(First published in the March 19, 2020 issue of City Pages)
Nine seats on Wausau City Council are contested for the April 7 election, which could mean nine new faces representing the city
This spring’s elections could see one of the biggest Wausau City Council shifts in some time. With nine contested races on the ballot April 7, there will be at least three new faces on the city council for sure and as many as nine. New council members will face the ongoing issue with Wausau Center, development on Riverlife and addressing the city’s homeless population and transit concerns, among other things. This is who is running and a little about them.
Southeast neighborhood, west of Grand Ave.
Pat Peckham, incumbent. Retired newspaper reporter/editor
Peckham, 71, first ran for city council in 2016 after decades of interest in local government and is seeking his third term in office. Peckham says in the short term, while he thinks the city is handling tax incentives (TIF, or Tax Increment Finance, Districts) correctly, he wants to see a discussion about how the city has and will use such incentives in the future. His top priority is encouraging developers to focus on housing aimed at more modest incomes. One thing Peckham says he wishes the council would have done differently is delayed the city street light project to allow time to find more sustainable alternatives. Peckham points to his accessibility to constituents, including prompt returning of emails and phone calls, and regular district 1 meetings, as reasons voters should choose him.
Christopher Norfleet, challenger. President for the local advocacy group People for the Power of Love
Norfleet, 53, is running because he says citizens, developers and diverse communities don’t have a social infrastructure to represent all. Norfleet wants city leaders to look at decisions through a matrix of transit, housing and wages. He wants to emphasize strong leadership, economic development and quality of life. That includes addressing discrepancies between minority populations. He says the black community is four times more likely to live in poverty in Wausau. Norfleet feels that city leaders offered too much incentives toward the Wausau Center development, and doesn’t think return on investment was taken into consideration enough. Norfleet says if voters want to see a change in city hall, they should vote for him, the first black aldermanic candidate in Wausau’s history.
Southeast/central side, mostly east of Grand Ave.
Michael Martens, incumbent. Self-employed owner of online marketing company
Martens, first elected to the city council in 2018, is seeking his second term. Martens, 50, sees the top three issues as types of infrastructure: 1) the city needs to make up for all the deferred maintenance it put off; 2) city debt is high, but manageable, citing the city’s plan to pay off 80% of the current debt load within 10 years; 3) affordable housing, now that the city has attracted a lot of market rate housing, Martens wants to see affordable options prioritized through federal, state and local incentives. Martens wants to make sure the character of neighborhoods is maintained. He points to the city missing an opportunity to move two historic homes and the removal of part of the historic wall at Athletic Park. Martens touts his record on the council and experience as an entrepreneur, along with his dedication to research and engaging his constituents.
Tiffany Rodriguez-Lee, challenger. Grants and Outcomes Director for Boys and Girls Club of the Wausau Area
Rodriguez-Lee, a 28-year-old working parent and grad student, is running because she says she doesn’t see herself represented on the council and wants new ideas and new faces in Wausau government. She wants to see city debt tackled as a priority, and says developing a strategic plan is a good step toward that. She wants to see a better vetting process to ensure money is being spent wisely, and wants to see better city communication and transparency. And she wants to see Wausau become more welcoming and inclusive of diverse populations. Rodriguez-Lee says she would have sought more environmental testing in the Thomas Street neighborhood, and disagreed with a parking ramp loitering ordinance that she says targeted the homeless. She plans to hold constituent meetings prior to city council meetings where her constituents can voice their concerns.
Central area along both sides of Wisconsin River, roughly between Chellis Street and Bridge
David Nutting, incumbent. Senior Internal Service Technician, E.O. Johnson
Nutting has served for 12 years on the city council and is running again to continue promoting Wausau’s downtown and serving his constituents. Nutting, 62, says his top priority is the restoration of older rentals and single-family homes, especially in working class neighborhoods where some of the housing stock is older. Nutting’s top priorities also include upgrading the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which includes bringing it into compliance with new DNR regulations, and the redevelopment of the mall by the Wausau Opportunity Zone group. Nutting said there was nothing he disagreed with in this past term that the council did. Nutting touts his experience and longevity in the area as key factors in why voters should choose him.
Tom Kilian, challenger. Owner of Kilian Integrated Marketing
Kilian, 41, came into the public light advocating for environmental concerns in the Thomas Street neighborhood and he feels the district needs someone who truly represents their needs and interests. Giving them that representation is one of Kilian’s key priorities, along with changing fiscal policy to represent people and not subsidizing luxury developments while one in four people in Wausau live in poverty. And he wants to see a shift away from a focus on acquiring new residents while neglecting the residents who are already here. Kilian points to prior councils acting on poorly vetted information, particularly with the Thomas Street redesign, a deal with CBL to move Younkers from one anchor store to another, and the Riverlife Development under Mike Frantz. He says citizen input has been ignored on those issues and he wants to change that.
East side and East Hill area, roughly south of Bridge Street
Tom Neal, incumbent. Retired marketing executive
Neal, 68, has served six years on the city council and he says he’s proven he’s up to the task of representing the district. Neal says his top priority is economic growth (Neal currently serves as chair of the economic development committee). That means attracting new business investment and new residents to broaden the tax base to lower the tax burden on residents. He also wants the city to focus more on homelessness, addiction and mental health, and also considers the mall’s redevelopment as a priority, which he is glad is in local hands. Neal says one thing he disagreed with is that he wanted a more scaled down Thomas Street design, but since the council made its decision he abides by it. Neal touts his experience on the council, which he says will also help serve as a guide for new council members.
Judith Miller, challenger. Formerly employed in sales, mental health services and finance
Miller has been a regular at city meetings for a few years, and she wants to run because she feels the city is planning and spending poorly, and she wants to see more background and vetting done for business developers. Miller wants to see the city spend more wisely through better planning and tackle uncontrolled and unwarranted debt. She also wants to see better housing options across the board, with options from everyone from young professionals to the homeless population. Miller was particularly critical of a plan to award the former Westside Battery building to Urban Street Bistro, since there was never evidence of the business’ owner having the financing to complete the project. Miller touts her experience in business, working with non-profits to startups, and with businesses such as AbbyBank and Morgan Stanley.
District 5 (no incumbent)
Near northeast side, both sides of E. Wausau Ave.
James Wadinski, retired police officer
Wadinski is running for the seat because he believes he can make sound decisions for the city while being fiscally responsible. He sees the top three issues in the city being the mall’s redevelopment, lowering the city’s debt, and addressing the city’s roads, which he feels the city is neglecting. He points particularly to neighborhood roads such as Jackson and Brown streets as needing attention. Wadinski says it’s the small details in spending that need attention – he points to the First Avenue rebuild and whether the city really needs 72 street lights within six blocks of reconstructed street. A community needs to spend money on services for its residents, Wadinski says, but Wausau needs to focus on how to provide those residents while being fiscally sound. Wadinski is a lifelong city resident, and has lived in the district for 30 years.
Joel Lewis, community organizer, home care worker and participant-hired worker
Lewis, 38, says retiring alderman Gary Gisselman did a great job for 12 years and he wants to continue that service. Lewis says there has been a lack of strategic planning, both in terms of cost and who the city is doing business with. He says the city needs to do a better job of taking its constituents’ concerns seriously, and that residents need to be represented better — he points to a council member reading a biblical passage in response to a request for a permit for a pride parade and the bullying allegations from council member Mary Thao as evidence the council needs more members who are sensitive to diversity. Lewis was a county board member for two terms and is no stranger to local politics. He touts his good relationship with some council members as well as many active members of the community as reasons voters should choose him.
Northwest side, around Merrill Ave.
Lisa Rasmussen, incumbent. Office Manager, State Farm Insurance
Rasmussen, 49, has been a city council member since 2008 and council president since 2016. Rasmussen says she’s continued to run because she loves serving people and solving problems. Her top issues are the redevelopment of Wausau Center, addressing homelessness and improving the city’s public transit. On the bus system, Rasmussen sees partnerships with the surrounding communities as the first step; then the city can find the best model and how to fund it. She serves on the city’s homelessness task force and hopes to continue. Rasmussen says she wishes the council would have pulled the plug on failed Riverlife developer Mike Frantz sooner. She touts her responsiveness to residents, her experience having served on every city committee at one point in knowing how to get things done, the revamps of the city’s pools, support of the River’s Edge Trail and Monk Gardens projects.
Tracy Wheatley, challenger. Teacher and waitress
Wheatley, 26, grew up in Wausau and returned after living in other cities in the state. She wants to bring her experience and voice to the city council to help advocate for Wausau to become more inclusive and diverse. Other priorities include developing more affordable housing to help lift people out of poverty and developing a plan for parking next winter. Wheatley says she didn’t agree with the city’s parking ramp loitering ordinance passed last year; while she wants the ramps to be safe for residents, she felt many of the complaints were for offenses already enforceable and feels it was targeted at homeless people. She instead would have liked to see more done to help homeless people so they didn’t have to stay in the ramps. Wheatley touts her experience serving on the various committees and working with the public that would make her a great council member.
Near west side, west of Merrill Ave., and around West High School
Linda Lawrence, currently appointed to the seat. Retired, and former mayor
Lawrence, 71, served as the city’s mayor from 1998 to 2004. Lawrence was recently tapped for the District 8 seat after former alderman Karen Kellbach resigned. Before becoming mayor, Lawrence represented this district on the council, and says she sought the seat again because she enjoys problem solving for her neighbors and believes she is effective at evaluating legislative choices. She lists managing surface water, making smart investments for the city and the redevelopment of Wausau Center as her top issues, with smart investments as No. 1. Lawrence says she didn’t agree with the foot print for the Thomas Street redesign, as she doesn’t think the traffic warranted the level of expenditure. Lawrence touts her experience in city government, her hard work and fiscal responsibility, as well as her preparedness, as reasons to vote for her in April.
Sarah Watson, challenger. Economics instructor
Watson, 40, has called Wausau home for the past 16 years, but has some interesting experience as a graduate teaching assistant at UW-Milwaukee, and for Chicago Partners as a research analyst, where she was the personal contact for families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Watson says she wants the opportunity to give back. As her top priorities she cites job creation, ensuring good roads and making sure public safety have the tools they need to keep residents safe. She says projects such as Riverlife are lofty but she would like to focus on projects that are fiscally responsible and benefit everyone, not just a small group of residents. Watson touts her background and knowledge in economics and society, and her ability to make her neighbors feel heard and represented as reasons to vote for her in April.
District 10 (no incumbent)
Southwest side, north and south of Thomas Street
Louis Larson, semi-retired
Larson, 66, is running because he says city hall has lost its way and is spending too much on downtown and Riverlife while ignoring other neighborhoods. He feels millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted on incompetent decisions and projects that don’t benefit residents. Larson says his top priorities are getting the city’s deficit spending under control, looking at more sensible options for the new sewer and water plants, and getting the city to take environmental contamination more seriously. Larson highlights Thomas Street as an example of something he disagreed with this past city council on — he feels more could have been done to narrow the road and impact less of the neighborhood. Larson says his opponent has been on the city council before and played a part in the predicaments the city faces today, he says. Putting residents first will be his priority.
Sherry Abitz, retired US Air Force
Abitz, 63, has served on the city council before, and she hopes to bring that experience to the city council again. Her top priorities are finding solutions for the Wausau Center mall, including citizen input; working with other nearby communities to come up with an outside-the-box solution to the troubled public transit system; and to come up with a solution to address the homeless population in Wausau. On that latter point, as a veteran herself she wants to see the local VA and other veterans organizations come to the table and work with the city on the issue. Abitz says the past council gave far too much leeway to Mike Frantz in his foibles with the Riverlife Project; the city should have worked with a local developer much sooner, she says.
District 11 (no incumbent)
West side, around Marathon Park, John Muir Middle School; also area around Aspirus Wausau Hospital campus
Debra Ryan, retired accountant and grants manager
Ryan first started coming to city meetings to advocate for a traffic concern in her west side neighborhood and since then has been a regular at meetings. She’s been outspoken on topics including a recycling plant project that ultimately never happened, and seeking additional financial information about Riverlife developer Mike Frantz, who failed to deliver on the project. Ryan says the top three issues in the city are the recent doubling of city debt, questionable tax incentive usage and poor fiduciary oversight by the current council. Ryan says she wants to use her accounting experience to help the city’s finances, including a moratorium on tax incentive usage, and develop policies to limit its use in the future. She cites the Westside Battery project as an example where the city should have done better vetting — she wants to see that improved across all city projects.
Patrick Bacher, mental health professional at North Central Health Care
Bacher, 52, ran for this seat in 2018 and since has stayed involved in following local government, and wants the chance to represent the people of his district. He says the things he’s heard his constituents are most concerned about are the quality of their neighborhoods, the homeless population, and the conditions of our roads, among others. He is also pushing for better diversity and inclusion, citing the United Way’s Life Report calling for improvement in that area. Making Wausau more welcoming and inclusive will foster growth and collaboration, he says. Bacher says Riverlife was a misstep and that better vetting and more financial consideration would have helped. Other issues important to him are bringing more living wage jobs and retaining young professionals. Bacher touts himself as a listener and an advocate.