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OPINION - Thomas Street boondoggle

by Chris Conley

I will be on vacation next week. My kids and I will be traveling by train to New York. Five of us get on… and maybe five will get off… Tom King will fill-in for me on the WSAU Wisconsin Morning News. Seth Mela returns from his vacation on Monday.

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  The Wausau Daily Herald filed a complaint earlier this week against the City of Wausau for an open meeting law violation. The newspaper is right. The city is wrong.

Unfortunately, this is only a side-show and misses the much bigger issue.

The complaint is cut-and-dry. The city violated two parts of the open meeting law when the Finance Committee met in closed session on July 23. The city posted an agenda that said they’d go into closed session to negotiate a land purchase at the corner of Thomas and North First streets. There’s nothing wrong here. Negotiations – such as the purchase price for land or other contracts – can be done in private. But the vote to actually make the purchase, once a price is agreed to, needs to be done in public.

That’s not what happened. The Finance Committee emerged from this meeting and voted to buy a different piece of land, the former Oriental Market further down the street. That change needed to be posted in advance. And the meeting itself should have been public, since no negotiations took place. The price of the lot ($35,000) had already been determined.

The District Attorney will investigate the Herald’s complaint, and will find that the open meeting law wasn’t followed.

But the problem here isn’t that the city was inept at following the rules. The problem is the long-talked-about plan to widen Thomas Street, which has become a murky boondoggle. Recall that the city lost access to federal block grants for the project because they didn’t follow the rules for buying property. (The city needed to tell the people who were losing their land that they had a right to appeal the city’s purchase price, and that they were eligible to have their relocation costs covered. Those are both big points to make sure the previous owners are treated fairly.) Since then, the city hasn’t put forth a cohesive plan for what happens next. Will they try to fund the project locally? Will the widening plan not go as far down the street? Will the city put in more turning lanes instead of making Thomas Street a full four-lane and turning lane roadway? Exactly how much land will the city need for the various options? How much will the city spend on property acquisitions? Exactly which properties will the city need?

The city has been squishy on all of those issues, and the answers could change on one city council vote. All we know for sure is that the city is spending scarce dollars to buy land. The public needs to know the plan up front before any money is spent.

The city’s messed-up HUD-grant has already cost us federal dollars. Now that our local tax dollars are in play, the city needs to lay out its plans for the public first and spend money second.

Chris Conley