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January 17, 2020

1/11/2020 7:30:00 AM
Outgoing alderpersons reflect on city government

Heather Schaefer
Associate Editor

The Rhinelander Common Council is scheduled to hold its first meeting of the new year Monday evening. For three of the eight members, it will be the start of the countdown toward their final meeting as alderpersons.

Longtime council members George Kirby, Dawn Rog and Steve Sauer are set to step away from city politics following the April election. Kirby, the current City Council president, and Sauer have served two four-year terms on the council. Rog was first elected to the council in 1998 and served five terms until 2008. At that time, aldermanic terms lasted two years. She was re-elected to the council in 2016 and is finishing a four-year term.

All three alderpersons are leaving the council following an especially turbulent year punctuated by a number of serious allegations directed at both appointed and elected city officials and with the council deeply divided. Throughout 2019, the panel frequently deadlocked 4-4, with the same alderpersons at opposite sides of the vote.

Kirby told the River News he opted not to run for re-election, in part, due to frustration over the council's recent struggles.

"I put in my eight years and that's enough," he said, adding that his wife suffered a heart attack in November and the stress he brings home following the sometimes contentious council meetings is not good for her health.

Kirby also said he's frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of transparency in city government as well as a general sense that the council is no longer able to work together as it once did.

"It all goes back to last Jan. 28 when I tried to inform the public about (city administrator Daniel Guild's furniture purchases, which were OK'd by the mayor but not the council). I stood up and tried to represent the taxpayers and Daniel didn't want me to do it. Ever since then it's been a year of banging my head against that desk."

"We just don't have a working council," he added.

Rog, who has frequently butted heads with mayor Chris Frederickson, cited a "dramatic downgrading in the integrity of our government under Mr. Frederickson" as one of the reasons she is stepping down.

"As we move into the New Year, it is clear we have entered an era where transparency and open government have been all but completely removed from city practices," Rog told the River News in a statement. "As an elected official who places compliance with the law and open government above all else, there is no useful role in Mr. Frederickson's administration for honest, law-abiding people."

"I am proud to have served my city for over 20 years, but it's time for some new faces in the crowd," she added. "Workplace culture issues need immediate addressing and rule-following, as do some very difficult financial matters, and let's hope the new folks take action on those things."

(Editor's note: After submitting this statement to the River News, Rog also submitted a letter to the editor which expands on her thoughts shared here. It is published on Page 4. The River News offered Frederickson and Guild an opportunity to respond to the statements made by Rog and Kirby in this story, however they did not respond to our message prior to press time.)

The River News also reached out to Sauer for his thoughts on the end of his tenure as an alderperson. In response, he sent a statement expressing a positive outlook on Rhinelander's future.

"It has been both an honor and a privilege representing District 7 on the Rhinelander Common Council for the last eight years," he wrote. "There have been many challenges, but I am extremely optimistic about the future of Rhinelander and I am proud of the steps we have taken to move the city towards better government and governance. Some of these steps forward include developing detailed and well thought out park plans, massive infrastructure improvements throughout the city, opening and expanding Public Comment at Common Council meetings and allowing the citizenry a voice, the creation of Council Bylaws, modifying the Ethics Code and creating an Ethics Board, as well as reducing Council micromanagement therefore allowing city staff to bring forth new plans and ideas based on their experience. I look forward to seeing additional plans from Administrator Daniel Guild in his efforts to encourage long term financial planning as well as increased economic development which together have the potential of making Rhinelander more financially sustainable and allow the city to grow far into the future. I commend both Mayor Frederickson and Administrator Guild in achieving a great deal of progress and continuing to move forward despite any conflict within the Common Council as whole. The city must move forward and in order to do so there must be change, though sometimes that change can be painful, it is simply a necessity. New faces and fresh ideas are exactly what the City of Rhinelander needs in order to facilitate that change, and I am extremely excited to see what the next incarnation of the Common Council brings forth."

All three outgoing alderpersons have been the subject of recent controversy.

Kirby has been dogged in by allegations that he possesses personnel records related to former public works director Tim Kingman who was fired in June and is now suing the city for wrongful termination.

In August, the city announced Kingman's file had been "inappropriately removed" from City Hall, leading to an ongoing mystery as to its location.

Kirby has stated the records he referred to in an October closed session meeting, that was purportedly secretly recorded, were personal notes he took while he and others were hearing human resources complaints while the city was without an administrator. (Alderman Lee Emmer was heard on the same recording, which the River News cannot independently verify as legitimate, referring to a burnpile. Emmer has stated he was frustrated over Guild's attitude during the discussion and reacted with sarcasm.)

Kirby has insisted that he has turned over all records in his possession to the sheriff's office, which is investigating alleged misconduct in public office and tampering with a public record.

Search warrants obtained in connection with that investigation were executed at City Hall Nov. 21.

In February, the city's IT contractor accused Rog of shoving her while the two were in the server room at City Hall. However, Oneida County district attorney Mike Schiek ultimately declined to file charges. Also, as the year came to an end, there were calls for Rog's resignation after she told a city resident who interrupted a council meeting to accuse her of being on Facebook to "go back to jail."

For his part, Sauer is a defendant in Kingman's federal wrongful termination lawsuit as well as a walking quorum lawsuit brought by River News General Manager Heather Holmes with respect to a letter he and three other aldermen wrote to Kirby after Kirby refused to take his seat last January.

The other defendants in the walking quorum lawsuit are alderpersons David Holt, Ryan Rossing, Andrew Larson, none of whom are up for re-election this spring. Frederickson is also a defendant. A primary will be held Feb. 18 for the District 5 seat to be vacated by Rog.

According to the clerk's office, Gerald Anderson, Jason Dailey and Wil Losch will square off in that race.

A fourth candidate is also possible as the deadline to file nomination papers for that seat was after this edition was sent to press. The same is true in District 1 where Tom Barnett will run unopposed, unless another challenger turns in paperwork before the deadline.

Bill Freudenberg and Eileen Daniel are set to compete for the District 7 seat Sauer is set to vacate.

Emmer, the only incumbent running for re-election, will face Carrie Mikalauski in District 3. The general election will be April 7.

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