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OPINION - Can't quite follow the rules

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) There’s a problem at Wausau City Hall that needs to be addressed. The city sometimes doesn’t follow state and federal law, and the consequences can be expensive.

Admittedly, state and federal law is complex. And it’s impossible to tell if these violations are intentional or mere oversights. It’s also clear this is an area where the city needs to do a better job. Some of the mis-steps are questions of ethics. Other cases potentially involve millions of dollars.

Consider the Thomas Street widening project. Adding lanes to the busy street has been debated for years. The city had a federal block grant to help cover the costs of buying up properties that would be needed to expand the road. But the city didn’t tell property owners that they could appeal the price the city offered for their land. People who’d have to move weren’t told that the block grant would cover their moving costs. Was this an honest mistake? Perhaps. But the Feds thought the violation was serious enough to shut down block-grant money for the project.

Recall the case involving former city council member Christine Van de Yacht. There was an ethics complaint against her over the purchase of the Golden Guernsey property, which was cleaned up, in part, with federal brownfield grants. The issue involved whether a city official could have an ownership stake in land that was cleaned up with public money. There were no clear guidelines about whether the city’s legal department had an obligation to notify and advise Van de Yacht. Her interest in the property was known. The city’s lawyers were silent while the purchase was pending. The confusion from the city could have put future brownfield dollars at risk.

In 2009 the Wausau Daily Herald reported on travel expenses involving the Wausau Water Works. The city was regularly sending 4, 5, and 6 member delegations to the American Water Works Association conventions. The mayor and city council president attended. The benefits to the city? Hard to determine. Certainly one or two people could have attended and soaked up the knowledge. You can tell something about the nature of the trips when you consider that many of the Wausau attendees paid for extra tickets out of their own pockets to bring their spouses along. These appear to be little more than partially-taxpayer-funded vacations. The city’s travel policies are still lax.

Now consider the $116,000 worth of bird sculpture on the Highway 52 median. An outside lawyer just reported back to the city that the project should have been put out for bid (it wasn’t), the state was supposed to be notified (it wasn’t), and the city applied the wrong wage-hour standard for the work that was done.

There’s a pattern here. The city plays fast-and-loose with regulations that are considered inconvenient. Wausau has a compliance problem.

Are these problems serious? Yes, if you care about good government. Even if you don’t – these slip-ups could cost the city a tremendous amount of money. Suppose the feds red-flag every Wausau block grant, transportation, or brownfield project. Every economic development project in the city would be delayed. Suppose the state gives extra scrutiny to Wausau projects. We'd be at a huge disadvantage compared to other mid-size cities in Wisconsin. None of this has happened… yet. The city is tempting fate because it can’t follow the rules.

Chris Conley
1.29.14