(First published in the April 25, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Les and Jim’s Lincoln Lanes became the center for a political movement seeking a huge change in Merrill city government.
Les and Jim’s Lincoln Lanes owner Mark Bares and Merrill Recall Committee member LaDonna Fermanich at the bowling alley that features a mural of Merrill history. Lincoln Lanes has been a center for the movement to recall five Merrill city council members.
At a Merrill city council meeting in January, residents in the crowd seethed. City taxpayers had just gotten their property tax bills, and what they saw made them hopping mad.
Yes, they’d already expected a tax hike. The city budget was passed in December. Many weren’t happy about it, but the 3% increase was a compromise from what they thought would be a higher tax increase. The mayor had posted a celebratory screed on Facebook about meeting the 3% goal.
So residents were understandably shocked when they opened their tax bills and realized city taxes had gone up more than double the expected 3%. The actual increase was 7.4% with a mill rate of $14.40 per thousand value.
At that January meeting, there was a protest with signs prior to the meeting and residents packed the city council meeting room. Every seat was filled, and there were more people standing in the back. At the end, people left their signs in city hall as a reminder of their disdain.
Mark Bares was one of those in attendance. Bares is the owner of Les and Jim’s Lincoln Lanes, a bowling alley that has been in his family since his grandfather and a business partner bought the place in 1969. Bowling alleys are often the hub of a small community, Bares explains, and this one hosts cool events, like a retro gaming convention.
And since November, Les and Jim’s has been the hub for people discussing Merrill’s discontent and then organizing a recall of five of Merrill’s eight city council members. With enough signatures, the recall petitions were handed in Tuesday and now await certification. The election would happen sometime this summer.
Bares was one of many that night in January to express his anger at the city for its tax blunder. And it was a blunder, of communication at the least. Even Mayor Derek Woellner, elected as a 25-year-old to the part-time position, thought the city council was passing a 3% increase. That expressed number related to the basic operational budget, not other items like tax incremental financing economic development that really drove up the overall, final rate.
Merrill residents told City Pages they feel like they haven’t been heard by city hall in years. That the administration doesn’t listen and is difficult to work with. That too much business is being conducted behind doors is closed session, they say, away from the public eye. Business owners speaking at past meetings said they’ve been bullied by city staff.
Bares at one point stood up to leave, along with nearly half the room at that January meeting. They’d all heard enough. Mayor Woellner was nonplussed. “You’re not even going to stay to hear what we have to say?”
Bares announced that anyone who wanted to keep talking could come down to Les and Jim’s for a drink—an invitation he’d posted to the bowling alley’s Facebook page earlier that day. Many took him up on the offer that night. And then people kept gathering there in the following weeks. Les and Jim’s became a kind of office central for the recall movement.
Bares isn’t quite sure when the bowling alley, located on Center Street north of downtown Merrill, became the center of a political movement. He certainly doesn’t have any interest in being a politician, Bares says. When he opened his tax bill in January, he was angry just like any other taxpayer in Merrill. Probably more angry than most, considering the tax rate increase on his business property.
Bares’ first involvement was with a petition being circulated in November 2018 to stop the originally proposed 4.7% tax hike. Mayor Woellner said that if enough residents signed the petition, he would veto the budget. In December, for the city’s 2019 budget, the council passed a 3% tax increase… or so they thought.
Lincoln Lanes was one of two places in town distributing that initial petition. It also distributed complaint forms following the tax snafu. And since then, it has served as the meeting place for Merrill Recall, and its Facebook page has encouraged residents to show up to voice their concerns. The Merrill Recall Committee is now raising funds to pay for the recall election, Bares says.
That veto pledge was one of many bold moves Woellner has made while office. Woellner in spring 2018 unseated a much older incumbent, Mayor Bill Bialecki, who had served two terms. Woellner did this on a platform that would seem radical, even downright unheard of in Merrill. For example, Woellner proposed that instead of breaking a city council tie, he would let the audience cast a deciding vote. In the days leading up to the election, he hosted a hip hop show at an elementary school.
Woellner says that he understands the motivation for the recall effort, and that he felt the same way when he ran for office in early 2018. But, as he wrote in a recent Facebook post, “Now that I’m in, I see that our city government is actually pretty transparent, it’s just that we need to be educated on how and where to find the information.”
Woellner says he is planning to work on a reader friendly budget as well as a website redesign.
Facebook has become Woellner’s method of choice for disseminating information. That started with the first newsworthy event, in which he called for the city administrator to resign. Instead, the following city meeting ended with an agreement to work together better.
Woellner told City Pages he thinks the timing of the recall election was misguided. And he said he found it “annoying that of the five alders that are being targeted for a recall, four of them ran unopposed less than a year ago… We could have saved a decent amount of money taking care of this then rather than doing it now.” Woellner added that regardless, he would never fault someone for taking action.
How did Woellner win a race with such an odd platform? It was more about voting for change, says LaDonna Fermanich. She met Bares while protesting the tax hike in January, and since has been heavily involved in the recall effort. Fermanich had worked with city officials while she worked for the housing authority in Merrill. “I think people were looking for something different,” Fermanich says.
“People were frustrated with the administration,” Bares adds. “They wanted change.”
The recall, almost underway
Merrill City Clerk Bill Heideman (center) talks with Lincoln Lanes owner Mark Bares in the council chambers Tuesday, prior to the Merrill Recall committee handing in recall petitions for five city council districts.
The Merrill Recall group, a registered political committee, is recalling five council members on nine principles:
• Responsible, accountable elected officials.
• Fewer closed session meetings.
• Financial audits of all city funds, including TIF.
• Add checks and balances to the administrative structure.
• Use either existing personnel or consultants, but not both.
• Fewer real estate purchases.
• Sell off idle city properties.
• Reduce Merrill’s tax rate. At $14.40 it’s one of the highest in the state. For comparison, Wausau’s city tax rate is $9.54.
• Maintain current levels of fire, policy and street department services.
The group has selected candidates to run against the five incumbents once the recall is set, Bares says: Becky Meyer (Dist. 1), Shannon Collins (5), Mike Rick (6), Eric Dayton (7), and Steve Sabatke (8). Bares says these are candidates who share the committee’s values.
Nearly two dozen volunteers went door-to-door gathering recall petition signatures for the past month, and turned them in Tuesday to the Merrill city clerk.
Never in his 21 years as Merrill’s city clerk has Bill Heideman seen this level of political involvement, a recall election, or a bowling alley become the center of a political movement. The tax issue is where Merrill residents really started to get politically involved, Heideman says. “Government can do a lot of things and people might get mad for a minute or two, then they let it go,” Heideman says. “When it starts affecting people’s pocketbooks, you’re in a whole other ball game.”
As city clerk, Heideman says he will have 30 days to certify the results, with 10 extra days to allow for a challenge, but it likely won’t take that long. After that, the city will hold elections within six weeks of the petition certification.
Costs of the election are not yet certain, Heideman says. Some will depend on whether or not the city uses ballot counting machines, and how many districts ultimately are certified. And he isn’t sure if the committee can pay for the elections directly as they’ve proposed, but says they will try to figure it out.
Heideman says he sees himself as a neutral party, or referee to the situation. But, “I’ll say this: In dealing with them they’ve been diligent in making sure they understand the way things are,” Heideman says.
Heideman says it’s unusual for a business owner to get involved the way Bares has. Even friends of Heideman’s who own businesses said they couldn’t put signs up in their yard to support his re-election, worrying about potential backlash, Heideman says. “Mark weighed that and decided the pros outweighed the cons.”
Petition for change doesn’t guarantee success
For or against the recall, a lot of people in Merrill are talking about it.
Council president Rob Norton, one of the five being recalled, says that while he respects the right of people to exercise the political process, he doesn’t agree with many of the concerns brought forward by the recall committee. He says residents merely can attend meetings to have their voices heard. About the city’s purchase of property, he says that real estate acquisition by cities “is a sound economic development tool.” He points to an apartment complex undergoing its second and third phases, and success in developing industrial parks in the city. He says the high tax rate came because the city needed to play catch-up after neglecting its infrastructure.
Norton acknowledged that some mistakes were made with the budget, but says they were addressed. “Some residents may have wanted a more extreme outcome but that was not warranted.”
Tim Meahan, another council members being recalled, says there’s a lot of confusion about how the budget played out, but that none of the recall group people attended a council session where it was explained in January. (It’s important to note that this explanation occurred after tax bills were sent and the outcry had already started). He echoed Norton’s comment about neglected infrastructure. The city faces fiscal challenges because important projects are expensive: the city pool, bike trails, new grandstands, bathrooms and other improvements at the fairgrounds, and demolition and resale of blighted property. These projects were necessary for Merrill to catch up and compete with other communities.
Mayor Woellner agrees with the assessment that a lot of why voters chose him because they simply wanted change — many told him that to his face. “I had spent a lot of time crafting a campaign, to get the messaging just right, but in the end a lot of people would come up to me and say they voted for me just because they wanted a young person in there with new ideas, and a fresh look on things.”
Though Woellner shares some of the frustrations of the recall group, he thinks it makes more sense to wait until the regular spring 2020 election of council members. And he thinks if some members of the group knew what was going on from an inside perspective, they might better understand. The finance director is on a work improvement plan, Woellner told City Pages, and the administrator received a verbal warning. Both of those were related to the tax communication snafu, he told City Pages.
Not everyone is in favor of the recall effort, Woellner said. A woman at a recent Merrill meeting had some heated and expletive words for the recall effort, for example. “It’s important that they saw there are people upset about it, there are two sides to the issues,” Woellner says.