The newly impaneled Rhinelander Common Council had its first opportunity Monday evening to discuss the status of city administrator Daniel Guild. The panel spent approximately 2 1/2 hours in closed session discussing the Guild matter as well as other pending legal concerns and the city's contracts with its police and fire unions. However, upon returning to open session, Mayor Chris Frederickson announced there was "nothing to report."
Guild was placed on paid administrative leave March 13 after Oneida County district attorney Michael Schiek charged him with a single felony count of misconduct in office. He was arrested March 9 following a months-long investigation by the Oneida County sheriff's office and other agencies. His defense team has since filed a motion to dismiss the case, which involves allegations he hid certain records requested by this newspaper and altered an official email. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for June 11.
On Wednesday, the city issued a one-sentence press release clarifying that Guild "will remain on leave at this time."
Guild's name was also mentioned during the 90-minute open session portion of Monday's meeting when alderman David Holt stated that the council practices and procedures section of the meeting packet "was emailed out by Daniel Guild a few days ago..."
(While it's not unprecedented for a city employee on paid administrative leave to communicate with other city officials via email - last spring former public works director Tim Kingman remained in email contact with city officials while he was on leave - the parameters of Guild's leave are unclear).
Holt, a college sociology professor, then launched into a lecture on proper alder behavior as outlined in the "practices and procedures" document.
"What I wanted to do is start with a general overview of why, why are we doing this, and then a few highlights from the first few pages that I think are important, given the experience that I observed over the past two years of being on this council," Holt said. "We now have an ethics board. We will soon have a populated citizens ethics board. Prior to that the council governed itself. So if there was an ethical complaint it went to the council to decide whether it wanted to govern itself or hold itself accountable. In discussions with former council members who have been here a long time, I believe there was only one (ethics complaint) that made it onto an agenda and it was rescinded in that meeting. So this is a matter of making the council itself and its behavior accountable to an outside entity. So our behavior, our actions inside this chamber and our actions outside, which I'm going to get to some caveats about this, will be held to a standard that somebody else will be looking at and I think that's a very good thing. Honestly, I think I would have a few, fewer, a few fewer, a few fewer gray hairs over the last two years if we had had this in place two years ago."
After that introduction, Holt explained "what it means to be a city council member."
"Outside of convening a meeting where we have a quorum, we are private citizens," he stressed.
Without providing any form of evidence or asserting firsthand knowledge of any particular incident, Holt then accused former council members of walking around town making statements along the lines of "Do you know who I am."
(Holt offered no information as to when these alleged incidents occurred or to whom he was referring. He stated that this sort of behavior is something he's "heard several people complain about over the years" but did not indicate who complained, when they complained or what, if anything, he did to verify the accuracy of the complaints. He also quickly noted that he's certain none of the incumbent council members are guilty of making these alleged remarks. "No one around this table, to be sure," he said brightly.)
This was one of a number of comments criticizing the behavior of former council members Holt wove into a presentation on the importance of professionalism. In addition, Holt's remarks came a few minutes after the council formally thanked the four outgoing council members for their years of service.
Holt then advised his colleagues as to how they should treat city employees, echoing Mayor Chris Frederickson's comments during the last council meeting regarding not "micromanaging" staff.
"The only power the council has is to vote on resolutions to make motions that direct city staff to do work," he said. "And then we let them do that work. We don't micromanage them. Our role here is oversight."
Holt also advised that in future meetings he will offer direction to his colleagues as to when it is and is not appropriate for a city council member "to even comment on the performance of a city employee."
He then turned his attention to the position of city council president and stated that he would like to see the new council president, alderman Ryan Rossing, take a stronger "leadership role" than previous council presidents did.
"In an ideal situation the city council president would be the one to hold the rest of the city council accountable for their behavior, for bad behavior," he said.
Rossing did not respond to Holt's statement during the meeting. After the meeting, the River News reached out to Rossing to seek comment as to how he sees himself functioning in the role of city council president. Given his history as a council member, we also asked Rossing for his thoughts on being in a position where at least one of his colleagues believes he should take the lead in holding council members accountable for "bad behavior."
As of press time, Rossing has not responded to our message. When and if he does, we will report his response.
Holt then returned to the subject of the proper treatment of city employees.
Without offering evidence or asserting firsthand knowledge of any particular incident, he stated that he has received "multiple accounts of former council members pulling city staff out of department meetings to give them individual directives."
Holt did not indicate which former council members he was referring to or detail any investigation he conducted to determine the veracity of the alleged "multiple accounts" he said he received.
It was at this point in the presentation that Holt explained that he has made it his mission to "professionalize the behavior of the council and city government."
"When I was elected (in 2018) I didn't really have an agenda, I was just naively thinking that I would just participate in the local community," he said. "I very quickly uh, uh, developed an agenda to professionalize the behavior of the council and city government, to leave it in a place where policies and the position's role dictate how business is conducted not the individual personalities of the people sitting in the chairs."
Holt ended the presentation with his thoughts on how council members should go about asking questions and gathering information. During this portion of his talk, Holt complained that previous council members wasted a lot of valuable time asking staff members questions Holt believed were inappropriate. He also warned against putting city staff "on the spot" during a public meeting or asking questions in a way he that he considers to be a cross-examination rather than an inquiry.
"I have seen city staff being put on the spot in front of a full room with a full gallery audience, clearly rattled, clearly nervous, essentially being cross-examined and I don't think that's appropriate behavior," he said.
For his part, Frederickson opined that the city operates under a "tripod" form of government.
"We work like a tripod, our city chose a tripod where we have an administrator, an executive officer/mayor and a legislative branch, the council," he said. "What I want you to be is empowered in your role, but understand your role."
He also noted that the council rules can be amended, if the body determines that changes should be made.
New alderman Gerald Anderson was the only member to venture a question during this portion of the meeting.
"The reference to city employees being cross-examined, interrogated, or what have you, at a meeting of the common council, it seems to me that part of that is necessitated because the committees have been eliminated and the kind of questioning that may need to be done could be done at a lower and less public level if we had committees," Anderson said. "I'm just raising the question," he added.
(Earlier in the meeting the council tabled until the June meeting a vote on rescinding the section of the city code pertaining to the abolished committees).
Frederickson responded with a recitation of talking points mentioned frequently over the last year by those in favor of the elimination of the committee system, including the perception that the new system is more efficient.
Frederickson also advised Anderson that if he has a question for a city staff member he should put it in an email and that email should also be copied to the city administrator and the mayor (Frederickson currently holds both positions while Guild is on leave) "and you'll get your answer back."
Holt attempted to clarify his earlier remarks.
"I'm not saying don't ask questions, I'm saying (use) discretion with asking absurd questions or nitpicking questions," he said.
After the meeting, the River News sent Holt a message asking him how he intends to proceed if one of his council colleagues asks a question he deems to be "absurd" "nitpicking" "interrogation" or "cross-examination" and how he intends to respond if one of his colleagues expresses a concern that he has asked a question they believe is absurd, nitpicking, interrogation or cross-examination.
As of press time, he has not responded to our inquiry. If and when he does, we'll publish his response.
Who decides if a question is fair and relevant or absurd nitpicking? According to the council policies and procedures document, it appears the presiding officer, in this case Frederickson, is to make rulings as to whether a comment or question is proper or not.
To watch the full open session portion of the council meeting, visit www.hodagtv.com.
The council is scheduled to meet again May 11.
Posted: Tuesday, May 5, 2020
Article comment by:
So when the Mayor and City Administrator manage city staff it's ok but if city council members dare even ask questions it's not acceptable? This is on top of a lack of a committee structure to provide accountability and transparency over what the Mayor and Administrator are doing? This reeks of corruption. I would have hoped that the City Administrator's uncrupulous past actions in previous employment and now with a felony charge would have residents waking up to Frederickson and Guild trying to silence dissent and control everything that's going on in Rhinelander but apparently not.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce