Three nominations to volunteer commissions in Kenosha County — one tasked with addressing racism — have led to an uproar in the community and three resignations within days of the selections.
The nominations of Kevin Mathewson, Brian Gonzales and Xavier Solis were made by Kenosha County Executive Samantha Kerkman. But community leaders and some officials say the nominations will harm the community still healing from the 2020 Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake and the protests that followed.
Mathewson, a former Kenosha alder and head of Kenosha County Eye, was nominated to serve on the Local Emergency Planning Committee. He was widely criticized after he took to Facebook during the 2020 protests to deputize citizens "and put them on the front line."
Former Kenosha Ald. Kevin Mathewson urges armed militia members to join him on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020 in protecting the city against protesters. Later that evening, two protesters were shot to death and a third seriously wounded. Screenshot of the Kenosha Guard Facebook page from Wiscsonsin Watch
Kerkman also appointed Gonzales and Solis to the Kenosha County Racial and Ethnic Equity Commission. That commission was created in 2021 to "realize greater racial equity and dismantle racism in Kenosha County."
Gonzales, a former Kenosha police officer, was the subject of a $1.75 million wrongful death settlement after shooting and killing Michael Bell Jr. in 2004 while on duty. He later wrote a memoir on the experience in which he compared killing Bell to hunting deer.
Gonzales ran a failed bid for Kenosha County Sheriff last year and publicly spoke against funding for a proposed equity officer for Kenosha County in November 2021.
Solis is a Kenosha lawyer who was involved with the bail fundraising effort for Kyle Rittenhouse in 2020.
Former Racial and Ethnic Equity Commission member Brad Backer resigned within hours of the news of the nominations.
"They (Gonzales and Solis) are the antithesis of people who will be viewed as open-minded and helpful in analyzing the issues of race and local law enforcement," Backer told Wisconsin Public Radio.
Two other members — Derrell Greene and Mimi Yang — also resigned from the commission last week.
"The nomination of the two people you (Kerkman) selected today clearly indicates to me that you do not have a clue or belief that racism exists in Kenosha," Greene wrote in his resignation letter. "I believe that racism is a real problem in Kenosha and it’s unfortunate that you, as the leader of the County, don’t feel the same way."
In a press release announcing the nominations, Kerkman said she believed both Gonzales and Solis will bring "valuable perspectives" to the commission.
"I am pleased to send these appointments to the County Board for its review," Kerkman wrote. "I am confident that retired Officer Gonzales and Attorney Solis will serve well on behalf of the Racial and Ethnic Equity Commission and the entire community."
Regarding Mathewson's appointment, Kerkman sent a statement to WPR, saying that members of the media serve on the committee to help inform the public about emergencies.
"Mr. Mathewson is a former emergency services dispatcher who has established himself as a player in local media who regularly disseminates information to an audience of followers," Kerkman said. "I believe he will serve well on this committee just as other media representatives have over the years, and I look forward to also inviting representatives of other media outlets to serve as members.”
But the choices are highly concerning to many in the community. Tanya McLean, the founder of Leaders of Kenosha, said she believes the nominations will only harm the community.
"This is not OK," McLean said during a press conference outside the Kenosha County Administration Building Tuesday night. "Samantha Kerkman's extremism and bad governing is not what the residents of Kenosha County want or need."
McLean said she believes the pasts of the three men will damage the work of the commission.
"This extremism of these appointments hurts our community, divides us and hinders real progress," McLean said.
Kenosha Alder Anthony Kennedy said the city and county have been working to improve the community for everyone in recent years. He called on Kerkman to rescind the nominations.
"I don't see where these appointments help build on those efforts to build community, to learn from our mistakes and do better in our future," Kennedy said.
The first goal of the commission, noted in the resolution that created it, is to "(s)tudy issues of racial equity in Kenosha County, focusing on ordinances, policies and procedures that perpetuate systemic racism, result in disparate impact on underrepresented populations and contribute to racial inequity in Kenosha County, first focusing on policing and law enforcement."
Former commission member Backer said he believes the nominations show that Kerkman and the Kenosha County Board aren't committed to the work the commission is doing.
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"To fill them with such manifestly unqualified individuals has made it clear that the commission was a joke and was not going to be able to function effectively," he said.
Nearly 20 people spoke out against the nominations during a Kenosha County Board meeting Tuesday night, including Marieta Huff.
"If you want this commission to fail, vote these men in," Huff said. "If you want to further alienate and disenfranchise many of our fellow citizens, vote these men in."
In his application letter, Solis said, "Growing up in a low income home and being the first in my family to graduate from college, I have first hand experience (with) the struggles many minority families endure. I feel my life experiences and knowledge would be an asset to the commission."
Gonzales wrote in his letter that he believes his life "and work experience as a minority will bring a diverse perspective to this commission."
In a post to Kenosha County Eye, Mathewson defended his nomination.
"It’s no secret that I’m a controversial figure in Kenosha County, but to say I’m an extremist or a racist is ridiculous on its face," he wrote.
The nominations still need to be confirmed by the Kenosha County Board during a future meeting.