Wausau voted no in 2015 to hiring a professional city administrator. But the idea is still percolating.
In fall of 2017, Romey Wagner was the lone city council member to vote against the city of Wausau’s 2018 budget. Why? It didn’t contain $100,000 for the hiring of a city administrator.
It’s a line that Wagner was willing to draw then, and a line he’s still pointing to now, even though he lost his council seat re-election bid in 2018.
The issue of whether Wausau should be managed by a professional city administrator had been percolating for years, and came to a head in a 2015 referendum that Wausau voters shot down 52%-45%. Which might not seem close, but actually was decided by just 279 votes, Romey has pointed out. The question posed was, should Wausau be managed by a city administrator and reduce the mayor’s position to part time? The voters’ decision went against a position staked out by the Wausau Chamber of Commerce, which went to great lengths to explore the pros and cons of a city administrator for Wausau.
It’s not just Wagner still speaking about the issue, the chamber also is currently talking about it again, according to Chamber CEO Dave Eckmann, though a position has not been formalized.
So while the election campaigns for Wausau mayor —between incumbent Mayor Robert Mielke and challenger Katie Rosenberg—begin to heat up this spring before the April election, behind the scenes there’s still movement to fundamentally adjust city management.
In an interview with City Pages, Mielke says he’s open to the idea of having a discussion about adding an administrator. Mielke points to his department heads, who he says are top notch and an asset to the city, and points out that things are running smoother than under the previous mayoral administration. Yet he also mentions how the city is growing and an administrator might be something the city needs to consider.
Although the current council looked at the idea and didn’t act on it, Mielke says, the next council (after the April elections) should consider it again.
Mayoral challenger Katie Rosenberg, currently a county board member representing District 1, also is taking the idea seriously. While Rosenberg won’t say for sure that she supports a full time administrator, she tells City Pages that she’s open to exploring the idea of some kind of professional management—a chief of staff, an administrator or manager, or even just a communications person. Any change would come from a process involving staff, elected officials and the public, Rosenberg says.
Without a dog in the fight, Wagner feels free to express his feelings on why the city needs an administrator. As a former city council president, a current Marathon County Board supervisor, and manager of Wausau’s Entrepreneurial and Education Center, Wagner’s perspective carries some weight. “I believe that having an administrator to help vet projects would have caught all the problems we had with the Frantz group,” Wagner says, referring to the first, failed developers on the Riverlife Project. Iowa-based Frantz Community Developers was chosen by the council over local developers S.C. Swiderski. “I think an administrator would have helped bring the info to us. We would have seen the things Frantz did wrong.”
The trouble with administrators
“I think there are other things in between having an administrator and not having an administrator we could try,” says Rosenberg, mentioning a chief of staff or even communications person.
The main argument in favor of an administrator is that it brings professional management experience. After all, we’re talking about someone to manage a $100 million annual budget, in Wausau’s case. Most urban municipalities in Wisconsin have one, including each one in the greater metro area except the smallest city (Schofield) and the largest (Wausau).
It provides continuity — even as elected officials change office, there is someone managing operations with no interruptions. While elected officials are chosen largely for their personalities by voters, administrators are chosen for their resumes and experience, and should reflect a professional and objective approach to the job.
In theory, at least.
Administrators are human too, and local communities have seen some very unpleasant clashes between their hired managers and their elected officials. Weston’s former village administrator, Daniel Guild, inspired a pair of residents — Mark Maloney and Wally Sparks, the former police chief — to run for village board. Sparks, currently the village president, ran on a co-campaign with Maloney primarily on a position of opposing Guild and his initiatives. During their campaign they focused on reduced spending, more responsiveness to residents and business, and on opposing big projects such as a proposed sports complex touted by Guild at the time. A recent feasibility study showed it would cost $12-14 million to build, plus $170,000 per year to run. With no other communities interested in partnering on the project, the board recently closed the book on the idea.
Guild in 2018 was suspended for 30 days, and soon resigned. The suspension was rescinded and Guild was given a flattering reference and press release. Though Weston leaders never officially cited a reason for the initial disciplinary action, records released during the suspension included a poor performance evaluation. Guild was hired in Rhinelander later that year as its administrator, and had made headlines up there, including news that Guild is under felony investigation for records tampering.
And in Merrill, which has a part-time mayor and full time administrator, conflicts abound. Mayor Derek Woellner, elected in 2018 as a 25-year-old, early in his term tried to oust City Administrator Dave Johnson. A city council meeting to discuss the issue brought out residents that supported Johnson and those who had stories about being strong-armed or bullied by him. Conflict arose again when Merrill residents opened their tax bill to a surprise 7.4% increase — an increase that even surprised the mayor, who thought it would be 3%.
An attorney for Johnson wrote to Woellner pointing to statements by the Merrill mayor amounting to age discrimination. According to the letter, Woellner said such things as, “you don’t need to work at your age,” and asked “why someone your age doesn’t want to retire.” That attorney also sent the letter to City Pages and other members of the press.
Woellner says he’s still interested in eliminating the administrator position at some point. From his time so far with a mayor-administrator setup, Woellner says he doesn’t recommend having an administrator accountable to the council, where he or she can build a coalition to stay in power. Instead, the administrator should be accountable to the mayor, and chosen by him or her.
That’s more in line with the idea of a chief of staff or deputy mayor.
Another challenge with administrators is trying to get rid of a bad one, says Sparks, village president of Weston. The idea of not having an administrator was never seriously considered because of the complexities of a village the size of Weston, Sparks says, especially with only part-time elected officials.
But it’s tough to remove an administrator who is performing poorly or isn’t doing the job the board is asking, Sparks says. That’s usually possible only in cases of extreme malfeasance or corruption, and requires expensive attorneys, Sparks says.
“Business wise it should certainly be taken a look at because like I said Wausau is getting bigger, we do have more complex issues. It should be brought forward,” Mielke says about Wausau hiring a city administrator.
It’s important to point out that severe, job-threatening conflicts between an administrator and elected officials aren’t the norm. Most area administrators keep things running smoothly, and focus on accomplishing tasks the board sets out for them. Those administrators bring forth ideas for elected officials’ vetting. Some, such as retired Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger, was skilled at presenting options and bringing a board to the same conclusions he did.
But an administrator isn’t the only option. “I think there are other things in between having an administrator and not having an administrator we could try,” says mayoral candidate Katie Rosenberg.
In an interview with City Pages, she brought up the idea of a chief of staff position. This person could handle many of the same things an administrator would — managing day-to-day operations and departments — so the mayor could focus on policy issues and the ceremonial public aspects of being mayor. The mayor could act as the thought leader, while the chief of staff handles the nitty gritty details.
She points to Madison, which has five deputy mayors who are in charge of various areas of government, a system that has proven effective for the city. There is also a chief of staff.
Of course, Madison is roughly seven times the size of Wausau by population, and has more demands of staff. Hence the need for more administration.
It warrants exploration, Rosenberg says. Something like a chief of staff could be tried. If it doesn’t work out well or the voters don’t care for it, it doesn’t have to continue.
When asked by City Pages about some of those alternatives, Mielke said that was “too far off track,” and wanted to focus on the administrator issue.
Mielke says he can see good and bad points of having an administrator. If that’s the will of the people, he sees that as meaning most likely the mayor’s role would become part time. “I think business wise it should certainly be taken a look at because like I said Wausau is getting bigger, we do have more complex issues. It should be brought forward, that’s how I feel.”
Both Mielke and Rosenberg agree on one thing: If the city were to hire an actual administrator, the voters would need to be consulted via another referendum. And that would come after meetings with elected officials, staff and the community.
City Council President Lisa Rasmussen says that a city can have good or bad results in both systems, but says a poorly performing administrator can often be more difficult — and more expensive — to get rid of. An administrator often will make enough allies on a governing board to keep themselves in power.
Rasmussen says the underling reason the idea of an administrator came up for referendum was because under previous leadership, promotions were given based on time served, not merit. That didn’t always lead to the best results, she says.
Under Mielke and human resources director Toni Vanderboom, Rasmussen says, promotions are based on merit and each department has a succession plan. “Part of the reason there was so much drama about an administrator prior to 2016 was that the old system I described was the reality and no end of that culture was in sight,” Rasmussen says. “Results were undeniably negative. Major improvement has occurred since 2016 which cannot be overlooked.”
Rasmussen says adding a deputy mayor or chief of staff would add another unnecessary layer — not to mention expense — to city government. “Sometimes, people may be curious whether the form of government they don’t have is worth considering,” Rasmussen says. “I’d remind them to look at neighboring communities and see what Weston, Rhinelander and Merrill are living with first.”
But not having an administrator can put the mayor in a position of being an human resources director as well as the city’s policy leader. A recent dustup between Community Development Director Chris Schock and city council member Dennis Smith prompted Mielke to call Schock into his office the next morning, and led Schock to apologize to Smith.
But should that be the mayor’s role? Should the mayor not only be the one to call out the behavior, but also the one to determine how it should be handled? Or should personnel matters be something an experienced administrator should handle at the direction of the mayor? Wagner clearly says yes. Mayoral candidates are open to that idea.
Regardless of which candidates voters choose in April, there’s a good chance voters will once again have a chance to weigh in on question of a city administrator for Wausau, whether through a referendum or through some other sort of public input process.