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September 24, 2019

8/15/2019 7:29:00 AM
Frustrated alderman wants more information from city department heads
By Heather Schaefer and Jamie Taylor
Of the Northwoods River News

A Rhinelander alderman expressed concern Monday about the lack of reports coming out of the city's water and wastewater departments following the announcement last month that municipal well No. 7 had been taken offline due to the presence of PFAS contaminates.

The common council regularly devotes a portion of its monthly meetings to receiving reports from department heads. Many department heads prepare a written report and supplement it with additional comments during the meeting.

On Monday, the council received reports from the finance, police, fire/inspection and street departments, the city clerk, legal counsel, the city administrator, the Pioneer Park Historical Complex and the golf course but when it came time to hear from water and wastewater there was not much to say.

Water utility foreman Tom Roeser submitted a written water distribution/sewer collections activity report, but when asked if he had anything else to report, Roeser said no.

Interim wastewater foreman Jim Gossage also stated he had nothing to add.

The responses prompted a question from alderman Lee Emmer.

"It seems we have some issues with wells and stuff like that and yet there's nothing to add from the treatment plant?" he asked. "I think there's a request to do some testing but there's no report? I think at least once month we need to have a report. I think, for instance, from parks, buildings and grounds, we haven't had one for several months. We're not getting reports and I really can't blame people for that because if they look around they see others aren't doing reports. Where's their incentive to do one? I'm not going to be surprised if before long absolutely nobody gives a report simply because they are allowed not to. I want to know what's going on in this department. Maybe nobody else cares but I certainly care and I know these people out here care. So let's have a report once a month from each of these (department heads). That's how we know what's going on."

Mayor Chris Frederickson interjected that some of the department heads may have been confused as to when their reports were due as the council's schedule has seen some upheaval recently due to cancellations.

Emmer replied that a due date for reports should be set.

At that point, alderperson Dawn Rog stated that she wanted to hear from the wastewater foreman regarding sludge testing.

Gossage stepped up to the mic.

"I recently took on this role about three weeks ago," he said, before promising that he will have a report ready for the council's next meeting. Gossage explained that his department is short-staffed and the workers are doing all they can to fulfill their responsibilities.

Gossage is leading the department in the absence of wastewater foreman Brad Vick who was placed on administrative leave last month pending an investigation. The city has yet to respond to open records requests filed by the River News related to that investigation.

Municipal well No. 7, located near the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport, was placed offline June 24 after elevated levels of chemicals knowns as PFAS were detected in the drinking water, the city announced in a Facebook post Monday evening, July 22.

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been used in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics and products that resist grease, water and oil. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to higher cholesterol, lower female fertility, lower infant birthweights, and other health risks, according to public health experts.

When it came time to give his administrator's report, Guild discussed various building security issues including the possibility of re-keying all city buildings as the administration has not been able to secure the return of keys from former officials. More information, including an estimated cost, is forthcoming, he added.

Emmer responded to Guild's report with a question about a request he made at the last meeting regarding potential testing of the well or wells located on or near the Northwood Golf Club property.

"We just went ahead on that," Guild said. "As soon as the results come in we'll bring them to council."

In other staffing related news, finance director Wendi Bixby advised that she doesn't know how much longer she can keep up with the personnel-related duties she was given in May following the resignation of Stephanie Rajnicek.

Bixby promised she would continue to give her full effort but warned: "I'm not going to be able to dot Is and cross Ts, if I'm overtaxed."

Also Monday, the council learned that one person has applied for the open city attorney position, however that person's interest is in prosecutorial services (representing the city in court matters involving ordinance violations) rather than general services.

The Von Briesen firm has been handling city legal affairs since May 31 when former city attorney Carrie Miljevich's contract with the city expired. The council decided earlier this spring not to renew the contract.

Other business

In other business, the council approved a new sex offender ordinance, authorized the site plan for an addition to the Rhinelander Aspirus Clinic, unanimously approved a petition to place referendum questions on the April 2020 ballot regarding legislative redistricting and a constitutional amendment to limit campaign donations by corporations and approved the sale of bonds to finance street improvement projects.

Acting city attorney Hector de la Mora also offered an explanation for his firm's delay in submitting legal bills. The delay was the result of a change in the firm's billing system, de la Mora said.

More information on the sex offender ordinance, and the need to create a board to hear appeals from those subject to the ordinance, will be published in a future edition of the River News.

The council will next meet Aug. 26.

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