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

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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.

JR

Herald Editorial:

http://www.wausaudailyherald.com/story/opinion/2014/12/20/need-debate-wausau-government-view/20683509/

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

https://jimrosenberg.wordpress.com/2014/07/31/fix-organizational-culture-issues-at-wausaus-city-hall/

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3 Responses to “Wausau’s referendum on government structure is important — and people are still yawning.”

  1. Robert Mielke-Wausau Says:

    Very well put Jim…and it is sad that that there has been so little debate/discussion or even that much interest (it seems) by the residents of our community. Personally (and I have said this publicly) there should only be a one or the other type of leadership, to have both a Administrator and a part-time Mayor is a waste of money…Hopefully, this issue will be brought out more in early 2015.
    There are both pros & cons of each style of leadership and that too, needs to be brought up more for discussion.

    I am and have always been both “curious” and actually somewhat mis-trustful of the Chamber of Commerce funding this project…this is one of those occasions where this study/discussion should have been funded by public funds for more openness and transparency and I stated so back in August at a council meeting…I am trying to be open-minded, respectful and still wish to have not only the public but MYSELF be educated better about this possible change but at this point, like so many other issues that have happened, I wonder if anything will change at all and that this issue just goes by the wayside.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  2. Jim
    Spot on (as you usually are) The power remains. The question is where? From experience, ruling by committee does not work well.
    I happened to not be available during the time the hearings were held or I would have been there. The lack of public participation concerns me greatly. I do not believe that a recommendation from
    a Chamber Committee is a proper way to even address the issue. I do believe that some change is needed. I do not however have enough information to even have an opinion. I certainly hope more thought is given this than a passing shot by the Chamber. City Residents need to be involved.

  3. Paul Henning Says:

    Nice piece Jim. The best form of city government lies with the players. When you have a weak, ethically challenged Mayor, the Administrator route is the attractive looking path of least resistance. Heck…just hire someone you can fire if you don’t like them. When one has a strong, able, fair and ethical Mayor, the Administrator isn’t even an issue. The issue is only current because we have a Mayor that needs to go and this appears to be the easiest, surest way to affect that. Eliminate his job…classic. I agree w/ Mr. Mielke, we don’t need both. For me,…I’ll take my chances with trusting the Council to control the Administrator they can hire and fire; OVER trusting the Council to control an out of control, rogue Mayor figure that lives and dies only at the pleasure of an uninterested citizenry. We’ve been living that reality and it obviously is not working. It’s lunacy to continue that way.

    As for the Chamber…That’s like moving the fox right into the hen house. After all…they were so very transparent when they showed Roger Luce the door. Why would we expect something different this time around.

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