Editorial: The city council needs to pump the brakes

By Brandi Makuski

For the first time in my adult life, I called my alderperson on Nov. 16, as a constituent, to register a concern.

It’s difficult for any news reporter to express a personal opinion in a public venue (at least outside the forum of an editorial like this one). In one of my favorite movies, “The Paper,” the editor-in-chief of a large fictitious daily newspaper, played by Robert Duvall, tells his frustrated managing editor, played by Glenn Close, that “these people we cover…we move around in their world, but it is their world.”

Although reporters live that sentiment to various degrees, there’s a fundamental truth to that movie line. The press is known, historically and formally, as The Fourth Estate. While not an official part of our county’s political system, the press can wield significant influence on political, business, and social matters. To remain objective, it must therefore remain separate.

After reporting a series of controversial decisions by the current council in recent years, one issue compelled me to call my representative, Councilwoman Keely Fischler of District 10.

My concern, I explained to Fischler, was the potential foundation being laid for future ordinances, policies, and other decisions by a Nov. 16 resolution condemning (among other things) the Police and Fire Commission, proposed by Council President Meleesa Johnson (District 5) and Alderman Jeremy Slowinski (District 6). I’ll explain why shortly.

My concern was based on history. On Sept. 19, 2016, the Stevens Point City Council approved a policy, also proposed by Johnson, for something called “Vision Zero.” Essentially, it was a broad, 30,000-foot-view proposal with no details that promised to move the city forward with the “vision” of zero accidents on roadways.

The included policy was short but vague: “The City of Stevens Point will incorporate the principles of Vision Zero, along with financial and engineering evaluations, into its decision making for the development and redesign of its transportation corridors and for related traffic policies.” Johnson’s explanation during follow-up questioning by the gaggle of news reporters (that used to be a thing in Portage Co. See “press gaggle.”) after the meeting was just as unclear.

But it was a valiant plan that passed unanimously; perhaps because the language was so ambiguous it baffled many sitting on the council at the time. It all sounded honorable and innocent enough—and anyway, who would want to be seen voting “against” safety?

That meeting was important for another reason, too: it marked a new era for the city council. One where council decisions relied not on direction from department heads or constituents, but rather from a fundamental belief system of ultimate authority held by the council’s self-professed policy wonks; academics seemingly disconnected from anything outside of their comfort zones who opine on absolutely every topic, thank each other incessantly during discussion, and repeat the phrase, “I echo my colleague’s thoughts” ad nauseam.

Since that 2016 policy passed, the city has approved several new ordinances and projects (with more in the pipeline) related to Vision Zero: new parking ordinances, installing pricey parking permit kiosks, miles of new bicycle lanes, narrowing of motor vehicle lanes, road diets, and something called a Complete Streets policy.

The council even voted to transition an ad-hoc committee, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (created by Mayor Mike Wiza in 2015) into the Bicycle and Pedestrian Street Safety Commission, a fully-fledged standing committee now requiring city staff involvement and giving the group more credibility in local government.

All created in the name of Vision Zero.

So perhaps you can understand the concern we should all have when a resolution like the one on Nov. 16 comes up for discussion.

A resolution contains a hodgepodge of many “whereas” statements, essentially declaring each as a fact, to support the actual resolution, which is written at the end. Each of these “whereas” statements should be discussed, vetted, and verified as being factual prior to any vote. City government is a serious business that can have widespread implications, as we’ve already seen.

The Nov. 16 resolution does contain many factual “whereas” statements, including statements about what the PFC is and how it functions, as well as details about anti-discrimination rules and equal protections under the law.

But Johnson took some liberties in her wording, and that’s a problem.

In one of those “whereas” statements, Johnson declares that the PFC’s punishment of former Police Chief Martin Skibba was “insufficient…in addition to their four-month suppression of the May 6, 2020, Wausau Police Department’s Internal Investigative Report.”

Regardless of personal opinion about Skibba’s actions, or the punishment, the facts are these:

  • The PFC was acting on legal advice by a lawyer with extensive experience working with police and fire department matters.
  • Skibba’s punishment—a 15-day unpaid suspension, and the requirement to undergo counseling before returning to duty—was based on city policy at the time of the offense (though relevant policies are currently being amended).
  • That lawyer, the mayor’s office, and the city attorney have all verified the PFC acted in accordance with city policy and state law.
  • Police investigative reports aren’t released unless criminal charges are filed or until it’s been completed—and even then, it sometimes is only available to certain parties under state law. The Wausau Police Department never had an opportunity to finish its investigation because Skibba resigned prior to its conclusion.

Johnson also wrote the city council “remained mostly silent about the Police and Fire Commission’s actions” until the publication of her Nov. 16 resolution. The facts:

  • The council doesn’t actually have a say in the matter under state law. However, as council president, Johnson herself had the authority to release some type of statement on behalf of the council at any time.
  • PFC President Gary Wescott has repeatedly stated that the commission hadn’t received any inquiries from Johnson on the Skibba matter—and that she had not attended a PFC meeting in nearly three years.

While Wiza attempted to assert the facts at the Nov. 16 council meeting, his pleas fell on deaf ears, and the resolution passed. That means insofar as the city is concerned, the PFC’s response was indeed “insufficient” and will forever remain part of the city’s official record.

There’s another piece to this that isn’t contained within the resolution but is important for context. In June, Johnson introduced a new media policy for the city of Stevens Point. The policy restricts city employees’ communication with the press and was introduced because Johnson said she felt it was unacceptable that the city council learned about the Skibba incident from the press, as opposed to Wiza.

One of the policy requirements holds that the city council is notified immediately of all communication with the news media. The policy passed unanimously with minimal discussion.

As a direct result of this, Wiza now utilizes the city’s website and his personal Facebook page as a de facto method for distributing city news and announcements. The long-held practice of sending press releases to the news media in advance of a city event, as well as communication with any city employee not considered a Public Information Officer, came to a screeching halt.

Individually, these new policies and declarations might seem innocent. Combined, they show a systemic removal of checks and balances within city government, pushing us towards a more powerful city council, a weaker mayor’s office, and far less communication with the press.

That’s not democracy.

One could also argue this resolution has created a foundation for a potential future referendum to remove the optional powers PFC and return direct oversight of police and fire departments to the city council—since the PFC acted in the “insufficient” manner already on record.

I attempted to explain all of this to my city council representative. Ms. Fischler seemed eager to hear me out and listened intently, and I asked her to use my comments anonymously during the public council discussion that evening.

But she never raised my concerns during the meeting. I doubt they’d have influenced the outcome, but not mentioning the potential for the risks, at least as I saw them, seems to show a dereliction of duty for an elected representative.

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