Common council argues over payment of legal fees
By Lori Adler, reporter
The Rhinelander common council met Monday, and one item of business that generated extensive discussion was the payment of legal fees to Von Briesen in the amount of $199,140.01. The invoices for these fees are spread out over the past several months but have remained unpaid because the specific fund in the city’s budget for legal fees has already been exhausted.
Daniel Guild, city administrator, presented a resolution Monday which would permit the payment of these fees immediately while allowing Guild and finance director Wendy Bixby to determine the best way to reallocate the money to various funds within the budget. There are a number of areas where the money could be reallocated including departments with staff vacancies, especially since many of the unpaid legal fees are related to human resource issues. The resolution stated that once the bills were paid and the reallocations determined, a formal budget amendment would then be presented to the council at the first meeting in December. Confusion and discussion about whether this was the best way to handle the situation ensued.
Alderman Lee Emmer began the discussion, “First of all, I want to clarify what this actually is a vehicle to do. Is this document supposed to be paying the legal fees right now and then doing an amendment to the budget later, is that what we’re trying to do here?”
Council member Dawn Rog was also against moving forward on the resolution, stating, “I think this is poorly done.”
She noted that the original budgeted amount for legal fees was $60,000, and now that the actual amount would be closer to $200,000, it was important to know exactly where the money would come from. She also noted that copies of many of the legal fee invoices had not been provided to the council.
Rog explained, “We need to look at real numbers. We also have invoices that are on here that have never been presented to the council. They have never been given to us in any type of form of payment being paid. We are missing quite a few of these.”
Guild replied that he was trying to pay the bills in the most efficient manner and wanted permission from the council to make the payment before investing time in the budget reallocations.
“There are multiple possibilities about how we can pay for this expense. The problem that I see as the administrator is that the politics of this causes the benchmark to continue to be changed in terms of what the standard is for how to pay these things. I’m also curious about why the fact that for years we let hundreds of thousands of dollars be unbudgeted for in other funds that we just reconciled at the end of the year without budget action,” Guild remarked, later adding, “There’s a way to pay for these bills. The city has the money on hand. There are several different ways that this could go. We’re really not sure how to proceed until we have some direction from the council because neither Wendy or I or anybody wants to just sit there and spin their wheels on something when it’s really not about achieving the solution but perhaps perpetuating the problem.”
Emmer then responded, “Regardless if you do the budget amendment now or you do it later, it still has to be done. So I say do it now. Send the amendment to us, show us where it’s coming from, and then we can reasonably approve this.”
“We don’t pay the bills first. We don’t write the checks, send the checks out and then try to figure out how to pay the bills,” Rog added, stating, “Some people do that in their households, but I would hope that this household does it properly.”
The resolution was called to a vote and failed, with alderpersons Emmer, Rog, Kelly and Rossing voting against it.
Protecting the Hodag for Rhinelander
At Monday’s meeting, Guild told the council of a conversation he had with a city in Michigan which had recently found stories of the Hodag in their city’s history. This city has decided to have a Hodag festival next year and were contacting Rhinelander to see if information could be shared and if Rhinelander wanted to be involved in the event as a sister city. Guild explained that the conversation made him question how safe the Hodag legend was to Rhinelander and if something should be done to protect it.
“The Hodag is obviously a huge part of our community’s heritage. It’s part of our brand; it’s part of our identity,” Guild stated, “And there is some concern that I have, and with some others that I have spoken with, that if this brand gets out, that we will never be able to put it back in the bottle and claim that it’s ours.”
Guild stated that the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce explained that some steps have been taken toward trade marking the Hodag logo used by the chamber, city and school district, but this may not be enough to protect the legend. Guild spoke with an intellectual property lawyer who stated that the work needed to review documents and ensure the safety of the Hodag to Rhinelander would cost approximately $5,000 in document preparation and legal fees. Guild then asked the council how they would like him to proceed.
Alder person Rog pointed out that this was not an agenda item and should not be discussed at this time but rather added to a future agenda.
“It is an important item, and I do think it needs to be an agenda item,” Rog explained, “and I do think a lot of information should be collected before we spend the money that we do not have budgeted for.”
Council member David Holt added, “I agree with Dawn here; that’s a lot of information and something I’ve personally never thought of, so I think that it would be good for us to be able to sit on this and to think about it and then deliver concise feedback to Daniel in email or otherwise.”
No further action was taken by the council on this topic.
Chamber of Commerce director Lauren Sackett presented an overview of the Project North festival to the council Monday night. She noted that the festival, which was held a few weeks ago, had over 1,000 attendees, and there were more than 35 different musicians and bands that performed.
Since sustainability was a major component of the festival, Sackett remarked that there was 299 pounds of compostable waste, and that only 29 lbs of waste went to the landfill. In addition, due to two filtered water refill stations provided by local businesses, the use of more than 1,500 disposable water bottles was prevented. Also, refillable steel souvenir cups were used by the beverage vendors, preventing the use of disposable plastic cups. Four breweries were represented at the festival; two were local and the other two were defined as the most sustainable in the state. The Eco-Village was also popular with 29 vendor booths and seven professional environmental presentations.
Sackett stated there were some out-of-state visitors and had personally spoken with a family from Ohio who had traveled to Rhinelander specifically for Project North. The chamber is also aware of several visitors from Canada who attended as well. The chamber and all the organizers of the event are happy with the first year of the festival and plans for next year are already underway, with the 2020 dates to be announced by the end of the month.
The next meeting of the Rhinelander Common Council is scheduled for Monday, October 28, 2019, at 6 p.m., at City Hall.