this direction when it went to referenda a number of years ago.”

Through a referendum in 2015, Wausau voters rejected the idea of an administrator, but have not been polled on the issue since.

In an email to Wausau Pilot & Review early this week, Diny said his views on the topic continue to align with comments he made when he was a candidate for the city council in April this year. Then, responding to a candidate questionnaire asking whether he supported the idea of a city administrator over that of a mayor, he suggested letting voters decide.

“The trick with the framing of this question is that it appears to be a vote of no confidence of the mayor at the time the referendum is voted on,” Diny wrote, adding that during the last decade, “the dynamics of city administration related to human resources, recruiting, managing, training, retaining, communicating, executing contracts and providing daily supervision has become more complex. For every example of a bad administrator story, there are hundreds of successful examples of cities using a form of executive management in support of the mayor.”

This week, the Dist. 4 alder told Wausau Pilot & Review he has been contacted by various people looking for comment on the administrator question and referred to both the billboard and an opinion piece by Keene Winters published this month in Wausau Pilot & Review. Winters is a former city Council member who ran for mayor in 2016, losing his primary bid by just 77 votes in a five-way race.

In his Aug. 15 article, Winters pointed to concerns over Wausau’s debt, which has skyrocketed in recent years from $50 million to $225 million, while urging the Wausau City Council to act on budget concerns. In the opinion piece, Winters raises a number of other issues, including concerns over a lack of transparency in meeting agendas and the likelihood of the city amending its budget, again, to borrow money for the riverfront development and former Wausau Center mall redevelopment, both of which have raised their own controversies.

But one of the solutions proposed by the former alder from Dist. 6 is to add a position – that of a city administrator – which could add a six-figure additional cost to the city’s budget, if the city were to add the position while keeping a mayor on staff.

Winters is calling for placing a “referendum question on hiring a city administrator on the November ballot to maximize the number of voters who will weigh-in.”

City leaders report little interest in administrator model

Winters suggested that his own council representative, Becky McElhaney, could agendize those items at any time since she is the council president.

But McElhaney appears to oppose the idea of a city administrator, as does Alder Lisa Rasmussen, who chairs two of the most influential standing committees – Finance, and Public Health and Safety. Rasmussen is also member of another pivotal committee, Economic Development.

“The residents of the City of Wausau voted against the administrator position via a referendum a number of years ago,” McElhaney told Wausau Pilot & Review. “I feel this issue would need to go to back to the residents as a referendum versus council action only.”

McElhaney said any referendum would require thoughtful discussions within the community of what role the administrator would serve with our current form of government. 

“I have had one resident express a desire for an administrator,” she said. “The rest of the feedback has been negative.”

Some universities which deal with the structure of local government suggest being clear about the goal of any change, like whether people are seeking a ‘weak mayor’ or a ‘strong mayor’ structure. Among the questions: Will the administrator be accountable to the mayor or to the city council? Critics also ask if debt is a major concern, how adding another layer with a 6-figure salary helps solve it, should Wausau hire an administrator while keeping a mayor?

And recent controversies in neighboring cities have not gone unnoticed.

“We know from recent history and some current events, that administrators have not been the best managers in Weston, Rhinelander and Kronenwetter,” Rasmussen said. “Merrill had both a mayor and an administrator, and neither of those were highly successful either and that generated a lot of public conflicts and less than stellar results too.”

Each of these communities have faced controversies, and in some instances lawsuits, related to its city administrator or manager. Rhinelander, for example, has had at least six administrators in the last seven years. And their current leader has already announced his resignation, after accepting a position with the Wisconsin League of Municipalities.

In Merrill, the mayor demanded that the city administrator be fired. As for Kronenwetter, the controversy surrounding their last administrator has yet to be concluded.

Rasmussen said that “there are times people think the system of government they don’t have is automatically better than the one they do, but that is not always true,” a position she also stated two years ago.

Mayor or administrator: What’s the difference?

City managers, sometimes known as city administrators, are generally appointed by mayors or councils based on their education and experience in local government, according to the University of North Carolina School of Government. Mayors are elected by their constituents or selected from among members of the council through an election or rotation. Administrators tend to have more specific training, with many holding a Masters of Public Administration (MPA), a graduate level degree tailored toward managing large public institutions. Some mayors do hold an MPA, but they are typically elected based upon political skill and popularity.

Critics of the administrator model point to the inability to remove an official through the balloting process. Paying an additional salary, should Wausau opt for a dual-role model, is another matter of concern raised in the debate.

“The feedback I get from my district on this every time is that they want to elect their leaders and be able to get rid of them with their votes if needed,” Rasmussen added. “Most I hear from are not interested in paying six figures for an administrator who may or may not work out well, and then find themselves funding a separation agreement with that person if the experiment is a fail.”

A six-figure salary isn’t just a random figure. In November 2017, the Wausau City Council rejected an attempt to budget for a city administrator at $100,000.

Rasmussen further said that there is no certainty the council would actually vote to remove a failing administrator.

“Often times, those unelected mangers see to it that they maintain enough allies within the voting body to make sure they would not be let go,” she said

Rasmussen acknowledged that Wausau faces problems, citing a backlog of infrastructure needs and complaints about streets.

“Changing who the Public Works Director reports to does not solve that, unless that person is able to print their own money, because transportation aids are not increased just because a city does not have a Mayor managing the department heads,” Rasmussen said.

She suggested the infrastructure-related problems Wausau is facing could be solved by getting either increased transportation and infrastructure aids from state and federal governments or, absent that, the council opting to increase capital project borrowing to complete more streets. With the public typically adverse to increased debt service, Rasmussen said, another option is to promote new developments so as to add to the tax base.

Rasmussen shared her thoughts about those campaigning to add a city administrator to the city’s payroll.

“What Wausau has is a few individuals who stir this discussion up about every third year through a series of op-ed letters using skewed data points to create a negative impression of local government regardless of who holds elected office, blaming every crisis on current local leaders,” Rasmussen said. “These same people are smart enough to know that most of local issues have no fast, easy fix or it would have been done already.”

Some of those op-ed pieces and guest columns have appeared in Wausau Pilot & Review.

“Things just are not going to get better until we end the current structure that allows city department heads to disclaim responsibility for any given task with impunity,” Winters, Richard Anklam and Deb Hadley wrote in a joint 2018 column. The three former members of the Wausau City Council pointed to the controversy over Barker Financial, LLC being replaced by Mike Frantz of Quantum Ventures, LLC, as the developer for the east side riverfront project as just one of the areas of concern.

“What we need is an administrator who the council can fire at will and who has the ability to supervise, hire and fire the department heads at will. We need clear lines of responsibility,” Winters, Anklam and Hadley wrote. They also said the current government structure allows department heads to “disclaim responsibility for any given task with impunity,” while an administrator could fire them at will. Some department heads have regularly stalled requests for information from the public and press, including Wausau Pilot & Review, and even from council members.

Rasmussen, who defended the staff as “technically skilled and hav(ing) great leadership skills,” is not persuaded by this argument.

“Personally, I feel if Wausau had an administrator, the same people pushing it today would then publicly demand that person be fired every time something goes wrong, and it would,” she said. “Changing the form of government is no guarantee for success.”

Mayor Katie Rosenberg, elected long after the debate over a city administrator began, reiterated that she is open to the discussion on the issue, but pointed out that it has not been a priority for Wausau’s residents or the City Council.

Rosenberg joined Rasmussen in calling out the people behind the effort.

“I haven’t heard from the public on this outside of one citizen’s letters to the editor, the billboard in Mosinee, and bizarrely a communication sent to someone in state government complaining about me,” the mayor said. “These calls are coming from two men who have been involved in government at this level and up and know the proper channels to get policy work done but are instead choosing to buy billboards in other cities and write fantastical accounts intended to mislead.”

When asked to comment on Whitburn’s billboard, Rosenberg said it is the former bureaucrat who should spell out his motives, an opportunity he declined. She added she is not “offended politically or personally by this stunt.” She also said if the conversation is about her, “voters get a chance to make their voices heard on me already. I want what’s best for Wausau and I’m open to innovation and change. This conversation absolutely cannot be about personalities of electeds or who yells the loudest, it must be about what’s best for the people of Wausau.”

The mayor suggested there could be other options too, besides the city administrator, like chiefs of staff or deputy mayors. If the people of Wausau want the City Council to explore an administrator, she added, they should reach out to their elected officials, including herself.

Rosenberg said she wants the public to think deeply about the proposal, like what problem it solves, how much it will it cost and who decides – the council or the public via another referendum.

“It should not be rammed through in five days to meet the ballot referenda deadline,” she said. “The people of Wausau deserve critical thinking, deliberative discussions, and consideration – not a phony manufactured crisis.”