Waste Hauling Into Whitewater

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 75 in a series. When Green Turns Brown is an examination of a small town’s digester-energy project, in which Whitewater, Wisconsin would import other cities’ waste, claiming that the result would be both profitable and green.

A few years (and seventy-five posts) ago, I began consideration of a local proposal to haul waste into Whitewater. Those posts became a series, with background work and discussions with people from across Wisconsin.

Last night, Whitewater announced publicly the results of a study on whether a supposed initial waste hauling plan might be feasible, using the Baker Tilly firm. The municipal government commissioned the study in March 2016, and the firm returned an opinion to the city in October 2016 that it would be infeasible.

I used the months since last year’s commissioning to read yet more, speak with others outside the city, and simply wait for the next local development. It seemed prudent to use the time patiently and productively.

The single most important result for our city is that this plan to haul waste into Whitewater will not go forward. That’s the right outcome for this community, and today this city is better off for the decision of her common council, and announcement of her city manager, to end the project.

Locally, I’ve sometimes been asked what I think of this city staff’s support for the project. It’s fair to say that there is a fundamental disagreement on the science of the project. Now or ten years from now, the case against waste hauling into Whitewater will rest on sound fiscal, economic, and environmental bases. Should a proposal arise again, as one heard predicted last night, one may be assured that the case against will be as strong, and fought even more vigorously.

I’ll not take the course of the wastewater superintendent and extend the local discussion gracelessly even at its conclusion; pride is a poor foundation for policy.

Each day one meets the world anew.

Many thanks to so many in town who were encouraging. We’ve a lovely town.

To those from across Wisconsin with whom I have productively corresponded & met, and from whom I have received analyses, studies, and sound insight: I am indebted to you. There are visits eagerly to be made, with correspondence and calls until we see each other again. There’s so much good work that you can and will carry out. You’ve your own efforts ongoing in your communities, and of course you’ve an ally here in all that you do.

It’s mild in Whitewater today: a good day, I think, for residents in this small and beautiful city.

Term Limits, Briefly Considered

There was a discussion last night at the Whitewater Common Council about term limits (if any) for appointees to city boards and commissions. The discussion followed a briefer one on 4.18.17.

I mentioned yesterday that this would be an interesting agenda topic, and it was. It’s worth noting that although I thought there should have been advance notice in the press about it, I don’t have a single strong opinion on this matter. Instead, for me it’s ambivalence: not indifference, to be sure, but rather conflicting sentiments. (Yesterday’s post described the topic as historical: “reflections not of where Whitewater’s going, as much as where she has been (and where she is)”).

The matter has been referred to a community involvement committee within the council, and they’ll consider options. One can write at greater length when there’s a proposal to consider.

Two quick points for now:

1. Remarks about the city needing to do more for those who have volunteered strikes me as right. Term limits or not, most committees have a useful role but not a particularly ideological one: volunteering should be rewarded. Whitewater, on her own, can easily come up with ideas for acknowledging committee and board members, including ones who currently receive less recognition.

2. It’s true that expertise matters. It may not matter everywhere equally, but it does matter. The trick here – one that could not be solved in brief remarks – is how to assess and select based on a broad understanding of expertise. It comes in more than one form, and extends beyond formal academic credentials to experiences in past or present work. Too much emphasis on formal work will be counter-productive.

Any discussion of expertise, of whatever kind, has to be done in an understated way to avoid creating unnecessary offense.

(It’s worth noting that in the ten years I’ve been publishing FREE WHITEWATER, I’ve not once held myself out as an expert, touted particular academic credentials or accomplishments, or professional work. There’s no fixed route to expertise; it’s for that reason that tribunals have discretion in certifying experts.)

It seems to me a general truth that in all communities one finds many sharp and capable people. Indeed, I am convinced that most people are sharp indeed, and that society could not function half so well if it were otherwise. One many need instruction of various yet particular kinds, but of natural ability one sees abundance all around, of any race, ethnicity, or gender. 

This means that to give reasonable form to an acknowledgement of expertise will take some review. Unlike what should be the overdue but easy fix of acknowledging existing committee members (internally done), a plan for evaluating expertise should look to what other communities have done successfully (an external review).

Critically, any plan this city might adopt regarding expertise, tenure, term limits, etc., must be neutral concerning gender, race, or ethnicity. No one would intentionally wish otherwise, but it’s necessary to avoid inadvertent yet nonetheless impermissible barriers to participation on those bases.

Whitewater is sure to have more discussion on the topic. Our community is more than capable of crafting a solid approach.

Margaret Sullivan on Great Local Reporting

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist observes that Great local reporting stands between you and wrongdoing. (Sullivan was formerly The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of her hometown paper, The Buffalo News.)

Sullivan explains what great local reporting means:

“In only 15 years, American newspaper companies slashed their workforces by more than half — from 412,000 employees in 2001 to 174,000 last year.

But that troubling trend wasn’t on the minds of journalists at the Charleston Gazette-Mail last year as they dug deep into the prescription-drug epidemic that was inflicting mortal wounds on their community.

No, what motivated them was the West Virginia paper’s unofficial motto: “Sustained outrage.”

That phrase, coined by former publisher Ned Chilton, “means a lot to people here,” executive editor Robert Byers told me last week, shortly after the 37,000-circulation paper won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The family-owned paper (Chilton’s daughter is the publisher now) has a newsroom staff of about 50.

“You can do a hundred stories” on the opioid crisis, Byers said, “but we wanted to know where all these drugs were coming from, and how could so many pills be diverted onto the street.”

Needless to say, not all communities have newspapers like this. On the contrary, in the Whitewater area, we have papers so weak that they’d never come close to a serious journalistic nomination, let alone a real award. Many of them give each other prizes at local press gatherings, for third-tier work, on a participation-trophy theory of life. Indeed, the local climate is so weak that a small-town politician can brand his own website a news source, cover for years the political projects in which he’s been directly involved, and expect to be taken seriously for it.

If  one can say of the admirable Charleston Gazette-Mail that its unofficial motto is sustained outrage, one can say as easily of the Gazette, Daily Union, Register, and Banner that they might as well have a common, unofficial motto of sustained boosterism.

This local problem has been part of That Which Paved the Way to the weaker economic, fiscal, and social conditions that plague nearby communities. The way out will not come neither from more of the same ideas nor the same people pushing the same ideas.

Reading and Reviewing

There are two books I’m eager to review here at FW: Katherine Cramer’s Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016) and Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story (4.18.17).  Like many others, I’ve been awaiting Goldstein’s book for some time, knowing that significant works take time.

For both books, I’ll proceed with a chapter-by-chapter assessment. I’ve the luxury of taking my time, for two principal reasons: first, blogging allows a self-chosen pace; second and more significantly, both books are worthy of detailed reviews.

There is a third reason, too, and particular to Whitewater:  this city’s local policymakers have a position so weak that their particular maneuverings are of little value. For them, unfortunately, it’s the fate of a grinding attrition for the near future. These political few, and those who have been part of this small group over the last generation, will have little part in whatever successful short-term events Whitewater sees.

A sensible, productive person would stay as far away as possible.  This class is, with a few exceptions, composed of individually capable people who’ve collectively thrown away capability. See, Whitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way). A political critique of Whitewater is now less a matter of advocacy as it is a recollection and narration of cumulative political errors.

The better approach for the city is a true private charity and a true private industry, unconnected to political policy. See, An Oasis Strategy.

Of Whitewater’s local politics, what once seemed to me primarily a matter of advocacy grew to seem more like a diagnosis, and now seems like epidemiology.

There’s a history to be written about all of this, incorporating particular projects into a bigger work, but for now it’s a greater pleasure to consider what others have written.

I’ll start Wednesday, and continue chapter by chapter, taking time with it all.

‘The Closest Thing We Have to State TV’

In the clip above, Seth Meyers considers the relationship between Fox News and the Trump Administration, concluding that Fox News is ‘the closest thing we have to state TV,’ represents ‘sycophantic coverage,’ and that ‘instead of a Bible, Trump should have been sworn in on a TV Guide.’ (H/t to Raw Story for the pointer.)

Small towns across America are familiar with publications that are – in support and in effect – quasi-government publications. In the Whitewater area, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the Daily Union or Banner as offering anything other than sycophantic coverage. It’s fair to qualify this as nearly impossible, as ever so rarely one of these publications will stray from an insider’s line, for reasons of personal pique if not actual substance.

We’ve had years of coverage like this, weakening the quality of our politics and thinking, so much so that those in authority sometimes (but not always) seem like parodies of ill-preparation and weak analysis. Low quality of this kind is That Which Paved the Way, enabling a federal government led by the very worst among us.

What an Invitation Says (and Doesn’t Say)

 

Over at the City of Whitewater’s website, there’s a notice about a public meeting at which candidates for a city job will available to the public. Although the notice is formally correct (to meet the requirements of Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law, Wis. Stats. §§ 19.81-19.98), as a community matter there’s something sad about it.

First, the notice (http://www.whitewater-wi.gov/images/stories/agendas/common_council/2017/ccagen_2017-0329_Special.pdf):

NOTICE

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: The City of Whitewater will be hosting a reception for the candidates for the Finance and Administrative Services Director on March 29, 2017, from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. at the Whitewater Innovation Center, 1221 Innovation Dr., Whitewater, WI 53190.

It is highly likely that quorums of the following Committees may be present at the reception:

Whitewater Community Development Authority;
City of Whitewater Common Council;
Whitewater University Technology Park Board; and the
Whitewater Plan & Architectural Review Commission.

It is possible that members of and possibly a quorum of members of other governmental bodies of the municipality may be in attendance at the above-stated meeting to gather information over which they may have decision-making responsibility; no action will be taken by any governmental body at the above-stated meeting other than the governmental body specifically referred to above in this notice.

Anyone requiring special arrangements is asked to call the office of the City Manager/ City Clerk at least 24 hours prior to the meeting.

Second, why it’s sad: there’s no mention of the applicants for the position, and no public information about them. For the City of Whitewater and the Banner, this probably makes sense, as they work on a those-who-need-to-know-basis, and for them the significant audience is their own small circle.

This is like receiving a wedding invitation where the names of the bride and groom are left blank:

Somebody requests the honor of your presence at the marriage of someone
to someone else on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, from 4:00 – 6:00 p.m. at the Whitewater Innovation Center, 1221 Innovation Dr., Whitewater, WI 53190.

Reception to follow.

The municipal notice is a community notice only in the narrowest sense, revealing that the position isn’t a community matter in the eyes of local insiders – it’s (effectually) a quasi-private meeting. The municipal government meets the terms of the law, but nothing more.

It should be a caution to sensible candidates: insiders may or may not buck up a fellow employee in difficult times, but no one inside will have much resonance with the community outside. There are two principal options: either spend each waking moment pleasing that tiny inside circle, or adopt a view that transcends the circle, and stretches much farther.

On Rumors

Whitewater is a small town, with a population under fifteen thousand, approximately half of whom are college students. One of the advantages of being far smaller than Los Angeles or Atlanta should be the ease with which municipal leaders and law enforcement can meet and talk to residents. A person of average health and energy could walk the town easily, talking with residents along the way.

How odd, then to hear some city’s officials bemoaning rumors about possible federal law enforcement actions. If there are rumors among residents, city officials have only themselves to blame: if they were closer to their own residents, and even partly knowledgeable about those residents’ day-to-day experiences, they’d have a better ability to manage these matters.

Ice cream socials at a senior citizen facility (honest to goodness – the softest audience on the planet) are not enough. Admittedly, officials burn very few calories driving to a retirement home, sitting & talking, but that energy savings is an underuse of a taxpayer-funded salary.

If it should be true that “the rumors have truly been disheartening and harmful,” then it’s time for officials to work harder – connecting through true community-based enforcement – to dispel what so disheartens and hurts. All the servile commission cronies in the world, and their conniving boosters, can’t do what publicly-paid officials should be doing each day.

After so very long, after over twenty-six years, one should have expected better results than this. But people choose variously well or poorly, and Whitewater has so many times chosen poorly, and consigned herself to a weak, short-sighted, addled leadership. She’ll stay stagnant, and so decline relatively, until she chooses another course.

In the meantime, these failings may yet prove a useful lesson to other communities, so that they might avoid the same mistakes.

The National-Local Mix (Part 2)

On November 18th, I posted on a National-Local Mix, that combination of topics that a blogger might consider under Trump. The need to think about a national-local mix was obvious enough: “Trump is a fundamentally different candidate from those who have come before him.  Not grasping this would be obtuse.  Writing only about sewing circles or local clubs or a single local meeting while ignoring Trump’s vast power as president – and what it will bring about – would be odd. Someone in Tuscany, circa 1925, had more to write about than the countryside.”

To say I’m opposed to Trump, if it had to be said, would be an understatement.

How, though, does one go about deciding what to write about politics, sometimes national, sometimes local?

I’d say there are three steps: (1) be clear about one’s own political beliefs, and find the challenges to those beliefs in (2) national and (3) local policy.

(In this method, finding the challenges is actually a sign of optimism, as it assumes the more easily enumerated group is what’s wrong; if the smaller, more easily counted items were what’s right, then a community would be in truly terrible shape. Most matters in life are not political, and Whitewater in particular would do well to abandon a failed political culture. See, An Oasis Strategy.)

Here’s how those three steps look, in my (libertarian) case —

Political beliefs: individual liberty, limited government, free markets in capital, labor & goods, sound reasoning, peace.

National challenges: authoritarianism, nativism, mendacity, conflicts of interest, poor reasoning, government intervention for businesses, subservience & admiration of Putinism (this last being both a matter of domestic and foreign policy).

Local challenges: closed government, self-interested leadership, grandiosity, conflicts of interest, poor reasoning, government intervention for businesses, and factionalism & lack of community-based enforcement.

Other people would start with different beliefs, and so find different challenges. From the concerns they listed, one would have topics to address that derive from these concerns.

That some officials might have trouble making a list of their own principles (where principles mean more than self-interest) is much to their detriment.

Early Days

We’re in the early days of Trump, and we’ve likely a long and difficult way to go. (My daily count runs from 11.9, so it’s not as early from my vantage.) Even now, however, a solid resistance is forming across the country, including in red states that Trump supporters might otherwise consider unshakably Trump’s. (There is little, in the end, that will prove unshakably Trump’s.)

Clare Foran reports that The Anti-Trump ‘Resistance’ Takes Hold in Red States (“This isn’t a fad, it’s not going away, and there’s nothing coastal or elite about it.”):

Last week, videos went viral of people expressing anger and dismay over the possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act during the town hall in Tennessee, a state Trump won by a double-digit margin. So did footage of an angry crowd yelling “Do your job!” at Republican congressman and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz at a town hall in Utah….

In the end, GOP lawmakers will likely be more motivated to act if they believe the demands are coming from a significant number of their constituents. Aguirre, who said he never attended a protest before the election, noted that Utah Indivisible is composed of Democrats, Republicans and Libertarians. “We’re a group of people who are all extremely pissed off,” he explained. Amanda Gormley, a 34-year-old Arizona Democrat and spokesperson for PN Tucson, which formed in opposition to Trump’s election, said her organization is “open to talking to conservatives.” But she clarified that’s not the group’s first priority. Instead, members will focus on encouraging people who voted against Trump to step up their civic engagement.

A few quick points about all this:

  1. For some who oppose Trump (myself included) opposition has nothing to do with being a Democrat, but rather with independent views. Opposition will require a grand coalition from among many, regardless of party.
  2. Foran’s article describes one method of active opposition – one that looks like the Tea Party protests in some respects – but one method is only one method. For every person who attends a rally, there may be many others who write letters and emails, who walk door-to-door, publish posts, etc.
  3. Local, small-town politicians often assume that how they have done something is how others should do something. So, if there’s never been a rally, they react with alarm to a rally (“this can’t be!”) and if no one nearby has ever written a blog, they insist that it’s simply impermissible to do so. (For an aspect of the latter from here in Whitewater, see An Anecdote About an Appeal to (but not of) Authority).
  4. Very few human events move in a straight line; resistance to Trump can expect setbacks and significant losses along the way. One should be Neither Shocked Nor Awed.
  5. For the most part, I believe that Trump, His Inner Circle, Principal Surrogates, and Media Defenders should be the key focus of opposition.
  6. Significantly, this leaves unaddressed the problem of local officials who are, in effect if not avowedly, Trump surrogates. A resistance to Trump nationally that lets local officials carry on as Trump does is a half-resistance. Forming principles for opposition both nationally and locally is necessary.

There’s so much work – good work – to be done.

Where Reaction Leads

What happens when the municipal officials of a small college town repeatedly malign – in print and on camera – a private business and college residents for the conduct of unrelated third-parties?

This is what happens:

The City of Whitewater Clarifies Recent Comments Regarding Spring Splash, Encourages Residents to Celebrate Responsibly 

Whitewater, Wis., February 11th, 2017 – For several years, many residents, primarily students, have come to look forward to gathering and celebrating together in early spring. Since 2013, Wisconsin Red has joined in the celebration through the organization and sponsorship of Whitewater’s Spring Splash. Spring Splash 2016 was, quite possibly, the most successful event to date; drawing more participants than prior years for what was a very well-run event.

While Spring Splash 2016 was well organized and free of problems, many other parties and events hosted elsewhere in the City [sic] were not. Due to the magnitude of visitors, many parties outside of Spring Splash outgrew their designated space resulting in large mobs of party goers roaming the city. Many groups quickly became unruly and dangerous.

In recent meetings with city staff, Wisconsin Red stressed that the events that transpired outside of Spring Splash were in no way representative of the organization’s mission or values. However, many officials believed that the successful promotional campaign on the Wisconsin Red website and social media pages had contributed to the large turnout of visitors and the mobs that continued throughout the day and night.

City staff met with Wisconsin Red representatives earlier this month to discuss its plans for Spring Splash 2017. While Wisconsin Red displayed great respect and organizational ability, anxiety over what could happen outside of the event prompted city officials to express continued concerns. After discussing the anticipated negatives that could result from a repeat of last year’s ancillary events, all parties agreed that it would be in the City’s best interest to cancel Spring Splash 2017 and consider revisiting in 2018.

“All the reports I’ve received regarding Spring Splash 2016 have confirmed that Wisconsin Red’s event was well organized and well run,” says Cameron Clapper, Whitewater City Manager. “It is the other parties and the meandering mobs we’re concerned about. Everyone deserves a chance to relax and unwind but no one can be excused from their civic responsibility to exercise good judgment, avoid dangerous behaviors and be respectful of our neighbors.”

The City of Whitewater recognizes most of the negative behavior that occurred last year was not from Whitewater students. The City does not want to limit celebrative opportunities for any group or individual but rather encourages safe and controlled gatherings.

The City of Whitewater and Wisconsin Red would like to express a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all those who celebrated responsibly last year and who assisted with the clean-up following the day’s activities. Thanks to the volunteer efforts of many community members, including UW-Whitewater students, the city was cleaned-up in less than a day.

“We hope that if an individual or group chooses to celebrate and have gatherings throughout the year, they continue to do so in a safe and respectful manner as Whitewater students have been known to do,” Clapper says. “Encourage party hosts to be respectful of their neighbors as well as their guests by not promoting bad behavior or inviting those that would. We are proud of our student body and want to continue to support them in hopes they can support and care for the city they live in.”

The City of Whitewater provides efficient and high quality services which support living, learning, playing and working in an exceptional community. Visit www.whitewater-wi.gov for community information and updates.

Via http://www.whitewater-wi.gov/residents/recent-news/3257-spring-splash.

The simple truth is that Whitewater’s town-gown divide is debilitatingly wide, despite empty insistence to the contrary, her municipal officials shuttle between support of one contesting faction within the city and another, overreacting to events, with over-wrought assertions and language, and without the detached and dispassionate view that would prevent the need for printed clarifications.

At Whitewater’s Planning Commission: ‘Have you heard any rumors about..?”

There’s a brief discussion about a rumor that a new convenience store might come to small-town Whitewater that illustrates not only the problem of rumors, but others’ unwillingness to point out the problem of rumors. It’s the latter problem that is, in fact, the more serious one for Whitewater.

First, I’ve transcribed the exchange from the video segment above. (The full 12.12.16 meeting of Whitewater’s Planning Commission is online at https://vimeo.com/195844505.) Here’s the discussion:

Commissioner: Chris, have you heard any rumors about Kwik Trip?

Neighborhood Services Director: I, I have not heard anything about Kwik Trip.

Commissioner: ‘Cause I have.

Neighborhood Services Director: Well…

Commissioner: I heard somebody that works for Kwik Trip, they work in, like a big Kwik Trip, and they said that Kwik Trip, it has been approved to come to Whitewater, but not ‘til nineteen, ‘til twenty-nineteen or twenty-twenty.

Neighborhood Services Director: I generally don’t get involved unless…

Commissioner [interrupting, over-talking]: I’m just sayin’…

Neighborhood Services Director: No, I’m letting you know [unintelligible] I generally really don’t get involved until they’re they’re coming in for drawings, like that’s when they contact me because otherwise they’re contacting somebody like Pat [Cannon, contracted Community Development Authority director] so…

Commissioner: I understand they said they have approved it, it just needs to come later. It’d be nice.

Neighborhood Services Director: Yeah, it’d be lovely.

One can guess the problem the commissioner’s remarks make: they’re not just a rumor, but a rumor so light and trivial one might attach string and a tail to it and fly it on a breezy day. It’s that somebody heard that someone who works for… It’s undependable as offered. Relying on something like this would be relying on the unreliable.

There’s a second problem, though, that’s more important than a single commissioner’s over-credulous view of information. The more important problem is that no one bothers to state, clearly and on the record, the difference between substance and baseless speculation.

(It’s not enough to address this difference afterward, off camera; a firm commitment to sound thinking and credible evidence is a declaration to be made then and there, in opposition and correction to a shoddy case. Good reasoning need not – indeed must not – hide timidly in the shadows while rumor takes the center stage.)

There’s also a sign from this exchange that turning over more of the city’s meetings to the direction of common council members (however well-intentioned) will not work. It was, after all, a common council member who ran this meeting, and he made no effort to argue publicly for solid standards of evidence, and indeed made no response at all. There’s no point in having council members chair all meetings if, as in this case, most of them wouldn’t contribute where a contribution would be usefully instructive. (The Neighborhood Services Director does respond by explaining how a proper process runs, but she can’t be expected as an appointed employee to handle all of this.  The sensible course would have been for other commissioners to address the underlying lack of credible information.)

Rumor ruins policy, in small towns as well as large; the damage is worse when others (especially those elected to office) shirk from the obligation to contend for a better practice.

Trump Will Force Choices the Local Press is Too Weak to Make

A sound critique of the national print press says that it has a limited time left. See, concerning the work of Clay Shirky, A Prediction of Print’s ‘Fast, Slow, Fast’ Decline. Market forces will also take their toll on the local print press, and even now local papers are useful only for The Last Inside Accounts (rather than inquisitive reporting).

(I’ll share a funny story from a local school board meeting touching on this topic. Some months ago, during a discussion of points the district wanted to make sure were in print, a school board member saw a local stringer in the audience, and called out to him, ‘did you get that?’ Locally, whether in print or online, most local publishing is publishing-as-stenography. Significantly, local reporting in this area is access journalism, designed to give officeholders an unquestioned say in exchange for an interview.)

The national press will not be able to carry on this way, to the extent they did, as Trump is an existential threat to the free exercise of their work. Margaret Sullivan’s right: The traditional way of reporting on a president is dead. And Trump’s press secretary killed it. (Credit where credit is due: Trump, himself, made access journalism unsound in a free society before Sean Spicer ever took the podium.)

It’s possible – one hopes – that through digital publications the national press will find new life in a battle for solid reporting in opposition to an authoritarian administration. (I subscribe to quite a few solid digital publications, and am always on the hunt for more. One can and should criticize weak publications and while firmly supporting inquisitive ones.)

But there’s a local angle in all this: the local press is weak & dysfunctional, living in fear of both dissatisfied advertisers and aging, give-me-happy-news readers. They’re to timid to take a firm stand on Trump, for or against.

On the biggest national (and international) story of our time, the local press is too timid to say much at all. It’s head down, eyes averted, for them.

That makes their work this year even less significant than it was last year. They were already stumbling about, but Trump’s rise demands someone who can walk, determinedly, in a particular direction. They can’t do that.

Trump didn’t set out to make the local press even less significant, of course, and yet, he’s done just that. Those who’ve bet on hyper-local have made a bad bet. (Local affairs through application of national standards was always a more sound approach.) Trump divides all America in ways that force stark choices, and an anemic local press lacks the vigor, let alone the courage, to address the fundamental topics of our time.

More on Local Problems Now Gone National

I posted in November that Fake News Was a Local Problem Before It Was a National One. (That post described “local fake (or low-quality)” news, but strictly speaking fake news isn’t merely of low quality or error; fake news is deliberately manufactured to deceive. See, How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News.)

Some of the worst aspects of our new national politics have been present in many small towns for years: (1) grandiosity, (2) news stories from weak reporters or indifferent stringers who are mere scribes for those in power, (3) ceaseless conflicts of interest, including news sites from incumbent politicians, (4) distortion of facts to turn crud into caviar, (5) low-quality, lazy work passed off as though it were Newton’s Principia, and (6) a top-down condescension in which a few decide that their work is ‘good enough’ and so the many should settle for that lesser standard & lesser product.

The overwhelming majority of people in these communities are sharp and capable, and deserve more than compromised standards.

Our new national scene brings myriad challenges, but there are many who’ve lived with small-scale versions of these challenges for years.

More on the Right Social Conditions in a Small Town

I posted yesterday that Gentrification Requires the Right Social Conditions, contending in part that a small city like Whitewater remains divided (and by consequence limits its own attractiveness to newcomers) because it remains divided by town and gown (and divided within the town, itself, too).

Whitewater’s problem is not that different factions do not have a sense of their own interests, it’s that these factions do not see others’ interests adequately, and so both make accommodations less likely and (worse) even misperceive full measure of the very community in which they live.

It’s much easier to be a representative of a particular group (e.g., students, middle-aged non-student residents, elderly residents). (Obvious point, still worth making: I don’t claim to represent anyone else; I’m an emissary of one, so to speak.)

A few people saying they’ve solved problems of division doesn’t mean those divisions have been solved; it means a few people think (let’s assume sincerely so) that they have been, and hope to convince many others that their assurances are an adequate substitute for community harmony.

I’m increasingly convinced that the best efforts at community harmony and progress will not come from local government, or large local institutions, but from private charitable, small business, and cultural projects. Each of these has a chance of inspiring cross-cultural understanding as good or better than any factionalized political representation.

Cross-cultural understanding is a necessary condition of community progress.

Gentrification Requires the Right Social Conditions

I’ve written that Whitewater faces a choice between decisive action now (to lessen government’s role) or years of stagnation and relative decline before eventual gentrification (at which point longtime residents will have almost no say in redevelopment). See, How Big Averts Bad. As I doubt Whitewater’s local political class has the will for near-term changes, the best option during this long period will come from community-based, non-governmental initiatives and businesses. See, An Oasis Strategy.

Yet even an eventual, rejuvenating gentrification requires more than inexpensive, dilapidated properties to rehabilitate. Emily Badger makes this clear in How to Predict Gentrification: Look for Falling Crime: some minimal social conditions have to exist before risk takers are willing to commit to a community.

She writes (admittedly about cities, not towns) that

“But a huge piece of it,” she [Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University] said, “I think is crime.”

New research that she has conducted alongside Keren Mertens Horn, an economist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and Davin Reed, a doctoral student at N.Y.U., finds that when violent crime falls sharply, wealthier and educated people are more likely to move into lower-income and predominantly minority urban neighborhoods.

Their working paper suggests that just as rising crime can drive people out of cities, falling crime has a comparable effect, spurring gentrification. And it highlights how, even if many Americans — including, by his own words, President-elect Donald Trump — inaccurately believe urban violence is soaring, the opposite long-term trend has brought wide-ranging change to cities.

Needless to say, small-town Whitewater’s problem is not urban crime (we’re not an urban area). There is, however, a level of division in the city along lines of cultural identity that is discernible to anyone observing the town with clear eyes, and that cannot be papered over with false contentions of town-gown harmony. The last thirty years have seen an increase in the size of our local campus, but city is still widely divided, and attempts at cultural harmony have gone nowhere as far as one might hope.

Lack of town-gown harmony is Whitewater’s analog to urban crime: it’s a cultural reason some people will (sadly) avoid the city.

Fixing this division will not come from public spending, nor public enforcement efforts, nor public relations. It will come, if it does, from private cultural, charitable, and business efforts.

At Whitewater’s Planning Commission: Millions But Still a Politician’s Unsatisfied

Last night, Whitewater’s local government conducted its (mostly) monthly Planning Commission meeting.  It’s mostly because there aren’t always enough new projects each month to justify holding a meeting.   At Item 4 on the agenda, the commission held a public hearing “for consideration of a conditional use permit for an automotive shop at 113 E. Main Street.”  The commission granted wisely the permit.  (One wishes the applicant the best for his new business.

One Thirteen East Main Street, Whitewater: it’s a spot near a recently-completed two-million-dollar road improvement project, on the east side of this rural city.  Much of this work was truly road beautification, on the possible theory that if we sank enough public money into a small intersection of the town, then we’d all be putting on the Ritz.

When last night’s applicant received his approval, it came with a suggestion (from a member of the commission and also on the city’s common council): perhaps a bit of landscaping might make the area look nicer.

Oh, dearie me: were those millions not enough to transform the city?  After it all, all of it being public money, should a private businessperson have to pay another cent at government’s suggestion?  If he so chooses, of course; it’s just that having taken so much public money for a project that evidently hasn’t beautified, one might have hoped for a bit of official humility.

Nothing of the sort; instead, a suggestion for more, at private expense.

My point is not that the public project should have cost more, to add better plants; it’s that having cost what it did, it should have been plain that the cost was too much, for too little gain.  (I opposed the project, but at the time conceded that the architect’s illustrations were attractive.  Even that concession, while otherwise in opposition, too generous to the project.)

The millions were a waste in a city that could have found a hundred better uses for them.

On Lake, McHenry, and Walworth Counties

In August, I wrote that dorm-construction wasn’t the big story at UW-Whitewater, but rather it was the federal lawsuit against former Chancellor Telfer and [then-current] Athletic Director Amy Edmonds.   Even in her mundane story of residence-construction, the Journal Sentinel‘s Karen Herzog got it wrong: the bigger story was an increasing number of out-of-state students (now about 1-6 of all students), including many from Lake and McHenry Counties in Illinois.

Why does that matter?  Because many of those students are coming from out-of-state counties more affluent than Walworth County.  They and their families are likely to have different expectations.

The figures on median household income and poverty are striking.

For median household income (in 2015 dollars), 2011-2015: Walworth County $53,445, United States $53,889, McHenry County $77,222, and Lake County $78,026.  For persons in poverty, percent:  McHenry County 6.9%, and Lake County 9.5%, United States 13.5%, Walworth County 13.7%.

The superficial answer (one that Whitewater has tried for a generation) would be to use public money to build more, in the (false) hope that the town will look better, and so be more attractive to outsiders.  (That’s been mostly the search for young families, but some of the same standards apply to young, non-married residents.)

That’s not, however, the solution if one wants to keep attracting this kind of student, or successful families. (One knows public-funding of construction isn’t the solution; if it were, Whitewater would already be Brentwood.)  The expectations and gap from them are cultural, and only a change in campus & community relations – especially in the attitude of those in authority – will assure Whitewater is a desirable destination for those accustomed to a different level of care and opportunity.

How Big Averts Bad

If it should be true that small-town Whitewater faces a choice between difficult times now or an extended decline before an out-of-town-led gentrification, that her decline will otherwise be slow but no less signficant as a result, that stakeholder (special interest) politics grips the city, and that this stakeholder politics is really an identity politics that offers no uplift, then what is to be done?

(On identity politics – it’s comfortable for a few, but only in the way that it’s comfortable for a pig to sit in the mud: the animal’s momentary ease won’t forestall a trip to the butcher shop.)

There’s the possibility of restructuring committees and city functions to assure a streamlined – and unified – direction, but the effort presents some legitimate policy questions, and more relevantly would require additional work from some who just don’t want to expend that effort. (Although I share policy doubts about the idea, if I can guess the motivation correctly – and it’s just a guess – I would say that the idea seems born of a desire to motivate the city in a positive direction. One can be opposed to an idea yet sympathetic to a perceived, underlying goal.)

Unfortunately, an alternative to streamlining is even more difficult – far more difficult – to do: the city could undertake a comprehensive review of its entire political culture, setting aside much of the last generation’s approach, in citywide meetings and supporting referendums. (Think of something like a broad-based convention and the resolutions that might come from it.)

Because this approach would require setting aside most of what has been tried ineffectually, and stubborn pride abhors a new course, the likely acceptance of this approach is about the same as convincing wolves to eat broccoli. (They might be persuaded to try some, but they’d be more likely to eat a person’s hand or arm during the effort.)

The scene: Whitewater’s local government advanced a resolution on Citizens United, but the community lacks the unity to advance a series of broad resolutions or votes on reducing local government’s size and thirst for revenue, ending government-goosed business deals, paring back even further zoning restrictions that are still too burdensome, a genuine community relations to replace adversarial enforcement, ending the transparently deceptive practice of publishing cherry-picked data and dodgy studies (a problem for the city, school district, and local campus), rather than honestly presenting the city to all the state not as a paradise but as a work-in-progress that could use every last talented newcomer we could find.

This would be a big project, but the city’s in a spot where, to avoid an extended period of relative decline, Whitewater needs big to avert bad.  The long-term future of this city will yet prove bright, but why delay for many years that better day, for the sake of a few officials’ selfish pride?

The Simplest Explanation for Whitewater, Wisconsin’s Politics

In my last post, I mentioned Noah Rothman’s perceptive post on the failings – and they are many – of a non-ideological politics, a politics without principle.

Whitewater’s politics, unlike that which Rothman describes, certainly isn’t a politics of radical populism; there’s no radicalism in Whitewater whatever. (Those who see radicalism here likely see unicorns and pink elephants, too.)

Whitewater’s politics is, however, non-ideological (with a few exceptions). So-called stakeholder politics here is primarily an identity politics, of some cohorts over others, where the town is imagined in terms of identity: students, non-student whites, non-student Hispanics, elderly whites, etc. Old Whitewater – a state of mind, not a person or chronological age – very much sees the city this way.

In fact, Old Whitewater mostly sees one group (non-student whites).  Others, by this narrow way of thinking, aren’t really here, or should think about moving away, etc.  Occasionally newcomers who want to advance quickly will parrot the worst of this thinking, to ingratiate themselves as truer than true, so to speak.  Reminding that a majority of the city’s residents are students, and that many others are Hispanic, for example, only rankles those who think the town belongs to one ‘true’ cohort. (There are some who find a Census table too much to bear.)

When Old Whitewater looks for influential stakeholders, it’s really looking for familiar, leading members of particular identity groups.

That’s why Whitewater has had, for well over a generation, a paradoxical big-government conservatism: precisely because ideological and principled views matter less than what particular identity groups insist that they want and need.  Millions for this, millions for that, without an ideological framework to any of it.

The irony is that this spending is not championed by the poorest residents of the city, but by a parochial, mostly-mediocre (but well-fed) clique aching for The Big Thing.  (No matter how few the Next Big Thing helps, any more than the Last Big Thing helped, this small faction must have as an ornament to its pride yet one more project.)

They are sure they are owed these things, as self-appointed guardians of a particular identity group, as the real residents within a city of many kinds of residents.

Arguments for multiculturalism and diversity are arguments, in this context, of a city without a fixed identity politics, where many groups will combine in ideological & principled ways, without barriers to participation based on identity, but instead based on clear views.

Look around, and one sees the rack and ruin from an identity politics, as the city stagnates, and thus declines relatively.  See The Local Economic Context of It All, Offer, Cooperation, Gentrification, and Stability and Stagnation, Differently Experienced.

This sort of politics cannot succeed, and so descriptions of it will, at bottom, be descriptions of error and loss.

Indolence Over Something as Simple as a Parking Lot Repair

Here’s a simple observation: if full-time department managers in a small town’s government can’t develop and execute repairs to the city’s parking lots without repeated prodding from the town’s part-time council members, then there’s not much that city government can do.

Full-time, publicly-paid leaders should have enough pride in their town to act quickly without repeated prompting, excuse-making, hemming and hawing, etc. (Then again, those same full-time leaders should be able to see that oil’s leaking into a downtown city lake without learning of the fact from city residents, and taking two days’ time to act on the problem. See Pavement Project Causes Lake Contamination in Whitewater.)

There are many people in the Whitewater area who get up every morning, to work long hours in factories, dairies, and egg farms who do so with fewer excuses than the average city department leader. The people who work those long hours also do so without taxpayer-supported salaries.

The malaise or indolence that grips those leaders degrades the quality of life for residents and makes the city unattractive to visitors and newcomers.