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May 26, 2020

4/1/2020 4:50:00 PM
City Council debates loaning money to local businesses
Panel was set to meet again Thursday
Heather Schaefer
Associate Editor

The Rhinelander Common Council conducted business for approximately one hour and 40 minutes Monday afternoon before the meeting - the first since the state restricted gatherings to less than 10 people - had to be adjourned abruptly to avoid a violation of the state's open meetings law.

The meeting ended at approximately 3:40 p.m. after the council was advised that WJFW TV-12 was no longer broadcasting the meeting over the internet. The meeting could not continue because it was noticed as being available to the public via livestream broadcast by WJFW. The end of the broadcast caused the public to be excluded from the proceedings. As a result, the proceedings had to be adjourned.

A few minutes before the broadcast came to an end, WJFW posted this message on its Facebook page: "At 3:30 we will be concluding this stream to free up video resources, so WJFW can proceed with the late afternoon/evening news programs. Thank you for watching thus far."

The River News reached out to city officials and WJFW for an explanation.

WJFW news director Jerry Geisler emailed the following statement.

"WJFW streamed the meeting as a public service as long as we could," he wrote. "At 3:30 we had to end the stream to prepare for our regularly scheduled programming."

Geisler did not respond to a question asking if city officials were advised ahead of time that the broadcast would end at 3:30 p.m.

Mayor Chris Frederickson and city attorney Steve Sorenson have not responded to our questions about the livestream broadcast or on the employment status of city attorney Daniel Guild, who was placed on paid administrative leave earlier this month after being charged with one felony count of misconduct in public office. Because the meeting had to be adjourned abruptly, the council did not get through its agenda which included a planned closed session to discuss Guild's employment status.

On Wednesday morning, the city clerk's office sent out a press release advising that the council will reconvene at noon on Thursday, April 2. By Request Digital Media was to livestream the meeting, according to the clerk's office.

As the meeting is set to take place after the deadline for our Friday edition, coverage of that meeting will be published in the Tuesday, April 7 edition of the River News.

Before it came to a sudden halt, Monday's meeting featured a discussion on how the city could potentially help local businesses suffering in the wake of restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Alderman Steve Sauer explained that there is a balance of $118,491.93 in the Downtown Works Revolving Loan Fund that could be used to help local businesses stay afloat. This fund was created by the city, Downtown Rhinelander Inc. and the Cleary Foundation for the purpose of helping businesses within the city in "opening, expanding and/or repairing their facilities," according to a resolution introduced by Sauer.

Given the stresses local business owners are facing due to the pandemic-related restrictions, Sauer suggested this money be disbursed to aid them.

According to the resolution, in order to qualify for a loan, a business would have to be located in the city of Rhinelander, it would have to have been in operation for a 6-month period prior to the date of application and be able to show it has been negatively affected due to the COVID-19 virus and/or associated governmental orders.

The resolution states a special task force, to consist of Mayor Frederickson, city finance director Wendi Bixby, DRI treasurer Will Roffers, DRI board member Jim Hext, and Rhinelander fire chief Terry Williams, would be tasked with deciding which businesses receive loans.

The loans would be provided in an amount "up to $3,000 per business," according to the resolution.

"It's $3,000 that could be issued as soon as the check can be cut," Sauer said. "It's a basic application process that's all laid out."

Later in the meeting, Sauer suggested 39 separate businesses could receive loans of $3,000 through this fund.

"This may not be the cure. It's not the cure to the economic issue, but when I look around Rhinelander, mostly small businesses, mostly mom-and-pop operations, this is what gets them through the next month," he said.

"It's one of the few things we can do as a council to step up and keep some of our small businesses solvent," he added.

While no one disputed the contention that local businesses are in need, questions did arise as to whether the council has the legal authority to distribute money from this fund.

DRI president Rhonda Jicinsky sent a letter to the council, which the mayor read into the record, advising that DRI wants to have a say as to how the funds are distributed.

After reading the letter, Frederickson suggested the city move forward with distributing two-thirds of the money (the portions contributed by the city and the Cleary Foundation) and reserve one-third for DRI to distribute.

(According to a 2017 River News story on its history, the Cleary Foundation was created by Tom Cleary, owner of the Claridge hotel. Prior to his passing in 2003, he established the foundation to benefit Rhinelander. Cleary established the Foundation in the name of his father, James E. Cleary, a businessman who founded Cleary's Creamery and subsequently developed the Claridge. As of March 2017, the foundation had granted in excess of $3 million to a variety of organizations including Rhinelander Ice Association, Rhinelander Area Food Pantry, Rhinelander city improvements including parking and building improvements, Rhinelander Hodag Sports Club, Rhinelander Historical Society, Rhinelander Humane Society, Rhinelander Hodag Little League, Rhinelander Community Foundation and Nativity of Our Lord Church and School. The Cleary Foundation's intention was to make its final distributions upon the passing of Tom Cleary's sister, Janet DeByle, who died in September 2016. According to River News archives, the foundation was set to wrap up its work in the spring of 2017).

As the discussion continued, alderman Lee Emmer asked whether any of the five members proposed for appointment to the task force currently have a loan through the revolving loan fund.

"I have no clue," Sauer responded.

"Neither do I," the mayor quickly interjected.

Sauer then suggested it might be acceptable for a member of the task force to have a loan through the revolving loan fund.

"If someone works for a bank and has a mortgage through a bank, that doesn't mean they can't be a banker," he said.

Alderman David Holt asked whether an appeal process could be put in place so there is a mechanism, after the public health emergency abates, to sort out any grievances that might arise. He directed his question to city attorney Steve Sorenson who then explained that there was no documentation before him suggesting the council has any legal authority to distribute any of the money in the revolving loan fund.

"I have not seen a document that defines this money, what it's to be used for, what are the bylaws, what are the rules, what are the regulations. As an attorney, I feel very, very, um.... I cannot advise this board to spend money that you don't even know that you have the right to spend. I know there's a suppositions that it (the money in the fund) came from the city, it came from the foundation, it came from DRI, everybody seems to agree on that. But as much as I listen to people tell me about this, everything seems to be a collective memory rather than an actual document, a legal document. My fear as the lawyer for the city of Rhinelander is, while the goal is absolutely laudable, we don't have anything that tells us we control this $118,000."

He then suggested the city start by locating or recreating the necessary bylaws and related documentation and then investigate moving forward with potential distributions.

As the discussion continued, Frederickson began to read what he referred to as a text message he indicated he had just received from someone formerly associated with DRI. Sorenson immediately interjected and advised Frederickson that he could not continue to read the message aloud.

"Chris, Chris, you can't do that," Sorenson said. "If you start taking text messages from people, you're going to open it up to the whole world and we have to let everybody text in to the mayor. We certainly didn't tell the public that they had the right to do that."

Frederickson immediately stopped reading the message and apologized.

After further discussion, Sorenson suggested someone make a motion to "recreate or restructure the downtown revolving loan fund so that it can carry out the responsibilities as outlined."

Holt responded by making a motion to authorize the individuals listed in the resolution to investigate the bylaws and if the bylaws cannot be found begin the process of reconstructing the downtown revolving loan fund.

The motion was approved.

The council then began to discuss the next resolution, related to the payment of Mayoral Health Insurance Allowance, when Holt advised that he was receiving messages advising that the WJFW broadcast had ended.

Upon confirmation that the meeting was no longer being aired over the internet, the council immediately adjourned the meeting.

Heather Schaefer may be reached at heather@rivernewsonline.com.





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