With Eau Claire expected to attract visits from multiple presidential candidates before the November 2020 election, a pair of City Council members are seeking to ensure the city doesn’t get stuck with the bill for providing security around those events.
Council members Andrew Werthmann and Kate Beaton announced an effort Wednesday to hold presidential campaigns accountable for the cost of the Eau Claire Police Department keeping candidates and attendees safe at campaign stops in the city.
“We’re going to see a lot of campaigns coming through here in the next 15 months, and we’ve got to be ready for that,” Werthmann said.
The announcement stems from city officials reporting that Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still owe the city $54,210 in police and public safety costs related to campaign events in 2016.
The Trump campaign was sent an invoice for $47,398 related to an April 2 appearance at Memorial High School, and the Clinton campaign was billed $6,812 for an event the same day at The Lismore hotel. Neither bill has been paid, according to Eau Claire Police Chief Gerald Staniszewski.
Beaton called that “unacceptable” and said she has heard from a number of city residents expressing outrage since a Leader-Telegram story on July 28 detailing the unpaid bills.
“This is something that is a huge problem and we want to be prepared for 2020 and working with candidates ahead of time so they are paying their bills and we are still providing security,” Beaton said, acknowledging the importance of ensuring security in an era when political tensions are high.
A key concern, she said, is that the resources expended for security at campaign events are taking away from an already tight police budget intended to keep residents safe year-round.
Werthmann and Beaton said the goal is to work with campaigns ahead of events to anticipate and pay for security and traffic needs. They have begun conversations with city staff and police officials about how to craft an ordinance that could hold campaigns accountable while still keeping people safe and not infringing on candidates’ right to free speech.
“What we can’t do is in any way hinder the free assembly of folks or the ability of presidential candidates being able to be here in the community,” Werthmann said.
Council President Terry Weld said he supports the concept of being proactive to protect taxpayers from bearing the brunt of security costs associated with campaign events, but wants to make sure any new policy doesn’t infringe on anybody’s First Amendment rights or deny Eau Claire residents the opportunity to see and hear candidates.
Neither Beaton nor Werthmann said they were concerned that presidential candidates might just leave Eau Claire — as the region’s largest media market and a strategic location along Interstate 94 — off their itineraries if the city forces them to foot the bill for security.
“My sentiment is that Wisconsin is going to be a primary focus of the presidential campaigns, that we are one of the most important states of the whole election and that this is one of the purplest parts of this purple state,” Beaton said.
While she is excited about all of the anticipated attention from candidates, Beaton said she doesn’t think it’s fair if it results in a big drain on the city’s police budget.
“I’m hoping presidential candidates come to Eau Claire and know this year is different and they can’t take advantage of public resources without paying their bill in Eau Claire or anywhere else,” she said.
It is her understanding, Beaton said, that other communities across the nation also are looking into ways to hold campaigns financially responsible for additional security costs their events generate.