Council conduct fuels gallery comments and words exchanged between citizen and alderperson
By Lori Adler, reporter
The Rhinelander common council met Monday night amidst controversy regarding the conduct of city officials. Last week a charged conversation between alderperson Dawn Rog and Mayor Chris Frederickson in the mayor’s office at city hall led to allegations of misconduct. Rog sent out a press release with her version of the events, while Frederickson contacted local authorities with his side of the confrontation. At this point, it is unclear if any charges will be filed.
Though discussion of this situation was not planned for Monday’s meeting, the creation of an ethics board was on the agenda, and this fueled about 45 minutes of public comments at the beginning of the meeting. Comments from the gallery also referenced the altercation between Rog and Frederickson as well as other events in the past that involved Rog. While some comments were concerning other agenda items, the majority of citizen remarks were regarding the personal conduct of council members and support for the creation of an ethics board.
Alderman Steve Sauer made a citizen comment on absenteeism among council members, stating, “I have great concerns about the number of regularly scheduled meetings that are being missed. This council approved the meeting schedule in January which should have given all of us time to schedule our lives around this commitment.”
Sauer noted that there has been a total of 17 meetings so far this year; however, according to Sauer, six members of the council have only collectively missed one meeting, while two other members have missed five meetings each.
“This is an attendance rate of just over 70 percent, a level of representation that is entirely unacceptable and a slap in the face of the constituents of these districts who are left without representation at almost one-third of the regular meetings,” Sauer said.
Following the public comment portion, the council continued through the agenda, but the meeting was not without further controversy. During an educational budget and levy presentation by city administrator Daniel Guild, a citizen stood up in front of the council and confronted Rog, asking if Facebook was more important than listening to the presenter since the citizen had noted a recent post on Facebook by Rog while in attendance of the meeting.
Rog called the incident “harassment” and replied to the citizen, “Oh go back to jail where you came from.”
The comment was met with many remarks from the gallery. The mayor called order among the council and gallery, and the rest of the meeting progressed without further incident.
Ethics code and board
Guild started the ethics board conversation with stating that he has gathered samples from various cities in Wisconsin and placed those on the city’s cloud drive for council review. He also pointed out that the new city attorney, Steve Sorenson, is a national scholar and presenter on the topic of ethics, so his expertise will be helpful to the council as it begins working through the creation of an ethics board and update of the city’s ethic code.
Talk among council members resulted in a motion to begin taking applications for the ethics board. Discussion ensued about the inclusion of business and property owners (who may not be Rhinelander residents) as well as citizen of the city.
Sorenson remarked that it would really be more important to create an ethic code resolution before creating the board. The council was in agreement, so the motion to start taking applications for the board was rescinded.
“I would hope that maybe we could wait and continue this conversation to get more information together,” Alderperson Rog stated, adding, “I think Mr. Sorenson had a very good idea; maybe we’re putting the cart before the horse. And that we all have time to think about this and we bring this back. I do think it’s very important that we have it especially with the situation that we have going on here.”
Frederickson replied, “I did address this two weeks ago for us to start looking into this.”
Sauer made a motion to direct city staff to begin constructing a draft ethics code resolution based upon a model done by the community of Green Bay, adding “I’m just looking for a starting point.”
The council then passed the motion to begin the process.
GHD contract renewal
City administrator Guild stated that it’s been discovered that the contract with GHD, the firm that performs compliance monitoring of the former landfill, was out of date and needed revisions. Working with an environmental attorney, the contract has been updated to current standards and now just awaits the approval of the city council, which is the last of the Landfill Group to approve the document. Guild noted the contract is posted on the city’s cloud drive for review.
Sauer asked, “So just to confirm, this an extension or a redraft of the contract that was approved in 2016?” Sauer then continued, “A contract that was approved based on a finance committee recommendation on June 7 of 2016?”
Guild confirmed that statement was correct. Sauer then quoted a portion of the minutes to the council, which read, “In addition, it was noted that Chris Rog has such extensive knowledge of the landfill and its history that he will stay on in an advisory capacity for whichever company is chosen for oversight on behalf of the city, and all four firms agreed to this stipulation.”
Guild responded, “My understanding is that Chris Rog is no longer associated with GHD, so there should be no conflict of interest with the council having a relationship with them going forward, and they already have experience doing the work and are familiar with the site.”
Rog then added, “I’d also like to note that Steve also voted yes on that contract, and I had always abstained, and he [Chris Rog] is completely retired.”
The council then moved to approve the updated contract with GHD.
Money owed Mayor Frederickson
Guild explained that, per city ordinance, the mayor is to be compensated for various expenses, including per diem for meetings attended, car allowance for travel, and a cash allowance based on the cost of health insurance. Guild noted that this has not been budgeted for 2018 or 2019. He looked into whether this compensation requirement could just be removed from city ordinances, but Wisconsin state law does not allow any changes to compensation for elected officials during their term of office. Guild stated he planned to include this expense in the 2020 budget, including back compensation for 2018 and 2019 as well.
Alderperson George Kirby stated, “If you check the ordinance, there’s a legal opinion already filed by our former city attorney.”
“I am aware of the previous opinion, and I’ve looked at it,” Guild replied, “and reading the opinion and reading the ordinance, with respect to our former attorney, I don’t see how he arrived at that conclusion, and so I did consult with our current attorney on it.” Later Guild added, “I think the ordinance is very clearly written. I’m not in full possession of all the materials to how the previous opinion came to be.”
Kirby then requested that Sorenson review the opinion and come back to council with a formal reading of the ordinance. Sorenson then asked if Kirby had a copy of the written opinion as none could be found in the city files. Guild stated he only had verbal information from the former attorney regarding the opinion. Several council members did state they had a copy in their possession and planned to forward to Sorenson for review.
Hodag as intellectual property
Lauren Sackett, director of the Rhinelander area chamber of commerce, said the chamber has the state trademark for the Hodag, but it is now working to nationally trademark the Hodag and its history as intellectual property. It was pointed out, however, that the Hodag has been used repeatedly by others not from Rhinelander.
Alderman David Holt stated, “The Hodag is in the Dungeons and Dragons monster manual. The Hodag is in Fantastic Beasts by J.K. Rowling. It is out there in the world and that’s life.”
Guild added that he still has not received direction from the council regarding a reply to the city in Michigan that wants to have their own Hodag festival.
Holt responded, “They came to us as the keeper of the legend and welcomed the city of Rhinelander. I think that is a great thing.” Holt later added, “I think that we should simply embrace that they want to enjoy this legend, and by the simple act of asking us, they have placed Rhinelander at the center of it, and I think that’s more valuable than an actual trademark.”
Holt then moved to direct Guild to contact the Michigan city and discuss with them how Rhinelander can be included in their celebration, and the council passed the motion.
Unpaid legal bills
Guild made note to the council that he and finance director Wendy Bixby were constructing a budget amendment and resolution to pay the outstanding legal fees owed to von Briesen. Guild stated the documents would be ready for council consideration at the next regular meeting.
The next regular meeting of the Rhinelander Common Council is scheduled for Monday, November 11, at 6 p.m. at city hall.