The Kenosha County Board met as a committee of the whole Tuesday night at the Kenosha County Job Center to hear from its members about how the community can move forward amid a myriad of issues stemming from the Aug. 23 Kenosha Police shooting of Jacob Blake.
The near hour-long special meeting called by Board Chairman John O’Day came a week after the board would have met but for lack of agenda items. It also came as some supervisors have expressed the need for an emergency meeting amid the strife and a call for leadership.
O’Day reminded the audience that the committee of the whole would not include public comments and the board would not take action on items. He also reminded board members to observe “proper decorum” prior to an update from Wisconsin National Guard Major Gen. Paul Knapp, who said all troops had disengaged from their mission to assist local law enforcement as of midnight on Monday. At one point as many as 2,000 Guard troops were on hand to keep the peace, Knapp said.
“This is not meant to be a platform for attacks or recriminations. It’s meant to begin the process of laying the path forward for the whole Kenosha community,” O’Day said.
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‘Biggest crisis’ in county history
While the board did not vote on any recommendations, Supervisor Terry Rose called on the leadership to consider action on what he termed “the biggest crisis in the history of Kenosha County.”
“And the way that we deal with this crisis is utterly important to the people who live here and the example we’ve set,” Rose said.
Rose recommended the board draft a resolution for consideration as early as next week to give the county “direction and purpose” in the near future and beyond.
“If we speak as a unified board — not as Republicans or Democrats or independents, but all Kenoshans working for the best interest of all who live here,” he said.
Damage to property tops $50 million
In speaking with Heather Wessling, vice president of economic development for the Kenosha Area Business Alliance, Rose said the damage to buildings and businesses is an estimated $50 million, including 100 businesses and as many as 40 “out-of-business for good.”
Rose called for asking both federal and state governments for funding to rebuild businesses in both Uptown and downtown Kenosha, and not just for low-interest loans. He also called for the rebuilding of the state corrections center, or the probation and parole building at 60th Street and 13th Avenue, which was burned to the ground in the riots.
“The county needs to assist the city in bolstering the Uptown community,” Rose said. “We need to seek federal funds, state funds or local funds to make sure that those body cameras, which we authorized in (a) prior resolution, are made very much a part of the forthcoming budget.”
Rose also requested a debriefing by the county’s own emergency management “on what went right and what went wrong.” He suggested the county seek state and federal assistance to help pay for damage to county property not covered by insurance.
Rose thanked local, state and federal law enforcement and the National Guard and residents who volunteered in cleanup efforts and made food donations. He said those efforts sent a message of Kenosha’s strength and that it was “not a racist community” and one willing to address its deficiencies.
“But the one issue that we need to make very clear to the people here whose lives have been endangered, whose property has been destroyed, who lived in nightly fear, is the same message we need to send to people who might come here from out of town or elsewhere,” Rose said. “Our message has to be very clear: Never again. Never again. Never again.”
Supervisor Zach Rodriguez read comments and questions from residents, including those who were concerned about the future safety of the community.
One resident, he said, was concerned about how the county would handle reactions to verdicts from cases coming out of the unrest which could spawn more rioting. Another resident, he said, wanted to know how the county would continue to address racism in addition to providing county law enforcement with body cameras for evaluating racial bias and policing strategies.
Rodriguez also had words for rioters.
“To the people who burned down our city, we won’t allow it ever again,” he said.
Rodriguez also said he was sure that those who caused destruction were from outside of Kenosha and lacking in awareness of the Uptown’s demographics, which include a large segment of people of color.
Supervisor Sharon Pomaville said changing the laws to address racism can only go so far.
“Change comes from changing thoughts and minds and hearts,” she said.
The community has to take a hard look “at ourselves” in asking how and where it exists, Pomaville said.
“Changing the law might actually be the easier part of this, but changing thoughts is at least where we even get to the place of creating any long-lasting change,” she said.
Supervisor Boyd Frederick encouraged the community and others to spend their money in downtown.
“Let them see that. Be comfortable downtown,” he said.
Frederick added that all voices and ideas should be heard even beyond a resolution.
Supervisor Jerry Gulley said he was ashamed to mention that through 45 minutes of discussion, board members didn’t even mention that lives were lost. He was referring to two Kenosha-area protesters who were shot and killed by an armed teenager now facing homicide charges.
“I think that’s critical, and I think 85% of what we’ve talked about are solving symptoms and not solving causes,” Gulley said. “We talk about recovering and rebuilding and we cannot pretend that cannot be done on a foundation that does not include equality and inclusion.”
Gulley said he agreed with Rose’s assessment for the need to rebuild from the destruction.
About two dozen people in the audience held up signs when they agreed and disagreed with statements made by supervisors. One thing many in the audience agreed with is that residents have a say about the concerns, something that Supervisor Laura Belsky said she was willing to facilitate.
Supervisor Jeffrey Gentz wondered whether the resolution offered by Rose could be reviewed in committee, which O’Day said would take place once introduced on the board floor.
“I think it needs to be clearly thought out, and I think everything else needs to go through the committee process so it I don’t think this needs to be done like tomorrow,” he said. “I think it needs to be thought through, input given and work through the committee system.”
While Rodriguez said he would be willing to sit down with community members, he said it was important for residents to call their supervisors and also to speak with Rose.
Some in the audience did not feel that Rodriguez was hearing them, however.
“We lost. Your house didn’t get burned down. Your community didn’t get burned down,” said one man who challenged Rodriguez. “That’s our community.”