(First published in the July 3, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger retires this year. His career spans a period of local social change, often with him at the lead
Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger will retire at the end of the year after a 31-year career that saw enormous social change in the county.
Brad Karger has never been a stranger to controversy, and he’s never been one to run from it.
He was embroiled in his first controversy before he even started working for Marathon County. The Marshfield City Council held a going away party for him before he left that city to start a new position as human resources director of Marathon County.
That was 1988. He’d been human resources director for Marshfield for four years, and a human resource specialist for the city of Green Bay before that. Just before starting in Marathon County, trouble was brewing. Allegations arose that a supervisor in the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office had forced a female employee to have sex with him.
Karger watched a television news report about the incident. The county administrator at the time, Mort McBain, told the reporter that the county had just hired a new human resources director who would investigate. He meant Karger.
Karger’s 31-year career in Marathon County started with him diving into controversy, and ends with some too. Karger plans to retire at the end of the year, after nearly 40 years in government.
It might be fitting that his career is capped by the county’s controversial Pride Month resolution, which, when passed by the county board last week, designated June as Pride Month in Marathon County to recognize lesbian, gay and transgender people. That’s because Karger’s career is a snapshot of local social progress — evolving from a time when county employees felt comfortable wearing racist hats and hanging calendars of nude women in the office, to a time when the debate about a Pride Month includes concerns about hurting other minority groups.
Say what you want about those arguments now, but imagine what they would have sounded like 31 years ago, when Karger started working for county government. And many of those shifts happened because of Karger’s leadership, which to him has meant listening, working together and finding compromise.
Racist hats and diversity training
One of Karger’s first orders from county leadership as human resources director was to institute a series of sessions—32 within six months— aimed at preventing workplace harassment, mainly in the sheriff’s department. That was more difficult, given that publicized harassment already seemed to be a problem. “Preventative training usually works better before something happens,” Karger says.
Those sessions were led by Phyllis Birmingham, then director of The Women’s Community. There were squabbles. Sometimes participants got out of hand. A few times Karger asked employees to leave, and would inform the sheriff afterward. “They were difficult, but we got through them,” Karger recalls.
Other culture changes were happening in those early years. Karger says there were complaints about men in the parks department displaying calendars featuring topless women. He put a stop to that fast, even though some staff complained about their rights to free expression. “That would be true if you owned those walls, but you don’t,” Karger says. “The county does.”
Also during his early years: A few county employees were coming to work wearing hats that read, “Spear an Indian, save a walleye.” This was during the controversy (circa 1988-1991) of Native American spear fishing rights, of which Wausau had become ground zero because of the federal court cases on the issue held in Marathon County. A lot of racist ugliness erupted at that time, but Karger wouldn’t allow it on Marathon County facilities. “It runs into free speech issues, but also creates a hostile work environment based on race,” Karger says. “The parks director and I found some hats to wear there — really ugly foam hats that said ‘Marathon County Parks Department.’ Now you can wear a hat.”
Under Karger’s leadership, the county developed a diversity training program that received an award from the National Association of Counties and was held up as a model for the nation by the Clinton Administration. The model stressed open and honest discussions, talking through hot tips, however odious the conversation might get sometimes. A common topic back then was people saying they’d be uncomfortable with a homosexual school teacher, for example, Karger says. “If you talk about that now—and I am the only person left who remembers that—they can’t believe people thought that,” Karger says.
The sessions got heated, but most participants agreed afterward that it was time well spent. The main approach, which Karger has used his entire career, is to come prepared with facts and let people make their own decisions. “Opinions are subject to change when they gain more info,” Karger says. “You’re not likely to change your mind if you’re told you’re dumb or wrong. And what gives you the right to decide you’re smarter than someone?”
Legacy, a mark on his record
Karger’s participation in a rally for Dylan Yang in 2016 got him suspended for 30 days.
John Robinson first met Karger when Robinson was mayor of Wausau in the late 80s. Karger immediately struck him as professional, engaging, and sincere—attributes that local journalists also have noted. “He listened,” Robinson says.
In 2002, Karger became deputy county administrator and in 2008 replaced the retiring Mort McBain as administrator.
Robinson says one of the key issues Karger helped get passed was the Krause-Holtz landfill project, known since 2015 as the Eastbay Sports Complex in Wausau. Reclaiming that land over the contaminated former dump had stalled for years until Karger put together the right amount of information looking at every aspect of the project to make sure the board knew all the options, including potential pitfalls. It passed the county board 35-3, Robinson says.
“I’ve always enjoyed my working relationship with him” Robinson says. “He tries to take a step back and listen, tries to understand the issues in order to help move them along.”
For a new county board member, Karger comes off as professional and open, says Alyson Leahy, who was elected to the board in 2018. “He’s very knowledgeable and willing to jump into new things,” Leahy says. “Anything you ask of him, he is very willing to explore and research and get you the answers.”
Longtime former County Board member Jim Rosenberg (who also served on city council) says Karger did a good job of maintaining the role of administrator as separate from policy makers. “He was always good at asking people in elected roles to step up and do their policy making job,” Rosenberg says.
Even recently in the Pride Month debate, Rosenberg says Karger stayed objective and performed his role as administrator without taking a clear side. “You can probably figure that he thought the pride resolution was a good one, but you would never know that watching the meetings,” Rosenberg says.
Karger did take a stand in recent years, and it nearly cost him his job.
In 2016, people held a rally for Dylan Yang. In 2015, Yang, then 15-years-old, stabbed then-13-year-old Isaiah Powell in a fight outside Yang’s home, resulting in Powell’s death. Yang was charged as an adult for murder and held at Marathon County Jail, along with adult inmates.
Karger spoke at the rally, on behalf of what he says was injustice in a teen being held in adult jail. He was hesitant to speak at the rally but was persuaded after speaking with Yang’s mother. Then the organizers convinced him to lead the rally, “One, because I actually knew where the courthouse and police station were,” Karger says, and also because organizers wanted it known that more than just Hmong people supported the cause.
That rally didn’t sit well with some people, some of whom likened the peaceful assembly of mostly Hmong participants to a mob. An investigation was held after county employees were upset to see their administrator standing with a protest group. After a closed session of the county board, Karger was suspended for 30 days. He was told there would be no action that day, so he went home before the meeting ended. He found out about the suspension on the news.
Karger offered to resign in a reconsideration meeting, if the county board had lost confidence in him. He had never faced any kind of disciplinary action in his entire career.
He served his 30-day suspension, and became a folk hero. He tells a story about going to Kwik Trip to get eggs and being followed in the store by an elderly Hmong woman. “Her grandson said ‘I don’t know who you are, but my grandmother really wants a picture with you.’” Another person stopped him on the street saying, “’Hey, didn’t you used to be Brad Karger?’” He still was Brad Karger, as far as he knew.
Karger returned to work, and he credits County Board Chair Kurt Gibbs with easing the transition. Once the suspension was served, it was over, and Gibbs and Karger worked together as if nothing happens. “It was hard the first week, then I forgot about it,” Karger says. (Gibbs was asked to comment, but City Pages was unable to reach him in time for this story.)
Finding a new administrator
Karger is clear about who he thinks should be his successor. Deputy Administrator Lance Leonhard took his job in May 2016, and is Karger’s choice for Marathon County’s next administrator.
Other options include conducting a national search for the position, for which Leonhard could apply; or transforming the position into an elected county executive, similar to Portage County’s. That seat would be elected every four years—a political position versus a neutral administration role.
Robinson, currently serving on the county board, favors a national search, for due diligence and to ensure the county gets the best candidate, whether that’s Leonhard or someone else.
Either way, Leonhard says, he’s learned a lot under Karger. “One thing he reinforced for me is the importance of service,” Leonhard says. “I think Brad demonstrates that professionally, and on a personal level.”
Leonhard recently had his own controversial project to contend with. Major renovation plans at North Central Health Care drew concerns from neighborhood residents, largely over a youth mental health facility’s proximity to residences. Karger says Leonhard handled that situation with skill, listening to concerns and finding a compromise that satisfied people. Future public meetings were largely sedate compared to earlier ones.
Leonhard credits Karger with showing confidence in him to handle the situation. “It would have been easy for him to step in and be the one to solve everything,” Leonhard says. “But Brad recognizes the value in giving staff the room to develop.”
After Karger retires at the end of the year, he plans to spend more time in Florida, especially in winter. He wants to golf more and learn a foreign language. He already has taught some college classes as adjunct faculty and would like to do more of that.
But until December 31, he will still be Brad Karger, county administrator.
Hear B.C. Kowalski’s full interview with Brad Karger in the latest episode of Live at Daly’s on iTunes or Spotify