Rationalizing bigotry, failing in leadership

Posted in Uncategorized on November 19, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg


Like just about everyone, I followed the news coverage of the terrorist activities in Paris with great interest over the weekend. It was all the more significant to me because I’ve stayed a number of times in the neighborhood where much of the activity took place, including several times on Boulevard Voltaire, where the Bataclan Theatre is located.

While there are visitors and hotels just about everywhere in Paris, this is not as much of a tourist area as some other neighborhoods are. A couple of metro stops up from Place de la Republique, where evening news anchors and reporters are using the monument as a backdrop for their on-the-scene reporting this week, there is a neighborhood with a lot of people from the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. I was happy to use the cheap internet service in a little storefront where I was the only person who wasn’t a Turk or Arab. There were kabobs, baklava and simit in store windows. The area reminded me a little of being in Istanbul, while still being unmistakably Paris – just not the Paris of Louis Vuitton or Coco Chanel.

Of course, this isn’t the first terrorist incident in Paris — not even this year – and there have been tensions in France and in Paris for many years. In 2005, I was there during some riots that were going on in the suburbs which went on for weeks and resulted in a state of emergency being declared. There was a lot of property damage as cars and buildings were torched. People were told not to take the train out to the airport because it had stops in troubled areas but of course, I did. The three policemen in my car ended up roughing up an Arab-looking young man along the way.

Really, when I think back on it, a lot of fairly out-of-the ordinary things have happened in places that I’ve visited over the years. A hotel where we stayed a couple of times in Rio de Janeiro ended up in a shootout and hostage situation involving a drug gang, with a woman bystander being killed. I can’t say that I found it that hard to believe, since we had witnessed a pretty serious exchange of automatic weapons fire up the road from our balcony during one of our visits. Back in Wausau, that place would have spent a month in yellow police tape. In Rio, it was all in a night’s work. A McDonald’s across from a restaurant where we ate in Istanbul was blown up by some kind of carry-in bomb after we visited. In the Victory Monument area of Bangkok, where I’ve stayed a few times, there were riots, explosions and firefights in 2010 during a prolonged period of unrest that left 91 dead and 2,100 injured. In August, somebody opened fire on the Thalys train that I’ve ridden a number of times between Amsterdam and Paris through Brussels. I’ve walked out of a blast-darkened tube station in London and been to the pre and post 9-11 sites in New York and Washington DC.

Of course, none of this stuff happened while I was there and that is the whole point. The chances of this kind of thing involving me personally are just about zero, so I don’t worry much about it.  I know that some planes are going to crash or even blow up, but I don’t expect to ever be on one of them. I would go to Paris tomorrow. It’s not a matter of being insensitive, or having courage or anything else. It’s about probability. It’s not about having no risk whatsoever, but having relatively little.

Unfortunately, some are using this recent, tragic event to foment fear and they are fanning the flames of bigotry. And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some of the people nodding in agreement with the idea that we can have no risk at all because of what happened in Paris may be some of the same people who wanted to change the name of French fries to “freedom fries” when the French didn’t agree to go to our war in Iraq, but they’re figuratively waving French flags today.

“In light of these horrific and tragic attacks, our first priority must be to protect our citizens.  Along with governors across the country, I have deep concerns about the Obama Administration’s plan to accept 10,000 or more Syrian refugees, especially given that one of the Paris attackers was reportedly a Syrian refugee.  In consultation with our Adjutant General, who also serves as my Homeland Security Advisor, it is clear that the influx of Syrian refugees poses a threat,” said Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in a statement Monday, as he tried to make the case for preventing any Syrian refugees from entering Wisconsin.

I agree that it’s a threat, but it’s a relatively small threat. The people who are dealing with a real threat are the refugees. They’re fleeing an evil that has robbed them of friends, family members, livelihoods and their homes. They’ve got nothing.  And it’s not enough of a threat to us to justify throwing all of those people under the bus because we should value our safety more than doing what we can to assist in what is a very desperate situation. In the process, we have the opportunity to secure energetic entrepreneurs, workers that we will need in the years to come, bright students, future specialists and the appreciation that naturally arises from being a friend in need and deed. This is not only the right thing to do in the short term, but even more so in the long term.  And sometimes the right thing to do involves some cost and risk. Some of the same people who will invariably and soberly acknowledge that fact when it comes to participating in a war seem to have a real blind spot about that when it comes to advancing peaceful ventures, don’t they?

What I fear far more than a stray radical among throngs of innocents who know a level of suffering most of us can never imagine is the thought of our country abandoning its ideals. I fear giving countless millions around the world another excuse to hate us. I fear what happens when so many people – many of whom have nothing to lose — see an image of America that is being formed for us abroad by loud, small-minded leaders who pander to the lowest common denominator of religious bigotry among us to try to win elections and consolidate power with fear and isolationism in the name of public safety. This is not leadership and it is not worthy of a nation that the world looks to for exactly that.


Added: A Refugee Crisis Made in America:



Mount View Care Center funding failure goes deeper than money

Posted in Uncategorized on May 21, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg


Tuesday, a measure to issue bonds for the $13.5 million remodeling of Mount View Care Center failed at the Marathon County Board by a vote of 24 in favor to 10 opposed with four members absent. While most members voted in support of the bonding, a three-quarters vote of the members-elect of the Board is required under Wisconsin law to issue bonds or promissory notes, (Sec. 67.045 Wis. Stats.)

I strongly supported the project and since I’m now in my 14th term of public office, I also understand that you win some and you lose some. But the manner in which this particular bonding issue failed should give everyone in Marathon County serious cause for pause because it comes off like an act of bad faith on the part of some board members who either don’t understand the significance of acting with consistency or simply didn’t think it was important enough to do that.

This project has been under discussion for years and this past January, the county board passed an “Intent Resolution Regarding Issuance of General Obligation Bonds or Promissory Notes for Nursing Home Project.” By that resolution, the board officially declared its intent to issue bonds for the project and also stated that “At subsequent meetings, the County Board of Supervisors shall take further action to authorize the issuance of the Bonds, approve the details of the Bonds and authorize for the sale of the Bonds.” Barring some incredibly important new factors being introduced, the vote for the bonding should have been perfunctory. A sufficient number of board members had declared policy and their intent to follow through with this project.

There was a full discussion and full understanding that while that initial resolution only required a majority vote, the bonding would require a three quarters vote. It passed with 29 votes in favor, four votes against and five members absent – a three-quarters majority. It may not sound like there was any margin for the upcoming vote on issuing the bonds, but unless we believed that the five missing members were all hard “no” votes and we lost a “yes” along the way, the ice was plenty thick enough to walk on and everyone should have known what they were doing. Here’s some coverage after the January vote. Done deal, right?


Based on the January vote, the project went out for bids. The proposals arrived on time and within the budget. The planning and execution required to reach that point on something of this magnitude is no small thing; the costs were estimated at $668,000.

But then something else came into play, by way of some grievances that some county board members had with the management of North Central Health Care Facilities over the way certain mental health services were being delivered for the jail and perhaps other matters. None of these things had anything to do with the Mount View project. That didn’t matter, because some members had decided that withholding approval of the Mount View bonds would give them greater leverage in the unrelated discussions. These were issues that had been around for a while. And while they certainly didn’t require hundreds of thousands of dollars in unrelated wasted money to support the debate over them, that is what it could cost county taxpayers to place that particular arrow in their quiver.

Health and Human Services Committee Chair John Robinson was concerned about the possibility of the bonding vote failing and he offered an action to delay the vote in an effort to give wavering members time to resolve their issues with NCHC. I did not support the delay because it was clear that this process would take months. The bids on the project would expire and I wasn’t certain that a delay would produce new votes in favor or that a long delay would leave us in a substantially better position than a loss on the bonding measure would anyway. More importantly, I felt that it would be capitulating to a tactic that would set a bad precedent for the board going forward: the inherent claim that it is okay to renege on prior commitments for comparatively weak reasoning. Based on the people we had in the room, it would be necessary for some to act contrary to their vote in January – to not keep their word – in order for the bonding to fail.

And that is exactly what happened.

It doesn’t bother me that several members who opposed the project continued to oppose it, because those negative votes were already baked in. It doesn’t bother me that several members who missed the January meeting voted in opposition, since they hadn’t established a prior position on the matter that should have been tantamount to approving the bonds. What bothers me greatly is that five members – Lee Peek, Matt Bootz, Richard Gumz, Jacob Langenhahn and Alan Christensen – thought it was okay to flip their positions from the January vote and oppose the bonding that they had already agreed to authorize. Some of them felt comfortable enough with it to speak against the project that they had voted to proceed with a few months earlier. The bottom line is that these five votes provided the exact margin of failure and it is fair to place the responsibility for the outcome directly on the people who cast them. In the now infamous words of John Kerry, they were literally ‘for it before they were against it’ — and it is costing time and money.

The Marathon County Board needs to act in good faith and keep its word when it goes out for bids. Members can have their different views, but they should be consistent with them when it comes to asking people to bid major projects and to do business with the county. Instead, some members were perfectly willing to be Lucy, holding the football out for Charlie Brown to try to kick before pulling it away at the last possible moment.

At this point, there are a lot of losers and no apparent winners. Even if the unrelated issues with NCHC end up being resolved — as they almost certainly will — there is no particular reason to believe that it couldn’t have happened without blowing up the Mount View bonding measure on Tuesday. There’s a contractor that should have been given a multi-million job, after complying with the terms of the bidding and submitting the “winning” bid. There are the employees and future residents in what would have been some badly-needed renovated space at Mount View.  There are the taxpayers of Marathon County, who would have seen 70 percent of the money for the renovations come back through increased reimbursements for care and who may have also lost the opportunity for the lowest possible interest rates on financing, plus the hundreds of thousands invested already. There are some plumbers, carpenters, electricians, masons, managers and others who would have had jobs doing the work and our community that would have seen some of that money recirculated. We can hope that the project’s financing is eventually approved and the losses from current fiasco won’t be all that large, though it’s risky business.

But the biggest loser is the Marathon County Board, because it lost some serious credibility in a way that should never have happened. It will be a little more difficult to rely on some people going forward and to take them at their word. People can rationalize it any way they want to, but it should take a whole lot more for people of good will and good intentions to abandon important commitments than it did this week at the Marathon County Board.


Walker’s UW budget cut proposal breaks faith with local partners

Posted in Uncategorized on February 3, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg

?????I have a different perspective of the governor’s current budget proposal as it relates to UW Colleges. Not only do I work in Student Affairs at UW-Marathon County, but I am also a multi-term member of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors, where I chair the Education and Economic Development Committee. It places me in the unusual position of simultaneously being a landlord and a tenant.

UW Colleges benefit greatly from being part of the UW System, but it is important to remember that the 13 campuses of the UW Colleges have a unique partnership arrangement with their host communities.  That makes them different than the 11 comprehensive campuses and the research institutions of UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee.  Local funding is used to construct and maintain the facilities of the two-year campuses, amounting to millions of dollars annually across the UW Colleges.  The 14 counties and three cities are literally UW Colleges partners. They have undertaken these significant investments and ongoing costs because they support the mission of UW Colleges to provide “high quality educational programs, preparing students for success at the baccalaureate level of education, and to be an institution of access.”

In return for their investment, the counties and municipalities rely on the UW System to provide the staff and program expenses that make a high-quality UW education available in their communities.  While it may have never been a perfectly fair system, it is one that has worked and it respects the fact that the state does not have unlimited resources.  State funding was a far larger piece of the funding for these local colleges in the past than it is today. But it is still a comparative bargain, when measured against the alternative of not having this asset available and judging by the support that the campuses continue to receive.  Unlike Wisconsin’s multi-county technical college districts, the burden of supporting each campus of the UW Colleges is far more narrowly focused in the individual counties that host them.

While the system of two-year campuses has been remarkably stable over the years and host communities still regularly make investments in renovation, maintenance and new facilities to house their local campuses, huge and continuing financial challenges threaten the ability of these campuses to carry on their mission in the future. A 2013 assessment report by Huron Education conceded that the ability for UW Colleges to continue to meet budget reductions without “a diminution of service to students, faculty, and staff” is limited. That is no surprise to those of us who are looking at it from the inside, but what is it that allows some to think that further cuts are in order or even possible? What does this mean for county and municipal partners, who have shouldered their share of the agreement over the years, while the state continues to diminish their commitment to the educational programs being housed?

Decisions along the way have exacerbated the inability of UW Colleges to reach tuition targets, which are a significant part of the current problem. Enrollment numbers represent one variable toward hitting a dollar target; the other variable is the per-credit tuition charge.  By employing UW System-wide tuition increases and freezes, the disparity between tuition revenue per credit and a dollars-per-student basis at UW Colleges in comparison the comprehensive and research universities in the system has continued to widen. Making matters worse, UW Colleges had its own tuition freezes imposed from 2007-2011 while Madison, Milwaukee and the Comprehensives were increasing tuition annually by figures of from 5.5 percent to as high as 9.3 percent.  That makes UW Colleges an even better comparative value to students, but this is a hollow victory if it means that the two-year campuses can’t adequately support their already-lean programs.

Even before the most recent budget proposal, it was past time for counties, communities and the legislators who represent them to insist that the State of Wisconsin again begin acting in good faith on the historic understandings that gave us the UW Colleges in the first place. “A diminution of service to students, faculty, and staff” in an environment where Wisconsin needs to be even more competitive will do nothing but leave more people and our state further behind in the years ahead.



Globetrotting to Haarlem: Going Dutch in North Holland’s capital

Posted in Uncategorized on January 24, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg

Each year, I do a feature for a special travel-themed January issue of City Pages in Wausau. Since they do not publish their content online, I also post here for those at a distance who do not have access to a hard copy. City Pages cover   

After more than a dozen years of destination features in the annual City Pages “Get Outta Town” edition, people often ask about where our last adventure took us or what’s next. When the answer this year was “Haarlem,” it led to a reactions like “Why in the world would you want to go THERE?” The reason is pretty simple, since people hear “Harlem” and they think about a New York City borough famous for being a center of Afro-American culture or the hometown of a comedic basketball team that has been bringing their antics to sports arenas around the country for decades.

Most Americans may know that Manhattan was purchased from the local Indian tribe for trinkets back in 1624. What isn’t remembered as well is that it was the Dutch who did the deal. New York City used to be New Amsterdam and back in the day, Harlem was even spelled with an extra “a” in deference to its original namesake in the Netherlands. The city of 156,000 is a 20-minute train ride from Centraal Station in old Amsterdam.

We’ve visited Amsterdam a number of times and while we enjoy it, we were looking for a different experience. Haarlem fits the bill nicely. It’s beautifully historic and built around canals like Amsterdam, but it has far less in the way of drugs, prostitution, buskers, street people and tourists. It’s spiffier. Good food is easier to find. You get more for your money on the lodging side. Even more importantly for us on this particular trip, Haarlem is more relaxed for bicycling than weaving along the often hectic, crowded streets of Amsterdam, which is five times as large in population and hosts more than 15 million visitors annually.


Regardless, there is no need to exclude one for the other because it’s easy to visit both. Amsterdam is an easy non-stop on Delta from Minneapolis or Detroit and depending on how you schedule, the layover time from Central Wisconsin Airport is minimal, resulting in around 11 hours from wheels up in Mosinee to wheels down at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Better yet, the fare difference out of CWA runs somewhere between negligible to non-existent.

We spent our first day and night in Amsterdam within walking distance of the train station and then headed to Haarlem the following morning. Train travel in Europe is efficient, comfortable and cheap. Our train in from the airport was around $5 per person and travel to Haarlem was about the same. (There are ticket vending machines, but you’ll need to have a chip in your credit card to use them, so be sure that you have one of those if you want to avoid standing in line at a ticket window.) There are half dozen trains an hour between Amsterdam and Haarlem. From the Haarlem station, we could see the spire of the Grote Kerk (great church) of St. Bavo near our hotel and we had our heading set for a nice walk through the historic central city to our digs. We passed bakeries, cheese shops, art galleries and the occasional girl in a red light-lit window with fishnet stockings.


Established as a city in 1245, Haarlem is the capital of the province of North Holland. Its long history includes everything from a Spanish siege and Black Death in the Middle Ages to Nazi occupation in the 20th Century.  Today, it is a picturesque city that offers not only its carefully preserved, historic ambiance, but great night life, wonderful dining, artisan cheeses, Old World beers, some interesting museums and a diverse retail scene that includes everything from designer labels to an iconic, bustling Saturday public market in the town square.

Our hotel is operated out of an office tucked away on a side street between the Grote Kerk and the Spaarne River and it isn’t really a hotel at all. Instead, Haarlem Hotel Suites and Brass Hotel Suites together comprise 18 separate, serviced apartments in the old central city at rates ranging between around $120 to $175 per night. For around the middle of that range, we had a living room, bedroom, a full bath and outdoor deck overlooking the old church in an apartment that was up two flights of steep steps above a Middle Eastern restaurant. (Like many of the centuries old structures in the Netherlands, there are no elevators and the stairways are about as handicapped accessible as an extension ladder.) There was nothing to indicate it was a hotel property behind our anonymous-looking door on Lange Veerstraat. The street is narrow and lined with shops, bars and restaurants; pretty noisy at night with music and voices trapped in the canyon of wall-to-wall brick buildings. Nearly across from us, patrons of the High Times Café contribute a constant aroma of reefer into the atmosphere. Most of the traffic is pedestrian, with the occasional scooter and a constant parade of bikes.


Bicycles were part of our mission here and we were not disappointed. For around $12 a day, we rented single-speed bikes, together with two separate locking systems that were each far more industrial-strength than what is typical around central Wisconsin. (If you want to look like a tourist, you can get a helmet, too. None of the locals wear them.)

The Dutch handle a large share of their day-to-day travel using bicycles and it is not just because the terrain is unusually flat. Rather, there has been a long-term public policy commitment to bicycling as part of a balanced approach to transportation infrastructure that includes pedestrian, private vehicle, public transit and bikes. The result is a separate network for bicycles that includes dedicated paths which are really miniature roadways, complete with bicycle traffic signals. It might sound like it would be confusing – particularly in a city with the added aspect of dozens of drawbridges to accommodate the constant flow of boat traffic on the waterways – but it’s not. In fact, it is a lot easier to get around on a bike than it would be in a car, at least in the central city, where parking a motor vehicle any larger than a scooter is challenging, at best.


We hit the bicycle paths armed with a map and we only managed to get lost once along the way. It was no big deal to procure some navigation help from one of the locals in a park, since essentially everyone seems to speak excellent English. A 52 degree latitude could place a person in North America somewhere along the shore of James Bay and well north of where the great majority of Canadians live. In Haarlem, the leaves were not yet changing in early October and thanks to the temperate maritime climate, we enjoyed weather in the high 60s to low 70s.  We peddled many miles and it’s a great way to see the city up close and personal, but what makes it even better is to stop from time to time.

Shrimp special edited

Haarlem has an outsized selection of cafes and restaurants, many of which offer outdoor seating. If you think Friday night fish fries in Wisconsin are great, you would be in paradise with the fresh seafood that is available when you are within minutes of the North Sea. Fish, scallops, prawns and oysters are staples on many menus and that’s enough to keep me happy, but there is always more. The Dutch are also skilled brewers and while they export half of the beer that they produce, we can vouch for some of what they keep behind for themselves. When we stopped at a non-descript bar with an attractive-looking array of tables along the street under a wide awning, we were happy to find a great menu that included fresh cod and a wonderful selection of beers on tap. Pricing is reasonable and standards are fairly high. (In cities with high tourist traffic, we’ve sometimes encountered restaurants that we felt were being kept alive by one-time visitors, of which there can be a good supply. In Haarlem, repeat local business is a far more necessary ingredient for sustained success and it shows.)

Sidewalk cafe waitress

Speaking of great food, the Saturday market on the town square in the shadow of the Grote Kerk is more than just a place to pick up fresh produce. It offers everything from funky clothes to artisan cheeses and quite a bit in the way of ready-to-eat foods prepared on site. Flounder? Raw oysters on the half shell? Vegetarian fare? It’s all there and there is no need to make any other plans when the market is in session. We picked up a half kilo of freshly prepared shrimp to munch on while we toured the densely-packed expanse of tents and booths and months later back home, we’re still eating the cheese.


Beyond the Grote Market, there is the Grote Kerk itself. It is named for St. Bavo, the patron saint of Haarlem, who spent the first part of his life in the Seventh Century as a self-indulgent noble before experiencing a conversion, giving his wealth to the poor and becoming a monk. A statue of St. Bavo presides outside over the great market square. The present church opened in 1520. It is cavernous and it defines the skyline of the old city, but the focal point inside is the organ built by Amsterdam organ builder Christian Muller and decorated by the Amsterdam artist Jan van Logteren between 1735 and 1738. Herman Melville cited it in his immortal novel, Moby Dick, as he compared it to the mouth of the great whale: “Seeing all these colonnades of bone so methodically ranged about, would you not think you were inside of the great Haarlem organ, and gazing upon its thousand pipes?” Famous musicians who have played the organ have included Mozart, Handel and Mendelssohn. It is massive, with 60 voices, 32-foot pedal-towers and an ornate facade. But bringing things up to nearly the present day, the carillon in the bell tower plays Elvis Presley’s “Love me Tender” on the half hour.

We didn’t feel ready to leave Haarlem on the day before heading back to the U.S., but with an early morning flight out, we thought the safest bet was to spend the last night close to the airport. We took the train to Schiphol and caught the hotel shuttle. But what made it an even better call was that the hotel had a fleet of bicycles available for free use. Located along a rural bike route that began in a suburban commercial area, it quickly transitioned into a scenic ride through herds of grazing sheep, past neatly-tended farms, ponds full of waterfowl, orchards heavy with fall fruit and well-kept Dutch country homes. Paved with a centerline, it was like being on a country bicycle highway and although we were using it on a quiet Sunday afternoon, it was built to handle plenty of commuters on weekdays.


Returning home to Wausau, those painted “sharrows” on Grand Avenue created a stark contrast between where we had been and what we had returned to. But for those who would like to have a better idea about what is possible with a multi-dimensional approach to transportation instead of a nearly total focus of resources on private motor vehicles, a little globetrotting to Haarlem will provide an unforgettable perspective – and a very nice time, too. You won’t need a car.


What’s going to happen with Brokaw?

Posted in Uncategorized on January 15, 2015 by Jim Rosenberg


This week, the long-awaited report on the situation with the Village of Brokaw was released. Marathon County hired consultants from Schenck SC, a state-wide CPA firm and Phillips Borowski SC, a law firm that serves many Wisconsin local governments. With less than 300 residents, Brokaw ran into problems when Wausau Papers closed a large mill in the village, adversely impacting on the tax base while reducing the volumes for its water utility by 95 percent. The Village now has a total property tax rate of $44 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation; (the City of Wausau’s is just under $25, including all components), uncompetitive water rates and few prospects for growth under the present conditions. Worse yet, the money coming from sky-high property tax and water rates still falls far short of what is required to service the village’s debt and supply even modest municipal services to residents. Brokaw, as things stand, is unsustainable.

You can read the report here:


“The report includes two possible options for the Village of Brokaw to pursue to remedy its current financial issues. The first option would be to propose a sale and transfer of the water utility to the City of Wausau, along with an agreement to eventually consolidate with the City in the future, when borders become contiguous. Because consolidation with Wausau will require annexation of property now contained with townships, it is recommended that the Towns be a party to the agreement to provide for an orderly and systematic process. The second option would be to dissolve as a Village and transfer all assets and liabilities to the adjacent Towns of Texas and Maine.”

The county hired the consultants to provide the report so that there would be an objective third party to provide the facts to the parties involved. While we had a good idea of what options were likely to be laid out, it was not because the county had any particular agenda beyond recognizing that there is a problem and that at some point, it needs to be solved. That is the extent of the county’s agenda with this.

Looking ahead, the consultants suggested a cooperative planning process involving Brokaw, the Town of Maine, the Town of Texas and the City of Wausau to explore possible solutions. The county may end up being involved as a facilitator and there may be a role for the state, as well. It is unreasonable to expect Wausau or Marathon County taxpayers to bail out the village or the townships without offsetting economic benefits. That said, it is possible that benefits could be realized in light of the infrastructure and development potential that exists. There is also the matter of a Tax Increment District and whether that public financing scheme can continue under a change of jurisdiction between Brokaw and either the City of Wausau or the townships involved. It is possible that an exception to state law could be created to deal with this problem. What seems certain is that the problem will not solve itself and that any growth strategy will depend on creating a more favorable environment for development than what exists under the tax and water rates currently in place.


Wausau’s referendum on government structure is important — and people are still yawning.

Posted in Uncategorized on December 25, 2014 by Jim Rosenberg


I certainly agree with the Wausau Daily Herald’s editorial last weekend that Wausau needs to have a debate about the structure of its city government. But it is interesting to note that after running that prominent call for input, this would have been the first comment, if I had posted it there. That’s not much of a debate. Likewise, saying that the public sessions were lightly attended would be overstating the underwhelming lack of participation in the sessions. “It’s not enough to rely upon a public education campaign,” said Stephen Hintz, the consultant who is conducting a study of the pros and cons of Wausau changing its form of government.

That is especially true if nobody’s paying much attention.

Is all of this because it’s boring and technical, a possibility alluded to in the editorial? Is it because people have already made up their minds? Perhaps most people just think that it’s all a done deal and the public engagement part is more about window dressing than a sincere desire to have the citizens to shape the outcome, since a lot of that outcome seems to have already been shaped. Let me tell you what I mean by that and offer an alternative vision to what is essentially the only one being offered (unless you count “take it or leave it” as a menu of alternatives.)

The Herald’s opinion piece uses terms like “cheerleader” and “ceremonial” to describe a future mayor’s role, saying that the mayor would likely be a part-time position. It says the administrator would be able to “enact reforms” that would help to make city government more efficient and effective.

But enacting reforms is a policy role and that is not what administrators are hired to do. An administrator should be implementing reforms that are enacted by elected officials. The structural change that is being depicted by the few people who are talking about it envisions a city with less policymaking capacity, not more – and there is almost zero discussion about why that part of it is a good idea. It certainly makes it an easier political sale to say that some or most of the money now being used to pay for a mayor can be diverted into paying the new administrator’s salary, but in the big picture, the amounts of money involved are not nearly important enough in the city’s overall budget to be significant drivers in the discussion. There are things that we aren’t doing well and all of them are not just day-to-day management of the city.

What if — instead of accepting it as an article of faith that the office of mayor should be permanently diminished and that this whole discussion can only be advanced in terms of trading away one thing for another — we thought about permanently enhancing the office of mayor and the city’s management? It’s not as though we are so awash in depth on the policy side, or that we’re doing so well in the economic development area, or we are so strong in the area of advocacy, or that our communications efforts are so effective or that our image as a community is already so compelling that we can afford to give up capacity in those areas. Giving these things 10 hours a week from whoever happens to think they would like to be mayor doesn’t seem like a program that will lead to much gravitas for the city or the mayor’s office, beginning with the ability to draw excellent candidates. It sounds more like one of those infamous part-time jobs in our economy where an employer only wants 15 hours a week, but won’t say when they are until the week before, when the schedule is posted. The job may not take that much time, but it’s difficult to try to do anything else. And that’s a problem.

A lot of times when bad decisions are made, it is because people were given the wrong choices to begin with. Thomas Street is a great example. When it originally came up, the two alternatives the council given to choose from were either a four to five-lane Thomas Street or a pair of one-ways, using Thomas and Sherman. The council made a bad choice because there were only bad choices to choose from and then it was poorly executed. The truth is that those weren’t the only possible choices, but it took the federal government refusing funding assistance and years of frustrating debate to finally arrive at an entirely different conclusion. It could be further argued that in the end, it was far more a policy and political choice than simply a decision about design and implementation. Even if the bad alternative chosen in 2006 had been flawlessly executed, it still would have been a bad idea.

What people need to understand is that the power that would be removed from the mayor’s office doesn’t disappear, it just goes someplace else – and that “someplace else” isn’t just to an administrator. Instead, administrative power – which is already somewhat limited and muddy by reporting relationships – would presumably go to the administrator. But the policy and political power that leaves the mayor’s office under the scenarios being outlined thus far can’t go to the administrator, so that goes to the city council.

How do you feel about that? Do you think the council is where almost all of the policy thinking and acting should end?

Instead of having 40,000 constituents like the mayor has, the administrator would have 11 people elected in lightly-funded and frequently uncontested or thinly-voted elections that are often based largely on neighborhood issues, plus whatever regard should be reserved for the new cheerleader. Keep six of those 11 council members happy and the administrator keeps his or her job.

And while the citizenry would still be free to send a message to city hall by tossing the mayor out in a city-wide election, it likely doesn’t make a lot of difference when you’re buying vision, advocacy and leadership in scant measures of only eight or 10 hours per week from whomever might be willing to offer such things in those inconvenient increments, while attempting to make a living and a life elsewhere. In short, by electing a new mayor, citizens would primarily be getting only a new cheerleader and ribbon cutter; one that they have little right to expect much more from and certainly not someone who can substantially advance their interests.

A ceremonial mayor could very well translate into ceremonial mayoral voters — something that becomes worse yet when we consider that with the implementation of staggered council terms beginning with the 2016 elections, Wausau’s citizens will never again have the opportunity to effect sweeping change in the council in a single election because only a maximum of six members will be up in any given year. (Remember the vigorous, far-reaching community debate for that change? Me either.)

So if you don’t like any of the alternatives that will be offered to you in Wausau’s April referendum, (the question or questions for which we haven’t seen yet), here’s my two cents worth — and it’s worth every penny: Don’t select any of them. If voters provide a mandate for a change that isn’t enough of an improvement, they may never again have the opportunity to send people back with instructions to get it right.


Herald Editorial:


Fix organizational culture issues at Wausau’s city hall first:


You didn’t win? It’s your own fault.

Posted in Uncategorized on November 6, 2014 by Jim Rosenberg

No Whining

I’ve been watching and listening to all the commentary, recriminations, denial, blame, rationalizations, handwringing and everything else that comes after getting beat in elections. I’m not saying that I don’t agree with some of it, that I don’t ever engage in it or that I’m bigger than all of that. I’m not, believe me.

When our team loses, we can all point to the bad call that the ref made or some unfair advantage that our opponent had or the big chance that we missed because the coach didn’t understand something that, in hindsight, we all know could have been perfectly exploited when the opportunity was there to do that. But we can’t unlose the game – even if we’re 150 percent right. It doesn’t matter after the clock runs out. But the good players and teams know that even after a losing season, another season is not all that far off. And the winners know that too.

Back when I was learning the public communications field in the U.S. Air Force, I had an extra job working for an AM-FM radio station in Ishpeming, Michigan. It consisted of going to local government meetings with a tape recorder, following the action, conducting interviews and filing reports that were part of the next day’s news programming.

After a particularly raucous series of meetings of the Marquette City Commission, I went to a local restaurant to talk with Peter Embley and gather some insight about what was going on. Peter was a community activist who always had interesting things to offer to the public discourse, but he was also regarded as something between a troublemaker and a crackpot. I’m not sure that he minded that and he had long been accustomed to marching to his own drummer. At one point in the conversation, I expressed some frustration that what seemed like a perfectly well-thought out policy alternative was rejected without discussion by the city commission. Between the two of us, I blamed them for being so obviously short-sighted. And that is when he corrected me with a truth that I have never forgotten.

‘We want to blame others when they don’t agree with us, but it is our own fault. It is our job to fully explain the wisdom in our views and why others should agree. When we can’t do it, then it is our own failure. It’s not their fault for not agreeing. It’s ours that they didn’t. We are the people who failed to make a compelling case and we are the people who have to fix it.’

As tempting as it may be to want to agree with those who claim that we are surrounded by fools, the best place to look for the first person who can do something about creating a more just and promising future is in the mirror. So take a long, hard look.



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