City leadership clashes over lack of T.B. Scott Mansion communication
TINA L. SCOTT
On Monday, Feb. 15, the City of Merrill issued a demolition permit to Ascension Good Samaritan for C&D Excavating to raze the T.B. Scott Mansion. Since then, City leadership has been clashing.
City Administrator Dave Johnson has been communicating regularly with Ascension Good Samaritan, at least in the last couple of weeks, as he has been the one giving updates to City Aldermen and the public about the status of the structure and demo plans at the two recent Historic Preservation Committee meetings held within the last week.
Nonetheless, Johnson hasn’t always been forthcoming with information about plans to demo the Mansion, maintaining that he doesn’t need to share information disclosed to him in a private meeting about a private business and what they choose to do with their own private property.
Left in the dark?
Some of the City’s Aldermen disagree, at least as it relates to high-profile, historic structures like the T.B. Scott Mansion, because they and their constituents feel they have a vested interest in the preservation of the building, as a part of preserving their community’s history. And they were totally caught off guard when the City issued a demo permit for the Mansion, with no prior knowledge that it was headed for imminent demolition.
Then there is the matter of not knowing what’s going on when your constituents ask them about it.
Alderman Steve Sabatke is one such Aldermen. He is also a member of the Historic Preservation Committee and said, during a recent Historic Preservation Committee meeting, “I repeatedly asked if I could be kept involved about the status of the T.B. Scott Mansion. I found out that there was a meeting between the City Administration and Ascension, and I was surprised that I wasn’t invited as an Alderman and a member of the Historic Preservation,” he said. “I asked to be included in future meetings. [Then] I found out there was another meeting I wasn’t invited to.”
“Then on Monday, Alderman Russell got the call … and contacted me that there was a demo permit issued, and the Mansion’s going away,” Sabatke said.
“We have not been kept informed of this at all. There’s been a dialogue going on, apparently for a long period of time, and the Aldermen and the people of this Committee just have not been informed.” Sabatke stated that he and Alderman Russell “would like to know exactly what’s going on, because we don’t know.”
Mayor Derek Woellner took offense to Sabatke’s questions. “To be blunt,” he said, “It’s not the Alderman’s job to be informed on everything the Administration does within the government. You guys are the legislative body. You don’t need to know every single detail.”
“So I’m upset with the tone and accusatory words that you’ve used against our City staff,” Woellner said, “Because they did what they were told to do. They reported everything back to me as an elected official. If some of that information didn’t make it back to you, I apologize. I felt like I shared everything that was worth sharing.”
The Mayor said the problem goes back to July of 1992, before he was even born, when a binder of historical places in the area was compiled. He thinks that is when the Historic Preservation Committee was formed, with the intention of declaring some of the historic buildings as historic structures.
Moving on to a time in the more recent past, Woellner continued. “In 2018, as Mayor, I requested the committee to meet to address this very issue: To please nominate and designate the T.B. Scott Mansion as an historic site.” The Historic Preservation Committee which, he said, had a slightly different composition, considered the matter. “And my interpretation of what the Committee was telling me is that the Committee was uncomfortable forcing the private property under certain rules without the owner’s consent, which is what this committee has the power to do.”
“… As for this specific issue, this Committee met in 2018,” Mayor Woellner said. “We decided not to take action. but that we wanted to talk to the hospital. So City staff, as instructed, reached out to the Hospital. A meeting was had. and what we really wanted to do was get the building fixed up, because it was falling into disrepair, but we didn’t want to be too stronghanded, because if we were and we told them, ‘hey, fix this right now,’ they would look at the cost, realize that it would cost more to fix than it would to demo, and then they would likely demo. So we didn’t want to force them into any sort of demo situation, so we worked with them, and they – working with our building inspector – proposed a timeline that they could make repairs. It seemed reasonable. The City agreed to that timeline. That was reported back to the Council, so again, Steve, I just really disagree with your comments, because all of this information, as it’s been happening, has been reported back to the Council at various times over the last two years.”
“I disagree,” Sabatke said. “Apparently the system is, if you don’t ask, nobody’s gonna tell you. And that holds true for a lot of things that are going on with the City, and it’s coming to a head. I believe that the Aldermen that represent the people have a right to know these major discussions are going on, and we were surprised that all of a sudden, there’s a demolition order [sic] issued.”
Darin Pagel, Building Inspector/Zoning Administrator, maintained that Ascension picked the guest list and invited only specific people from the City to the meetings. They invited the Administration.
“The legislative body is not the administration,” said Mayor Woellner. “ You guys make law. You set law. You set policy.” The Mayor also said he felt Council and the public were well informed, because the paper ran a story about the agreement to make repairs.
Demo plan dates?
Pagel and Johnson said they were not aware of the plan for demolition until they received the application for the demo permit Monday morning, Feb. 15.
However, Johnson and staff from the Merrill Historical Society verified they were permitted to visit the Mansion to identify and earmark items of interest to the Historical Society in late November. “Through an agreement with Ascension, the Merrill Historical Society has been permitted to identify items in the Mansion that will be saved and turned over to the Historical Society. These include fireplace mantels, decorative tile, stairway newel posts, door hardware items, a stained glass window, and other items,” Johnson said.
In a verbal response to a speaker at the public hearing, when an attendee replied that “I don’t want to go to the Historical Society and look at a door or a railing; I want to see the whole building,” Johnson responded: “That does not appear to be an option at this point, so we’re better off having things like a nice fireplace from there, stained glass windows, that type of thing, fretwork, things that are indicative of architecture from that period. I would much rather have those than nothing.”
Several of the Aldermen appeared frustrated because additional time to prepare might have meant time enough to declare the T.B. Scott Mansion an historic structure in time to save it from demolition altogether, so that their constituents wouldn’t have to just settle for artifacts from a razed historic site.
Alderman Steve Osness, at the Feb. 22 Historic Preservation Committee meeting/public hearing, said, “After watching the last meeting that you guys had and hearing from our citizens, I feel a lot of non-transparency still going on with the City, which brings me to the Scott Mansion.”
“As of now,” he said, “I think we all need to be realistic … that the Mansion probably will not be saved.”
“That being said,” he continued, “It’s time to look and investigate how and why we might have happened to get to this place. We’re destroying an historical landmark in Merrill. Why? That’s our question. Our City Administration has met with Ascension for the last couple months, and none of this was brought to the Committee for you guys to preserve this landmark. None of this was brought to the Council. I mean, we would have had two months to get on this and work with this, and work with Ascension, but no, we were left in the dark.”
“I also question the timing of the project,” Osness said. “Who really knew what, and when did they know? The City Administration spoke already in December’s report about spending the time in the Mansion salvaging things … for historical value and to give to our Historical Society. It would appear someone would have known at that point the building was going to be torn down.”
“Which brings me to my next question,” Alderman Osness continued. “Alderman Sabatke had stated to the Council that we were not being kept informed and brings up a great point. Our Mayor stated the following in the last Committee meeting to you guys, and these are his exact words, you can look these up: ‘To be blunt, it is not the Alderman’s job to be informed of everything that goes on within the City.’ But yet, the Mayor is invited to a meeting at the Hospital and then is asking the Committee to do an investigation on how we’re here. That’s not correct. I ask this Committee to at least do an investigation on how we got here. At least, the citizens of the community deserve that.”
“I’m also disappointed, as Alderman Osness mentioned, that the Historical Society and some parts of the City knew about this all along and the Committee was just notified,” said Jeremy Thompson Historic Preservation Committee member. “I think Paul texted me last Monday, so we’ve only known for the past week …I would have hoped that somebody who was communicating with them on behalf of the City would’ve at least mentioned the Committee, because that’s what the Committee had directed them to do [back in July 2018].”
Alderman Russell agreed.
Near the conclusion of the Feb. 22 Committee meeting, Alderman Sabatke summarized the motion that was on the floor to nominate the Mansion as an historic structure and then added, “It’s too little, too late. … I’m prepared to vote in the postiive, because I think if nothing else, we need to go through the process, to educate this committee, and hopefully to learn for the future.”
“The history here … I’ve asked continually to be informed about the T.B. Scott Mansion, to be informed about the meetings with the owners; I have not been. There are some reports by the City Administrator about tagging the merchandise late last year. That came through on his monthly report; there was no direct communication. Communications are very bad. … I was told that, when I asked, ‘Are the Alderman allowed to have this information?’ I was told Alderman are not allowed or not required to be informed of these decisions. And tonight, I find out for the first time that, in fact, some things have been removed – windows, fireplaces – so the destruction has started, and it’s too late. Once you start tearing out the windows and the fixtures, I mean, the building – I don’t see how it can be repaired. … So I found out tonight, maybe it really, really is too late when you start tearing things out like that.”
“Again, I espress my dissatisfaction. We’re learning that we need to designate some other structures in town as historical or at least identify them so that we don’t repeat this mistake that this Committee has learned and the Aldermen have learned. I hope that the City Administration has learned to open up communications … We talk about communications in other meetings and again, I repeat, our communications, they’re not good at all. Aldermen each represent 1,000 people in Merrill, and we Aldermen should be learning and informing our constituents. It’s not happening; we’re not being told anything. So, therefore, the people in Merrill are being kept in the dark.”