City Administrator Threatens Age Discrimination Suit Against Merrill Mayor

Threat Is An Escalation In Feud Between North Central Wisconsin Officials

Gavel on a law desk
Joe Gratz (CC)

Merrill’s city administrator is claiming age discrimination in an escalating feud with the city’s mayor.

About 9,000 people live in the Lincoln County city. Its mayor, Derek Woellner, made headlines when he was elected in spring 2018 at age 25. Now age is again at issue, this time in Woellner’s conflict with the city administrator.

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Administrator Dave Johnson and Woellner have butted heads repeatedly during the mayor’s tenure, and the mayor has both called for Johnson to resign and for the city to eliminate the position of administrator.

In an Aug. 30 letter to Woellner, an attorney representing Johnson said there is a “plethora of direct evidence of age bias” in Woellner’s efforts to remove Johnson.

The letter references a July 23, 2018, meeting between Johnson and Woellner. According to Johnson, Woellner asked “why someone at your age doesn’t want to retire” and said, “At your age don’t you have a nice nest egg put away for retirement?”

The letter claims that if Johnson is terminated for any reason, he will have a viable age discrimination case based on these and other statements Woellner has made publicly and privately.

Woellner in a statement on Facebook declined to comment. Johnson’s attorney, the Madison-based lawyer Jeff Scott Olson, declined to comment beyond the information contained in the letter.

Woellner as recently as last month called for the Merrill City Council to eliminate the administrator position from the city budget, but later said it should be part of the discussion of the city’s 2020 budget. The city administrator is a full-time position overseeing operations at City Hall, while the mayor is a part-time role.