B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Tom Kilian and William Harris are two of several politicians introducing a new type of resolution – aimed at addressing disparities for certain populations.
It has always been something of a rare sight to see the Assembly Room at the Marathon County Courthouse filled to the brim for a county board meeting. Watching the 38-person board in action resolving amendments to amendments isn’t the most exciting thing for anyone outside of the most ardent policy wonks.
But in June and July of 2019, the room was in fact packed to the gills, with more folks outside in overflow rooms. They were there to see if Marathon County would vote in favor of a Pride Month resolution, and then again to see if it would be upheld a month later.
That the resolution became controversial was a surprise to some, since it merely recognized a month already recognized nationally, and had no real “teeth” — the bill was simply an acknowledgement, and didn’t contain any direction. (That didn’t stop some folks from thinking that it did, however. Then-Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger told me several people thought the county would be flying a rainbow flag at the courthouse in the month of June, which was not in the resolution and which the county had no intention of doing.)
Three new resolutions — two at the county level and one in the city — are similar to the pride month resolution. And that they’ve garnered similar controversy. A resolution acknowledging Black History Month passed the county board in February but with some dissenting votes and debate. The resolution didn’t call for any action but was a simple acknowledgment of the month, already recognized nationally.
And another, A Community for All, hasn’t been voted on yet but already has drawn the same kinds of discussions as others. Originally drafted in response to the murder of George Floyd, the resolution is on hold as the county’s Diversity Affairs commission works on garnering more support for the resolution. It essentially calls for the board to commit to diversity, inclusion and equity being reflected in all that it does.
And the third, formulated at the Liberation and Freedom Committee, calls for the city to commit to environmental justice. The resolution mimics a similar one passed by the city council in Evanston, Ill., using much of the same language. It’s currently stalled as the city works through some of the language of the resolution.
The three resolutions are part of a trend in local governments pushing for resolutions somewhat based on national issues, but with local impacts. And on resolutions that are more than simply focusing on directly fixing concrete, right in front of you issues; they’re a little harder to define. All have some data to back them up, but also don’t call for specific action. Why not?
I asked William Harris, Marathon County’s first black supervisor and the proponent of the Black History Month resolution. Why not include something more concrete in these resolutions? That’s coming, Harris says. The point is to first lay the groundwork for change by acknowledging the problem and building awareness, which is what these resolutions do. “This leads the way for the conversation,” Harris says. “This leads the way to change.”
Tom Kilian, the city council member behind the environmental justice resolution and who has been bringing more attention to environmental issues in the city long before he ran and won his city council seat, came armed with data when I asked him about discrepancies in environmental treatment. It turns out, someone else in city hall had already done the work for him.
In a federal brownfield grant application meant to raise money for the city’s Riverlife Project, then Community Development Director Ann Werth pointed out the very thing Kilian is talking about. According to the application, the census tract that the project lies in is the “most ‘needy’ tract in the city in terms of unemployment, income, minority populations and persons with disabilities.” That refers to Wausau Census Tract 1, which encompasses most of the downtown, the Riverlife, and near east side and near west side of the city.
The data, from the 2010 census, backs that up. According to the application:
- unemployment rate was 18.4% compared to 10% in the city
- the poverty rate was 39.1% versus 15.1%
- a higher minority population of 28.2% versus 18% in the city
- a higher percentage of Asians in poverty (54.1% vs 24.2%)
- a higher percentage of persons with disability (25.6% vs 12.2%)
- median household income was only $27,286 vs $41,304
In the application, Werth essentially makes the argument for environmental justice long before the term was talked about in Wausau area politics. The brownfield application makes the argument that the city receiving the grant will facilitate environmental cleanup that will disproportionately benefit those at risk because it cleans up contamination in their area. It was also expected that the project will increase development, including low-income housing and will remove blight, improve the neighborhood and reduce crime. It seemed an argument that could have come from Kilian himself.
No one could argue that the Riverlife area isn’t far less blighted than it is now. A visit to the park last Saturday revealed numerous families and individuals walking and biking the expanded River’s Edge Trail and playing on the extensive playground equipment. That’s a stark improvement over the industrial wasteland that marked the area prior to its development.
The affordable housing aspect is a different story. Nowhere on the Riverlife property have any affordable housing projects been proposed or built, nor is there likely to be. Brand new affordable housing tends to be tough to build because the numbers don’t work; not enough rent comes in to offset the expense of building, unless major subsidies can be had. That’s why they’re often part of rehab projects, which carry the potential for city incentives. The Landmark’s proposed renovation plan is a good example: it combines historic credits with low-income housing credits to make the project work financially.
Advocates for the Community for All resolution came armed with their own data. According to survey results from the Marathon County United Way’s 2019-2020 Life Report, only 44% of Marathon County’s residents were satisfied with how tolerant their community is, and 37% of those surveyed said they had experienced some kind of discrimination in the previous year. That was a 17-point rise from 2017.
People are increasingly feeling like the community is less welcoming than it should be — not just toward those of different races or sexual orientations, but even toward young people in general.
The data presented by advocates of the Community for All Resolution point out that poverty levels are higher for nearly every non-white population. The report also points to disparities in the criminal justice system for minorities.
Both the Black History Month and Community For All resolutions garnered some unfavorable public comment. The Community for All resolution particularly garnered criticism both at the Marathon County Board meeting in which it was presented and in letters to the editor that ran in various publications.
The complaints? On the Community For All resolution, some buckled at the term equity, suggesting that the resolution was calling for the government to intervene and guarantee outcomes. Government, one person argued, is supposed to guarantee equal opportunity but not necessarily outcomes. Another commenter said the disparities are a good thing because they mean everyone has the liberty to make choices. And that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation; in other words, that the disparities exist doesn’t necessarily mean that they are caused by systemic racism. Another said the resolution was divisive and that wasn’t a good way to unite people.
Questions arose as to whether the resolution would even be constitutional.
The Environmental Justice resolution brought its own legal concerns — from city hall itself. The resolution is stalled from coming before the city’s Public Health and Safety Committee until concerns by the city attorney’s office about some of the resolution’s language can be revised.
Assistant City Attorney Tara Alfonso told City Pages that the issue lies in the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause, which “prohibits what might generally be thought of as “invidious” discriminatory distinctions or classifications between/among individuals,” Alfonso says.
In other words, the court tends to scrutinize laws that discriminate classes such as “race, religion, national origin, and alienage,” Alfonso told City Pages. She also said the allegations made in the resolution about environmental disparities are untested; they might be true or untrue, but that hasn’t been tested or verified, Alfonso says.
Public Health and Safety Committee Chair Lisa Rasmussen says the committee will take up the resolution once the city attorney’s office has reviewed and revised the language based on its concerns.
Neither Kilian nor Harris agree with that assessment. Kilian points to the city’s own federal brownfield grant application as not only acknowledging the disparities the resolution mentions but seems to make an argument for environmental justice in addressing those disparities. It’s a term recognized by both state and federal agencies, he says.
And, both say, they’re not advocating for special treatment for any particular group or distinction. Just making sure everyone gets equal treatment, regardless of where they live or their racial identity. In other words, Harris, an attorney with Judicare says, the resolution essentially seeks to uphold the Equal Protection Clause, not undermine it.
No one has heard the last of the two remaining resolutions to pass. Campbell told City Pages that the resolution is on hold right now as the Diversity Affairs Committee works to garner more support. Campbell says oppression of the marginalized isn’t confined to the south in the 1960s — it exists in Wausau today.
But it’s not limited to ethnicity, she says. “It is imperative that the community rally behind this resolution,” Campbell says. “Many believe it is a black and white issue. First and foremost, ethnicity is only one portion of what diversity includes. Diversity includes race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and religion. This is not a black and white issue; it is an issue of humanity.”
And, the environmental justice resolution is currently being reworked. Alfonso told City Pages right now the resolution contains too many untested allegations and assertions, and that could be a problem for the city in terms of liability. “These alleged and untested factual statements and conclusions could lead to legal consequences together with accompanying legal expenses,” Alfonso told City Pages.
Mayor Katie Rosenberg told City Pages that’s all just part of the creation process, working through the details and reworking wording until it’s right. “I’d rather see it move slowly than be voted down because it doesn’t work for Wausau,” Rosenberg told City Pages.
Harris and Kilian are hopeful about that. Both represent the same geographical area, for the county and city respectfully. The two previously partnered to lobby for a city bus stop to be created by Island Place — incredibly, despite being less than a mile from the city’s downtown, no bus stopped there despite a number of seniors living there. The bus route was changed last year.
All three resolutions faced pushback in a variety of ways, which might be surprising since none of them specifically call for direct action. But that’s just part of the process. They’re resolved to see resolutions through to reality.