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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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home : opinions : opinions
November 15, 2019

10/31/2019 7:30:00 AM
The last word or your last words?

Heather Schaefer
Associate Editor

You learn a lot about life when your job involves processing obituaries. Countless death announcements have reached my inbox over the course of nearly 20 years in the newspaper business. Because I grew up in this community, many of the obituaries I've processed over the years summarized the lives of people who have touched my life in some way. As a result, on a few occasions I have been unable to hold back a gasp of shock upon opening an email from a funeral home.

That said, I'll risk the revulsion of some reading this and admit that obituaries are actually one of my favorite parts of the job. Death notices have always fascinated me. I love reading the final advice people leave for their loved ones and the world in general. I love learning new things about people I thought I knew. I enjoy reading about lives well-lived, no matter how short or long they were, and I'm always touched when people choose to be open about the painful challenges their loved ones faced in order to potentially reach someone else in need.

Unfortunately, another thought recently crossed my mind that involves obituaries. It relates to the intense division in this community related to Rhinelander city government.

I can't help but wonder how people on both sides of this divide would react if the next obituary that hits my inbox announces the death of whichever city leader or official they hate the most. Sadly, I fear that there are those on both sides of the divide who would react to such an obituary with unabashed joy. Some might even want to lead a parade celebrating the occasion. That's how intensely personal nearly everything related to the government of the city of Rhinelander has become.

Frankly, there may also be some reading this who would not be displeased if the next obituary published by this newspaper is my own.

Very regrettably, this is where we are at in this community. If it can get any uglier, and I fear it can and will if those who could use their influence to improve the situation remain silent or, even worse, signal tacit approval of such behavior, I don't want to know what will happen next.

I can honestly say that I am concerned that someone might bring a weapon to a council meeting and use it to either threaten or harm someone they believe is on the other side of the divide. I have some level of concern for the safety of every single member of the council as well as the mayor, the city administrator, the new city attorney, the city department heads who sit at the council table, and every person who attends council meetings. I must note that I've observed young children at the last two regular council meetings and bullets don't always hit their intended targets. I'm aware that guns are not allowed in City Hall, however we all know that weapons have a way of showing up in all sorts of places where they are not legally allowed.

Quick disclaimer: This piece is not about the Second Amendment in any way, shape or form. I'm well aware that there are many other types of weapons a person could bring to a public meeting, including pitchforks.

Another confession: I fear readers will react to this piece with scorn and derision and I'll be the next target of the monstrous mob that resides on social media. If that happens, so be it. I also suspect that people on both sides of the divide will assume this is meant for people "on the other side" and conclude that none of this concerns them or their behavior. That would be a shame.

Several times, nearly up until the last minute, I thought of pulling this piece and sticking it in a drawer. Ultimately, I decided to go ahead with it because I don't believe I can honestly exhort others to speak up and do something about this hatefulness if I remain silent.

I must also note that I'm sure there are those reading this who believe this newspaper, or the media in general, is responsible for the current state affairs in Rhinelander. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on the subject and I have no intention of arguing the point. I will only say that in the approximately six months, give or take, since I've taken a more prominent role in covering city government, we've taken a close look at what we report and how we report it.

That said, anyone who interprets that last sentence as some sort of knock on the coverage of my colleague Jamie Taylor is making a serious error.

Put simply, as you most likely do at your workplace, we try to take a critical eye to our work and do better as we go forward. Along the same lines, if any words spoken by me or published under my byline, be they in a news story or an editorial, gave anyone in this community the idea that is permissible to behave in the manner that has been observed lately, I sincerely regret those words because what is going on is absolutely not OK.

Case in point, when the person whose outburst interrupted Monday's council meeting attempted to express some remorse on Facebook - an admirable move on her part - several people (some of whom were in attendance at the council meeting) insisted that her outburst was completely justified. They stated that she had absolutely nothing to apologize for, because she was filled with "passion" at the time. The takeaway message being, apparently, any member of the gallery, when filled with passion, should feel free to interrupt a meeting and verbally attack anyone in the room.

Some may interpret this piece as an attempt to dissuade people from attending city meetings. That is absolutely not my intent. Ours is a government of, for and by the people, hence it's critical that "the people" engage in public meetings. Along the same lines, the public also has every right to criticize their representatives. The issue here is simple. There are rules that must be followed by every single person in the room, regardless of that person's level of frustration or passion. Of late, and some might argue for many years, city government has given the public innumerable reasons to feel frustrated, I'm certainly not attempting to defend any member of the council, but that does not give anyone the right to interrupt an elected body engaged in formal business.

Simply put, after the public comment period ends, no one is allowed to address the council unless recognized by the mayor. Whether the meeting lasts another hour or three hours, people who come to observe are required to control themselves. Anyone who is unable to do so should leave the room immediately or simply stay home.

Frankly, I don't think it's too much to ask for adults to control their behavior for an hour or two, regardless of how frustrated they might be or how much they might loathe a particular member of the council.

In covering a number of murder cases over the years, I have watched people sit literally steps away from the person who killed their loved one and not only keep their composure but behave with astonishing grace the entire time. And this isn't for just a couple of hours. In murder trials, family members of victims spend day after day sitting in the same courtroom as the person whose behavior ripped their heart out.

I'm sure some will see this piece as an overreaction and I will admit I probably had a stronger reaction to Monday's outburst than most people in the room. That said, days later I'm still thinking about it and wondering about what could happen at the next meeting. That's not to say anyone should expect me to suddenly disappear from meetings. I fully intend to continue chronicling city government and asking tough questions when necessary. I will never stop asking questions and hoping local officials will have the decency to answer them. Unfortunately, at this point, the mayor, city administrator and city attorney won't even acknowledge they've received an email from me.

That said, there is one public official who I am betting readers will be surprised to learn has answered my inquiries.

Alderman Ryan Rossing has responded to my emailed requests for comment on a number of occasions. Mr. Rossing and I also had a brief conversation outside the council chambers after Monday's meeting. I won't share what was said, but I'm glad to have had an opportunity to speak with him face to face and it was a positive exchange. Readers might think, based on this newspaper's reporting over the last several months, that I dislike or maybe even despise Mr. Rossing. Here's the truth: While I do not, in any way, shape or form, condone his behavior with respect to the alleged walking quorum and subsequent internal sheriff's department investigation, I have no animosity toward him and absolutely appreciate his years of service to the community. Believe it or not, it is possible to believe someone should be held responsible for a serious mistake and still respect their service and wish them well in the future.

I will also note that over the course of many years on the crime and courts beat, I covered a number of cases in which Rossing was involved as an investigator. Thus, my impression of him is based on more than just his work as a city alderperson.

Also, after nearly two decades in the news business, one comes to understand that literally everyone in the community, and I mean every single person regardless of position or last name, is capable of making a decision, or a series of decisions, that could result in that person finding their name and face on the cover of this newspaper. This certainly includes myself, as I am keenly aware.

It also applies to all of the loudmouths on social media. At any time, any one of them could be the newest fresh meat for another social media mob to devour.

Returning to the subject of obituaries, I would ask everyone reading this to consider one other question. What if the next obituary that comes into my inbox announces your death?

What if your next doctor's appointment ends with a terminal diagnosis and the knowledge you'll be in hospice care within weeks or months. What if the next accident claims your life? What if you drop dead while muttering profanities, either loudly or under your breath, at the next City Council meeting? What if you become so enraged while standing at the podium in the City Council chambers that you suffer a fatal medical event?

A lot of people carry themselves as if they are convinced that they are both invincible and incapable of making any sort or error. Some also seem to believe that it does not matter what they say or do today, or if they just wrote something extremely nasty on Facebook, because there's plenty of time to apologize later and somehow make it all better.

From where I sit, at the keyboard awaiting the next obituary, that's extremely dangerous thinking. Here's an idea I've been trying out, before you speak, send an email or post on social media, ask yourself this question - what if these are my last words?

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