Jamie Taylor/River News
Law enforcement officers from three sheriff’s departments, and the Wisconsin Department of Justice, executed two search warrants at Rhinelander City Hall Nov. 21.
Jamie Taylor/River News
Dr. Lee Swank, left, smiles while Hodag Schools Foundation President Dave Heck discusses the impact of the Swank family’s $500,000 gift to the school district during a January 2018 meeting of the Board of Education.
12/31/2019 7:30:00 AM A look back at the top local news stories of 2019
2019 was a turbulent and transformative year for the Rhinelander area. Unprecedented political upheaval competed with a game-changing school district project, an ongoing water contamination mystery and the closure of two major employers for the top headlines of the last year. In no particular order, we offer the top local stories of 2019, as chosen by the River News editorial team.
City Hall investigations
On Jan. 28, 2019 Rhinelander City Council president George Kirby refused to take his seat in the city council chambers and instead attempted to address the council as a citizen. His goal was to call attention to some $13,000 in office furniture purchases made by city administrator Daniel Guild. (The purchases were approved by Mayor Chris Frederickson but did not come before the council).
Kirby's decision not to take his seat that night led alderpersons Steve Sauer, David Holt, Ryan Rossing, and Andrew Larson, along with the mayor, to send him a letter questioning his behavior. The series of events that led to the drafting of the letter prompted the River News to filed a complaint with the district attorney's office alleging a walking quorum. Also following the Jan. 28 council meeting, Guild sent a pair of emails to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities seeking advice on how to remove a city council president. Those emails prompted the River News to file a separate complaint with the district attorney's office alleging tampering with a public document. Oneida County district attorney Mike Schiek declined to prosecute the four council members and the mayor who were accused of participating in a walking quorum and Forest County district attorney Chuck Simono declined to prosecute Guild over the emails. However, Lakeland Times and River News general manager Heather Holmes has since filed a lawsuit with respect to the alleged walking quorum, which is still pending. In addition, on Nov. 21 Oneida County sheriff's office detectives, officers with two other sheriff's departments and the Wisconsin Department of Justice, executed a pair of search warrants at Rhinelander City Hall.
Guild was listed in the search warrant affidavits as a "person of interest" with respect to an investigation involving alleged misconduct in public office and tampering with a public record. As 2019 comes to a close, no one has been charged with a crime with respect to that investigation.
2019 also saw two key officials leave city government.
The city ended its contract with city attorney Carrie Miljevich at the end of May and public works director Tim Kingman was fired in June. On Dec. 9, Kingman filed a federal wrongful termination lawsuit naming Frederickson, Guild and alderpersons Sauer, Rossing, Holt and Larson, as well as the city itself, as defendants.
Other council members found themselves dogged by controversy as well. Sheriff Grady Hartman placed alderman Ryan Rossing on paid administrative leave following an internal sheriff's department investigation with respect to the walking quorum matter. Rossing later resigned from the sheriff's department in August and is now employed by the Eagle River Police Department.
Alderperson Dawn Rog was investigated with respect to alleged shoving incident with the city's IT contractor in the basement of City Hall. No charges were ultimately filed. Rog also made news again in late October when she directed an offensive remark towards a citizen during a council meeting. The remark led to calls for her resignation, however she remains on the council.
As of this writing, Guild also remains the city's chief executive officer, having survived two suspension votes earlier in the year. Guild's status with the city was discussed during the council's final meeting of 2019, held on Dec. 9, however after hearing from attorney Steve Sorenson the panel chose not to hold another suspension vote.
With a $500,000 pledge from Dr. Lee Swank and family as the catalyst, the School District of Rhinelander voted this summer to construct a new sports complex to include an air-supported dome. The complex will also include two softball fields and an outdoor football/soccer practice field in the area between RHS and the concession/bathroom building at Mike Webster Stadium.
Billed as the Hodag Sports Complex, the school board voted in June to spend up to $5.7 million from the general fund to fund the project.
In October, the board accepted a $1,890,881 bid from Arizon Building Systems of St. Louis to manufacture the dome and design the concrete grade beam that will hold it in place. The dome will feature a full-size football/soccer field, four tennis courts and two regulation softball fields that can be used for regulation games. This last feature has had school districts from around the state already seeking information on booking the facility.
Groundbreaking is currently scheduled for March 25, 2020, and the dome itself is expected to be ready for use in late August.
The softball fields will not be available for use until the spring of 2021, due to the need to allow the sod to become firmly established.
Donations continue to come in to the Hodag Schools Foundation for the project.
Until the spring of 2019, the idea of ATV/UTV traffic on the streets of Rhinelander was something supporters could only dream about. That changed on April 8 when city administrator Daniel Guild introduced an ordinance allowing the use of the vehicles inside city limits. The draft ordinance was based on citizen input at a listening session held earlier in the year.
After making revisions, the council voted 6-2 on June 24 to approve the new ordinance, with Dawn Rog and Ryan Rossing casting the nay votes.
The ordinance went into effect on July 3 and allows ATV and UTV use on all city streets except for North Stevens and Lincoln streets.
Seen as a way for ATV users to connect to the many ATV/UTV trails surrounding the city, as well as allowing riders to access gas stations inside the city limits, the mixture of cars and the recreational vehicles has been mostly trouble free.
Robin Mendez trial
When 33-year-old Barbara Mendez was murdered on April 28, 1982 as she performed closing tasks as part of her job at the former Park City Credit Union in Minocqua, her family had no way of knowing that it would be 37 years before the case would finally be closed and her murderer sentenced to prison.
Barbara's husband Robin "Bob" Mendez was charged with first degree murder in February 2018, after the Oneida County sheriff's detective bureau re-investigated the case with the help of the television show "Cold Justice."
A bench trial began April 11, 2019, before Marathon County judge Jill Falstad. The trial featured testimony from the two Mendez daughters who told the court they were coached and manipulated into providing their father with an alibi for the evening of the murder.
Defense attorney Peter Prusinski argued at trial his client had been "mistaken for a murderer" and that the real killer was a bank robber.
Chris Robinson, a former Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who now operates his own forensic consulting practice, testified he became involved in the case through "Cold Justice." As a result of tests using clay models, Robinson concluded that the wounds on Barbara Mendez's body were caused by a model of pry bar called a Wonder Bar.
Falstad found Mendez guilty on April 30 and sentenced him to life in prison on July 30.
The Mendez case was one of the oldest cold cases in Oneida County history.
As of the fall of 2019, Rhinelander now has a roundabout, or traffic circle, at one of its most heavily used intersections. The $2.5 million state-funded construction project to replace the signaled intersection at the intersection of highways 8 and 47 on Rhinelander's west side got underway June 10.
The goal of the project was to raise the road surface and improve the drainage underneath to provide a firm base for the road. The roundabout solution was used as a way to get people to slow down through the intersection and cut down on the number of serious traffic accidents, particularly T-bone types which tend to lead to more serious injuries
While the intersection was being redesigned, traffic was detoured around the worksite from Kemp Street to Boyce Drive to a slip lane to reach west Highway 8. Traffic coming into the intersection on southbound Highway 47 was detoured onto Kemp Street via another slip lane.
In late August, the roundabout opened with traffic flowing through three of the four ways into or out of the circle. Drivers looking to go eastbound on Highway 8 still had to take the Kemp Street to Boyce Drive detour for another two weeks as the approach to the Wisconsin River bridge was rebuilt to match the new elevation of the intersection.
The Rhinelander area received a double jolt in early 2019 when two large employers announced they would be closing their doors.
Petco Animal Supplies announced Jan. 9 that it would be shuttering all of the operations at its Doctor Foster and Smith location except the LiveAquaria, putting about 289 people out of work. In early February, Shopko announced it was closing its Rhinelander store as part of a wave of store closures after the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Jan. 16.
Within a week of the Petco announcement, the North Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board's (NCWWDB) Rapid Response Team was formed to assist the workers soon to be unemployed.
The team was made up of representatives from the city of Rhinelander, Oneida County board, two elected state officials, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson's office, Nicolet College, Department of Workforce Development, Job Center and various economic development leaders.
The major message to the affected workers was to take time to learn what benefits the company was offering before jumping to another job and losing those benefits.
Both the Drs. Foster and Smith and Shopko buildings remain vacant. Later in 2019, the county board examined the idea of moving the highway department to the Petco facility, but the cost of adapting the building for that use, along with the purchase price, proved too prohibitive.
Aspirus Clinic addition
Aspirus Rhinelander officials broke ground in late September on a $14 million dollar addition to the Rhinelander Aspirus Clinic that will almost double the size of the facility.
The 22,000 square foot addition to the present 28,000 square foot structure will house a new state-of-the-art sleep lab, 21 new exam rooms and two new procedure rooms for specialist services. It will also provide increased imaging services to accommodate ultrasound and future fixed mammography, a new waiting room and check in for lab and radiology to accommodate more patients, relocated and expanded outpatient therapy and pulmonary function spaces. Additional office space will also allow Aspirus to attract more specialists to the clinic.
The company is expecting to add seven new medical specialists to the facility, with more jobs in support services also possible.
Aspirus hopes to have the new addition ready for use in late fall of 2020.
Stevens Street project
An $18.7 million project to replace the utilities underneath Stevens Street, along with the street surface, curb and gutter got underway this past spring.
The project will eventually run from Frederick Street to the Highway 17 bypass. This year, the stretch from Frederick Street to Highway W was improved. The work will continue next year from County W to the bypass. During the third year of the project, a final layer of asphalt will be laid over the street. The project was originally conceived to be completed in two years, but contractors interested in bidding the work suggested a three-year plan the would result in the city saving $661,740.
The City Council went with the three-year plan even though public works director Tim Kingman preferred the two-year approach.
Project engineer Mark Barden of Town and Country Engineering said at a public information session in December the weather played a significant factor in delays in the project over the summer. He admitted some concrete work was not completed before the fall shutdown, forcing workers to fill some driveways with recycled material as a stopgap measure. The material was proving to be more temporary then expected, with some residents complaining of sunken spots, ruts and cracks in their driveways.
Barden said work on the second phase of the project should get underway in March of 2020, if the weather cooperates. A second public information meeting will be held in February for businesses and residents in the area where work will take place next year.
The project is financed through a package of loans and grants, along with a city share of $1,517,401. In addition to loans and grants, and the city's share, the sewer utility is also contributing $300,000 to the project cost, while water and sewer customers will be picking up the cost of other loans.
In mid-July city residents learned that municipal well No. 7 had been taken offline due to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination.
City officials took Well 7 offline after levels of PFAS were found above the EPA's health advisory (70ng/L) and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) recommended groundwater standard level (20 ng/L). The health department also advised residents not to consume water from Crescent Spring, due to PFAS contamination, after it tested above the advisory level.
PFAS are man-made chemicals that have been used in non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, fire-fighting foam, and products that resist grease, water and oil. Recent scientific findings indicate that exposure to certain PFAS may have harmful health effects in people. According to the EPA, exposure to some PFAS substances above certain levels may increase the risk of adverse health effects, such as thyroid disease, low birthweights and cancer.
Well 8, which is near well 7 on the western edge of the Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport, was taken offline in Mid-November for the same reason.
In a letter dated Dec. 9, the DNR stated that the airport's firefighting foam was the "most likely" source of the contamination, although there is no history of spills or leaks. The letter, sent by the DNR's Northern Region Remediation and Redevelopment program supervisor Chris Saari, gave the airport 30 days to hire an environmental consultant to help with the various requirements of dealing with the contamination.
On Dec. 20, the airport commission hired the environmental consulting firm Mead & Hunt. Airport officials are also investigating reports that sludge from the city's wastewater treatment plant was injected into airport property between 1988-1992.
In November, the Rhinelander Police Department welcomed a second K9 to its ranks.
K-9 officer Jason has joined K-9 officer Odin in patrolling the streets.
The new police dog is named in honor of Jason Weiland, the Everest Metro detective killed in the line of duty March 22, 2017 and is the first dog donated to a Wisconsin law enforcement agency by Crossroads K-9 Rescue, a Kronenwetter dog rescue organization through its K-9s for Cops program.
The goal of the program is to donate one dog a year to a law enforcement agency, according to Sean Dumais, director of training for Crossroads K-9 Rescue.
In a brief ceremony on Nov. 20, officer Mark Raddatz officially received Jason from Weiland's widow and daughters. After undergoing training in Florida, Raddatz brought his new partner back to Rhinelander in June.
Jason and Raddatz will work the night shift while Officer Chad Brown and the department's other K-9 officer, Odin, will patrol the day shift.
Both dogs are dual certified, which means they are certified in narcotics detection as well as apprehension, tracking and conducting building searches.
Dumais said a second dog will be awarded by the K-9s for Cops program in early 2020.
It, too, will be named Jason.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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