Merrill residents launch recall effort against 5 aldermen

By  | 

MERRILL, Wis. (WSAW) -- A group of Merrill citizens is kick-starting a recall process Wednesday night against five members of Merrill’s city council. Council president Rob Norton and aldermen Paul Russell, John VanLieshout, Dave Sukow, and Tim Meehean were each named in statements of intent to recall by a group led by Merrill resident and business owner, Mark Bares.

"People are angry. They feel like they don't have a voice. They don't even want to participate anymore," Bares said.

It's a motion that comes after widespread confusion over the property tax rate in December, when Merrill city residents were slapped with a 7.4 percent tax rate increase--much higher than the 3 percent increase they had been told to expect.

"People are frustrated about that. Where's the transparency?" Bares questioned.

The statements filed at city hall cite mismanagement, misinformation, possible illegal activity, and violations of open meeting laws as reasons for the recall.

"Repeated failure to protect the best interests of the constituents," the papers read. Debt is another issue the group included in their statements.

"They're running us down a hole, a hole of debt that we're worried we can't get out of as a city," Bares said.

But the 2019 budget issue is one of the biggest items on that list.

"We were supposed to have a 3 percent tax increase. And for whatever reason, whatever excuses they gave us, it ended up being 7 percent," Bares said. "We want people to own their city again."

In January, it came out that longtime financial director Kathy Unertl had incorrectly calculated the tax rate when presenting the budget to city council in November.

That budget was a revised version of a budget that Mayor Derek Woellner had vetoed due to what he saw as an unacceptably high tax rate. He asked the city council to get the rate down to a 3 percent increase--and they believed they did in the final budget they passed.

But the $5.8 million tax levy approved by the council was based on calculating errors Unertl made during preparation. So when the letters came out in December that the rate increase would actually be over 7 percent, citizens were confused--and the letter blamed the increase on the TIF (Tax Increment Financing) districts.

But Unertl's error was that TIF districts don't figure into the general tax fund at all, as explained by financial advisory firm Ehler's in a presentation to the city council on January 22, 2019. Once those districts were removed from the levy for the general fund, there was a smaller tax pool from which to pull the needed $5.8 million general fund tax levy passed by the council.

Unertl was reprimanded--but she still holds her position.

That brings us to this Wednesday, when Bares tells NewsChannel 7 that Mayor Woellner encouraged the recall effort.

"The mayor himself said, 'You know, if you're gonna be mad at anybody, you should be mad at your aldermen.' And that's why we're recalling the five aldermen that we are," Bares stated.

NewsChannel 7 reached out to council president Rob Norton, one of the aldermen the group wants to recall. Because he hasn't yet seen the papers, he declined to comment on the proceedings.

The three remaining aldermen not listed aren't being recalled because they've served less than a year in office or because they consistently voted against the budget proposals in question, Bares tells NewsChannel 7.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission says a recall does not automatically remove an official from office; it merely gives voters the option of voting for the position again.

The next step in the recall process, now that the statement of intent is filed, is that the petitioner has 60 days to circulate the petition and collect signatures.

The number of signatures from qualified voters must equal at least 25 percent of the vote cast in the last governor election in the alderperson's district.

In 2018's general election, 3,784 votes were cast in the city of Merrill for the governor's office across all districts. That math breaks down to a little more than 600 signatures needed in total across all five alderperson districts in question.

Once they get those signatures, and no challenge is presented as to whether the rules were properly followed, a recall election can be held on the Tuesday that falls six weeks after the signature paperwork is deemed sufficient.

A recall rally will occur at Les & Jim's Lincoln Lanes at 7 p.m. Tuesday the 19th.

You can read the recall papers on the attached link.