TOO HARSH? County admin’s suspension questioned

More than 2,000 people are asking the Marathon County board to rethink a 30-day suspension imposed on Brad Karger for his participation in a peace march related to the Dylan Yang criminal case.

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County Administrator Brad Karger on Monday began the unpaid suspension handed down by the county board for his participation in the May 31 rally, held largely in support of Yang. Dylan Yang was 15 when he fatally stabbed 13-year-old Isaiah Powell in a fight between rival groups of friends. His trial and conviction in adult court, combined with suggestions of potential racial bias, has divided the community. In email exchanges, march leaders promised Karger the rally would be a call for peace and healing.

Peace March

City Pages

Peace March

Karger’s comments during the event particularly riled Wausau Police Chief Jeff Hardel, who later sent a scathing email to Karger. Hardel specifically highlighted the comment “I am Dylan” and a joke about people wishing they were Hmong as particularly offensive to law enforcement. The board on July 19 voted to suspend Karger without pay. With his yearly salary at about $124,000, the action will cost Karger and his family around $10,000. Critics of the decision, including some county board members themselves, say no one could point to any policy or law Karger broke.

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In addition to the petition, at least two board members are urging a review of Karger’s suspension: Katie Rosenberg and Sara Guild have both submitted requests to revisit the issue. County Chairman Kurt Gibbs says he has not placed the matter on an agenda and has not decided whether to do so.

Kurt Gibbs

Contributed photo

Kurt Gibbs

The board’s investigation show Karger, a longtime member of the Diversity Affairs Commission, was more involved in the planning of the rally than some county leaders knew, and that he tried to persuade march planners to avoid using divisive language. Karger met with Hmong leaders such as Mao Khang, and was in contact with the march organizer in Minnesota, who told county leaders the event was coming with or without support. Karger at a Diversity Affairs committee meeting said about the rally that “if it’s about peace and condolences, it’s not hard to get behind.” At one point during the event, Karger saw “strongly worded signs,” the report says, and suggested they be replaced with more positive signs.

The decision to suspend Karger was meant as a compromise between county board supervisors who wanted to fire Karger and those who thought he didn’t do anything wrong or at least deserved a lighter punishment.

Craig McEwen, a county board rep since 2008 and chair of the public safety committee, believes Karger should have been terminated for damaging relationships with law enforcement and other departments. McEwen says the issue has caused more divisiveness than he’s ever seen in his eight years on the board. McEwen says he’s always trusted Karger to give level-headed advice, but Karger’s involvement in a march that turned critical toward the courts and police was a huge misstep.

“I think his ability to be an effective leader has been damaged,” McEwen says.

Other board members feel the punishment should have been lighter. Several of them, such as Joel Lewis, aired their concerns on social media, and to explain they voted for the suspension to stave off Karger’s possible termination.

Kue Her, of Weston, started a petition on calling for Karger’s reinstatement. As of Wednesday, the petition was a few hundred signatures short of its 2,500 goal. Her, who attended but did not organize the march, says it angered her to see Karger punished for joining the peace rally. While most petitioners are local, several are from outside the state and even outside the country. “It’s important to know the nation is watching,” Her says.

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Karger didn’t break any policies, rules or laws in participating in the march, county leaders say, but exercised poor judgment. Karger told City Pages that he was told in a meeting between himself, Gibbs and attorney Andy Phillips that he had broken no rule or policy, but that the board was dissatisfied with his performance.

The county paid at least $10,000 for an outside attorney to launch the investigation initially, and further attorney expenses could be at least double that.