What Wausau Should Do Next
by John H. Fischer on February 5th, 2013
I was asked to write a piece on what I think the City of Wausau needs to do in 2013. Being the smart alec that I am, the first thought that came to mind was a one-word answer – PUNT. However, after having a little while to put some real thought into this topic, I have decided that in all seriousness, I can actually answer this with one word. What does the City of Wausau need to do in 2013? LISTEN.
Let’s take a look at Wausau’s mission statement: “In response to our citizens, we will provide services in the most effective and efficient manner in order to promote and enhance our living environment. Plan and encourage positive growth. Promote a positive community image by encouraging citizen involvement and civic pride.” Those first 5 words, “in response to our citizens,” sets the focus for the entire mission of the city. In order to do anything in response to citizens, you need to listen to those citizen. And look again near the end of the mission statement, “encouraging citizen involvement.” If you want to involve citizens, you have to listen to them.
For far too long, the City of Wausau has been run by city staff. The elected officials come and go, but the people who actually run the city pretty much stay the same year after year. The way any government should run is that the people elect leaders, those leaders hire staff. The people tell their leaders what is important to them, and those leaders give staff direction based that guidance by the governed. That is how it should work. The Citizens run the city, elected officials merely communicate it and staff executes it. In my opinion (the views and opinions stated here are solely MY views, they do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Citizen Wausau, or anyone else for that matter), this is NOT how things work in the City of Wausau. City staff run the show, and have for a long time. The City may appear to ask for citizen input on some things, but there are certain key citizens whose input will be given much higher weight. There is a key core of people who have the real say in this town.
No bigger example of this exists than the “name the grassy area downtown” fiasco that happened not that long ago. A group of citizens managed to do a pretty awesome job of fund raising for improvements, and all during the project, this group had decided to call that area of land, that up until then had been unofficially known as the 400 Block, City Square. Now the City of Wausau could have adopted that name and be done with it. But that is not what they did. They instead had a ballot, a way for people to vote for a name. They opened it up for pubic input. And when the votes were tallied on the 10 names on the ballot, 400 Block not only won, it gained more votes than the other 9 names combined. So, after getting input from the public, what did the Council do? They went with the name that was preferred by the key citizens that matter, City Square. It was only after a great deal of backlash that the Council brought this item back up and decided that if you ask the public’s opinion, you might want to go with what they recommend.
Let’s look at housing blight. The way the City has decided to tackle this problem is to have the Housing Task Force create new ordinances. Their most recent project is to come up with a landlord licensing program. Why? Because this will cure the problem? – No. Because this is what the public has been asking for? – No. They want to create this program because this is what some key members of city staff want. Period. The public is asking government to address the blight issue. The City is HEARING this, but they are not listening. The public is NOT saying make more rules and regulations that the City is not capable of enforcing. The public is saying DO something. Actually DO something. Don’t make a rule, enforce a rule!
Look at the budgeting process. Look what departments get money, and what departments get money cut. Just a few years ago, I saw the police department, fire department, public works department, and inspections department take cuts. Now if all departments were taking cuts across the board because of tough financial times, I get it. But at the same time that these “boots on the ground” departments were getting funds cut, budget increases went into the Mayor’s office and the Assessment office. When you ask people what they want, I am pretty sure that public safety is higher up the list than making sure their assessment is 100% accurate.
During this last election cycle, Keene Winters was voted onto the City Council, and he has thrown out some pretty radical ideas that have really ruffled some feathers at City Hall. By my own admission, I have not been a fan of some of these ideas. However, the instant backlash that he received from within City Hall for just bringing some long established policies on the table for review is simply not acceptable. You have a fresh face with different ideas. These ideas, good or bad, merit open-minded discussion. Because without the ability to LISTEN to new ideas, the logic behind them, and having a civil discourse on the pros and cons of these ideas, how do you even know if they are good idea or a bad idea? Doing something because that is how it has always been done – not acceptable reason. We tried that X years ago and it didn’t work then – not acceptable reason. Why didn’t it work?
Then there is the discussion of our current mayor-as-chief-executive form of local government versus a City Manager form of government. There are pros and cons to both items. The Mayor answers directly to the citizens via a vote, the citizens can remove the Mayor. On the other hand, it is a special skill set that is needed to be the executive of a City with a 40,000 population, and would citizens be better served with the ability to look for an executive on a nationwide basis and not be limited to only those who live with city limits? The citizens are not saying they want a City Manager, but if city leaders were listening, it is being said loud and clear that they want the open and honest discussion to happen about it (not just lip service come election time).
Our current mayor has used a hands-off management style. There are some benefits to that type of style. Good people can become great people when they are not micromanaged. On the other hand, without enough supervision, too much control goes from the elected leadership to city staff, and mice will play. Although some pretty cool things have happened since Mayor Tipple has been in office, news has also broke of some things going on in City Hall that aren’t helping the citizens. The Morrissey/Fish scandal in the Community Development Dept tops my personal list. Wausau has also had its own share of phone-gate and travel-gate issues that may have been prevented with better oversight.
The most recent issue of concern is the Thomas Street federal funding issue. I know that many of the elected leaders are saying that wasting time on a “witch hunt” is a waste of city resources, that assigning fault and blame is counter productive and instead the City of Wausau must deal with this set back and move forward. However, the citizens most affected by this see digging into who made these decisions, how they were made, and determining if this was a lack of training, lack of knowledge, or lack of understanding as a worthy endeavor. You cannot learn from a mistake and correct it unless you know the root cause of it. Citizens want to know what went wrong, and the City needs to listen to them and figure this out, even if it means some embarrassment.
The citizens want the City of Wausau to work more with other government entities. The last minute failure of the Human Resources merger with Marathon County still stings for many. There may have been really good reasons for not proceeding, but to be honest, as someone who follows City Hall pretty close and has a Human Resources Management degree, those reasons were not communicated in a way that made much sense to me; therefore it is safe to assume that the public as a whole still has no real clue what happened.
When the City of Wausau does try to work with other communities, they historically don’t get very far. There is inherent distrust between the City of Wausau and the other municipalities that make up our metro area. I am not going to pretend to know all of the reasons for this, but having had a front row seat in the metro fire department merger talks some years ago, one of the problems then was that as the biggest community in the area, Wausau was calling the shots. Wausau has, in the past, had a problem listening when they were at the table. If anything is going to happen as far of a merger of services, Wausau cannot come to the table as the anchor of the area, Wausau must come to the table as an equal partner, with a voice no more important or less important than any other voice. When they choose who meets with other leaders, they cannot choose people with closed minds who are not open up to new ideas, new procedures, or completely out of the box thinking.
One of my favorite television shows is the Big Bang Theory. One of the reasons I enjoy it is because of the character Dr. Sheldon Cooper. I enjoy him because he reminds me of me in high school. In the TV show, Dr. Cooper is a very bright physics professor, but so bright that he assumes that his intelligence automatically makes him right about everything. Anything anyone else says or thinks comes from someone not as smart as him so therefore is not even worth consideration or discussion. That was me in junior high and high school. Unlike Dr. Cooper, I have matured. Although that know-it-all instinct is still inside of me, I have had some attitude adjustments (not always willingly) that have helped me become a better listener. Although I will admit I still have a way to go, I am better able to actually understand what people of opposing views are saying, and at times I have changed how I felt about things that I had very strong opinions on. I now know that I am not always right because I am smart. Actually, the opposite is true. When I am wrong, it is often because I was too smart to listen to the opinions and guidance of others.
The City of Wausau, especially city staff, is Dr. Sheldon Cooper. The staff has extensive education and years (sometimes decades) of experience in running the city. Many of the city staff have been around longer than any elected person in council chambers have. As a collective, they know more than any single citizen or elected leader, therefore they don’t need to listen. However, as absurd as Dr. Cooper’s character is to the television show viewers, the City of Wausau appears just as absurd to those outsiders looking in.
What does the City of Wausau need to do in 2013? The City needs to take to heart those first five words of its mission statement… it needs to stop telling people what it is going to do, and start listening to people as to what it should do.