GUEST COLUMN: An assault on free speech

Keene Winters

Keene Winters

Keene Winters is a financial planner and served as Wausau’s Dist. 6 alderman from 2012-2016.

I would like to engage your attention for a moment on this so-called “code of conduct” that has been the subject of much debate by Wausau’s mayor and common council. I have not been in the habit of commenting like this much since leaving my council seat in April. I am still a citizen and am still concerned about good government, but it is no longer my turn to “drive the bus” on these matters.

However, when a person’s name ends up on the front page of the newspaper, a contribution to the public record seems warranted.

To begin, I have always found numbers a useful tool for analysis. In this instance, there are three.

The first is $43,250.  According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers’ Alliance, that is the average income  per tax return filed by Wausau residents. In many cases, the number represents two or more paychecks and is undiluted by the many households who file no return at all.

The second number is $74,851. That is the present salary for the Mayor of Wausau. It comes with great benefits, an 8% employer contribution to a retirement fund and a $350 per month car allowance.  All together, it is about twice the average household income in Wausau. The final number I have $51,712. That is the sum of the legal expenses that I had to pay up-font after Council President Robert Mielke placed me “under investigation.”

Recently, the current mayor could be found pleading poverty and begging the common council for the power to initiate lawsuits against his critics at taxpayer expense as part of the new council code of conduct.

To be clear, Mayor Mielke is asking for the unchecked power to threaten any citizen who voices disagreement with litigation that could cause them to forfeit an average year’s income up-front, regardless of the merit. That is a pretty big stick to use on political opponents.

The proposition on its face is deceptively enticing. What if someone says something really, really bad?  We should be able to stop them, right?

But take note; there is no objective standard or process for determining what is “really, really bad” upfront. The call is a matter of opinion, and the flowery language of the code is open to wide interpretation by those few in power.

Who decides what is really bad?  The mayor? A majority of the council? The First Amendment exists to protect dissent and preclude a tyranny of the majority when it comes to speech.

If I was a local journalist, I would be concerned as well. A city-initiated lawsuit demanding that I “prove my story” would be a great way to keep those potential confidential sources on their toes.

As shocking as this assault on free speech is, it is not surprising. This is where city government has been headed for a long time.  Connect the dots from the “ethics probe” of Alderperson Christine Van De Yacht in 2006 to the mayor-directed internal investigation of Alderman Ed Gale in 2010 to the investigation focused on me in 2015. 

There is no pattern of outlandish behavior by council members that cries-out for legislative redress. Rather, this is a transparent ruse to give mayors and council presidents the power to punish dissent at will.

The comedian, George Carlin, once said that political correctness is fascism masquerading as manners. In the same vein, my forecast is that if this so-called code of conduct is enacted, it will be harder than ever to find strong, capable people to sit on the city council, and good government in Wausau will remain elusive.

Keene Winters is a financial planner and served as Wausau’s Dist. 6 alderman from 2012–2016.