The Same Ten People Problem (Revisited)

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

In a presentation from September on the state of the city (really meaning the state of Whitewater’s municipal government), City Manager Cameron Clapper tackled again the ‘Same Ten People Problem’ (STPP), where only a few people participate in municipal meetings, etc. One can find the full video presentation below; Clapper’s remarks on the STPP appear from 26:20 to 34:02.

A few remarks about all this, below:

Credit Where Credit Is Due. City Manager Clapper has discussed his concern about participation before, much to his credit. It is a problem, although one that some would rather not discuss, so much the better to avoid a solution that might dilute their influence.

Clapper’s (Partial) Solution. In his remarks, Clapper offers POLCO, a web-based community survey provider, as a partial solution to the STPP. That’s novel, actually. POLCO bills itself (mostly) as a way to allow officials to receive community opinion on key issues; Clapper’s now holding POLCO out as a way to entice participation beyond mere survey responses.

I’m not sure how effective POLCO will be, but it’s more likely to be useful as a gateway to additional individual participation than as an accurate representation of community opinion (the problems of collecting an accurate surevy through POLCO are too great, to put it mildy). As a way to whet someone’s appetite, though, Clapper may be right, and may have found a way to make POLCO one part of a solution on participation. (It’s worth noting that he contends it’s one solution, not the only solution.)

The STPP. I’ve written about Whitewater’s STPP before. See The Perimeter Fence and  The Solution to the ‘Same Ten People Problem.’ From the latter post:

In a post from yesterday I wrote about how cultures have perimeter fences, figurative boundaries marking the divide between what they consider acceptable and what they don’t, between those of the community and those outside of it.

Whitewater’s maintained a perimeter fence that is too circumscribed, and by design too impermeable.  It’s more than generational change that limits participation.

We’ve a fence that’s too close and too high….

That’s the source of the STPP in Whitewater: a local culture that expects a few leading figures and the community story be channeled through a few narrow gates of a few high walls.

What’s Coming. I’ve always felt that Whitewater will be better when she evolves more completely into a community with multiple sources of information, and diverse points of view. See New Whitewater’s Inevitability.

The idea of wrapping the community into one package was, as a digital imitation of the Register (when that paper still mattered), was always yesterday’s idea, a retrograde notion. Bundling the city in a box, adding a bow, and presenting ‘Whitewater!’ was always yesterday’s outlook; it was visionary only if one defines myopia as keen eyesight.

The future – for Whitewater and other towns – has always been myriad sources, each independently contributing to a vibrant community.

Truthfully, she’s already part way there: there are dozens of local sources of information, from dozens of community groups, written in the style that suits each group, respectively. Look only in one place, and one misses so much.

It makes sense that Cameron Clapper would want more government participation now; it won’t come that soon, yet it will come. There are likely to be much harder days of challenge between now and then. We would have done better if we had made this transition sooner, of course.

Still, much of what seems so vital now won’t last into a New Whitewater, but then each generation should – and inevitably will – make its own choices.

If City Manager Clapper stays in Whitewater for another decade – and despite disagreements with him, one hopes he does – then he’ll see these changes.

Between now and then, there will be a hard slog in Whitewater, but there’s no better place, in all the world, to be.

The Somber Trio

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin Among the most serious harms are those to liberty and physical well-being. One can compensate adequately for many injuries, but damages at law are slight compensation for lost liberties and physical injuries.

We’ve a new national environment, in which actions once impermissible are now encouraged, and redress once required is now no longer recognized. If asked to list the three gravest concerns for this small town, these come to mind, in no fixed order:

Harm inflicted intentionally against immigrants peacefully settled in their communities,

Harm inflicted through overzealousness against other residents (often disadvantaged) but peacefully settled in their communities, and

Unacknowledged harm from sexual assaults against residents on campuses or nearby.

There’s an obvious difference between risk (the chance that something might happen) and harm (what results if it does happen). The harms that might befall some in this community have always been clear; the risks of these harms has grown as Trumpism encourages force where it was once properly discouraged, and discourages peaceful resolution where it was once encouraged.

These greater risks did not begin with Trump. In towns across America, including Whitewater, one can see That Which Paved the Way. Those who have ignored or denied past wrongs have left their communities vulnerable to those who would, with satisfaction & delight, commit new and worse injustices, all the while declaring their actions the very height of order and propriety.

The worst risks, of the worst harms, fall on some of our fellow residents more than others. The moral burden of lessening risks, and of redressing harms, falls on all of us.

Amendments, Canaries, Coal Mines

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

                    Embed from Getty Images

I wrote yesterday about two proposed amendments to Whitewater’s Landmarks Commission ordinances (Items O-1 and O-2 on the 10.3.17 Council agenda). See Amendments Concerning the Landmarks Commission. Last night, Council unanimously passed O-1, and amendment O-2 died for lack of a second vote to move consideration of it.

A few quick points about all this – and what it likely says about more serious matters.

1. Contentious, Not Dangerous. The most important point about the proceedings last night is that they may have been the consequence of disputes and contentions over a challenge to the Landmarks Commission’s authority, but there was nothing of danger in any of this. These were not matters of public safety, where lives and property might be immediately and grievously threatened.

That’s why it made sense to let the matter unspool on its own, ending yesterday’s post on the subject with ‘We’ll see.’ Nothing was at risk by waiting and watching without further comment. Indeed, one sometimes observes the course of an event for months before writing on it.

2. A Preference Against Change. All considered – all meaning events both near and far – I wouldn’t have proposed any changes to these existing ordinances. There are ordinances and policies in Whitewater I’d like to see changed; the existing Landmarks provisions of our municipal code would not have been among them.

3. A Protest. This may not have been my cause, so to speak, but it’s encouraging to see a pre-meeting protest before City Hall. Old Whitewater (a state of mind, rather than a person or chronological age) has for years expected a heads-down-eyes-averted approach to town notables’ ideas and actions. There’s never been a reason for that in an American town, that don’t-you-know-who-I-am expectation of self-declared leading figures. (No one should yield to imposed expectations like that.)

Residents in Whitewater can protest without the sky falling. Actually, they just did, last night.

4. Sharp Residents, All Around Us. Whitewater’s filled with sharp people. All communities are — society wouldn’t be able to function without large majorities of capable people performing myriad challenging tasks each day. Critiques are seldom if ever about intelligence (it’s not in question); critiques are typically over perspective, over ways of learning to see things.

5. Item O-1. Item O-1 was the more interesting, although the less contentious, of the two proposed amendments. Consider Section 1 of the amendment:

SECTION 1. Whitewater Municipal Code Chapter 17.12, Designation of Landmarks,
Landmark Sites and Historic Districts is hereby amended as follows:
Sub-Section 17.12.040 (e) is created to read:

Before the Landmarks Commission explores a city owned property as a
potential landmark, the Commission shall notify the City Manager with a
notice of intent….

There one finds a simple error of drafting, that might easily have been avoided, and if avoided, would have produced a far better amendment.

“Before the Landmarks Commission explores….” The obvious point is that explores is so nebulous and susceptible of multiple meanings that it’s too vague to be in a properly worded ordinance. Indeed, explores is nowhere present in Whitewater’s Municipal Code, not once in usage, let alone as a definition.

One knows what it means to explore (Roald Amundsen reaching the South Pole comes to mind), but that definition of exploration is inapplicable here. Does explore mean first to think about the matter, to raise the subject, first to debate it as a commission, first to vote on it, etc.? One sees the point: explores cannot mean never consider – because if one does not consider at all, how is one to contemplate what might be a desirable proposal for the commission?

An ordinance isn’t merely for the moment, but for years yet to come, when those now part of a present question or controversy have long passed from the political scene. The ordinance has to be clear for them, too. Explores doesn’t offer the clear definition that an ordinance needs to be enduringly useful.

Note what this means: a clear definition is in everyone’s interest, to prevent future uncertainty and disputes that would arise from it.

6. An Easy Fix. Instead of explores, one would set the trigger of notifying Council to a specific, concrete event: before the commission votes on any proposal, after a single meeting’s discussion but before any other action, etc. There are many possibilities that would make the ordinance clearer, and so more useful to avoid disputes now and in the future (when new members have to look at these provisions with fresh eyes).

7. Why Someone Writes This Way. Someone writes this way (using explores) to come to a consensus between parties in the present – to find language that satisfies them. That’s the important work of conflict resolution, to be sure. It’s not an easy task – it is an admirable one. One could easily list city officials who would be skilled at conflict resolution. That contention isn’t meant as a backhanded compliment – it’s acknowledge meant to a vital skill.

It’s just that – as with so many divisions of labor – it’s not the only skill that matters. Someone else on council or in the local government, not part of a conflict-resolution outreach, should have been able to see that the ordinance needed improvement, to make it an even better expression of the parties’ and city’s interests.

Perhaps there was a concern that, having reached a solution, it was risky to offer further suggestions that might upset that immediate solution. That’s too cautious – having gone so far, one could have gone a bit farther (and done even better) by showing what good drafting can do.

8. Canaries, Coal Mines. So why a picture of a canary in a coal mine? Because after this present dispute fades, there will still be a need in this community for public and private institutions to develop a stronger grasp of risk and opportunities under the law. City, school district, university – this community doesn’t have a professional class that inculcates in its members an correct understanding of what’s possible and what’s not.

Like the ACLU (of which I am a member), this libertarian has no interest in representing government’s interests. (Government is the one client the ACLU never represents.) There are many people in the city who can care for government’s interests ably, if only they’d broaden their perspective, beyond the immediate and transitory.

There are many reasons for this lacking: a smaller number of transactions in a small town, a small professional class (of any profession), a distance from a plaintiff’s bar that would otherwise be noticing events even more closely (than a few ADA deficiencies) on which to litigate, etc.

Draft amendment O-1 is a like a sentinel species, a canary in a coal mine. Its condition – its quality of drafting, in this case – tells something worrying about what may lie ahead, if one looks farther, and deeper, into the workings of the community’s principal public institutions.

As one would always prefer sound workings over unsound ones, there’s reason for concern.

Amendments Concerning the Landmarks Commission

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin Even during the most difficult national conditions, there are likely to be local conflicts. A dispute in Whitewater over the powers of the city’s Landmarks Commission is one such conflict: a purely local matter. Proposed changes to Whitewater’s Municipal Code, Title 17, Landmarks Commission, are before Common Council tonight. See Whitewater, Wisconsin, Municipal Code § 17.04.010 et seq.

There are two proposed changes to the existing ordinances – both draft amendments are embedded below, at the end of this post. News of opposition to these changes reached me last week, along with information on a rally at City Hall (to be held immediately before tonight’s council session). One can easily guess that I’m not part of the groups either favoring or opposing these changes.

I am curious about the amendments, however, and I do find coverage of them interesting.

There are two amendments, not one. While a local politician’s website lists opposition to one of the amendments (Agenda Item O-2: “Ordinance Amending Chapter 17.12.040 to create section authorizing the Common Council authority to rescind Landmarks designations for City of Whitewater owned Landmarks (Councilmember Grady Request)”) it omits discussion of another amendment entirely (Agenda Item O-1: “Ordinance Amending Chapter 17.12.040 to add requirement for advance Common Council review of proposed Landmark Designation for Property owned by City of Whitewater. (Councilmember Grady Request).”

That’s curious, because while there may be policy arguments for or against either amendment, the ordinance draft for Agenda Item O-1 raises not only policy questions, but to be blunt, questions of basic legal drafting.

Indeed, if the longstanding members of the Whitewater Common Council cannot spot the obvious defect in the Agenda Item O-1 amendment, then failure to do so calls into question what years on the Whitewater Common Council might teach, if anything.

In this way, an unexpected controversy over Whitewater’s Landmarks Commission may yet tell residents something about the quality of local governance.

We’ll see.

Proposed amendments following — 

Download (PDF, 90KB)

The Erosion of Political Norms (Part 2 in a Series)

local sceneWhitewater, as with other Wisconsin cities and towns, has a Planning Commission. Like some towns (but not others), Whitewater by practice places a member of one commission (let’s say, Parks & Rec) on another commission (let’s say, Planning): a representative of one commission to another. So a person might be appointed to serve on the Parks & Rec Board, but then also be the representative of Parks & Rec on the Planning Commission. (In this way, the resident then serves on two commissions.)

What happens, though, when a resident appointed to Parks & Rec,  who then becomes the representative to the Planning Commission, requests to become the representative from Planning (on which he was never appointed) to the Community Development Authority (a third board)?

A second question: if the Parks & Rec board member was formerly head of the city’s neighborhood services department, should he even be able to serve on the Planning Board (as Planning oversees neighborhood services)? (Other cities would not allow the former neighborhood services leader to serve on Planning – neither directly nor by jumping from one board to another).

Those are questions that a member of the Planning Commission presented in June, before the Planning Commission made its choice for its representative to another board (the Community Development Authority). See Plan Commission 6/12/17 & 6/19/17, preliminary discussion & commissioner’s remarks from 1:30 to 3:50 on the video.

I view of this discussion with distance and detachment, with clear and cold eyes.  In the months since I first heard it, it has now & again returned to my mind. (One may read and hear much, but write less, and even then only at a later, more suitable time.)

Could the French ambassador to the United States, upon his arrival on these shores, then and there become the American ambassador to Brazil? Could a marketing manager at Ford Motor Company, upon becoming the marketing representative to an engineering team, then and there become the engineering representative to the accounting group?

It’s notable – and not to Whitewater’s credit – that not a single commissioner offered a word in reply to these concerns. Not a word of support, not a word of opposition: nothing.

The only commissioner who addressed this concern was the commissioner who raised it. “So shines a good deed….

There is the erosion of political norms: so eroded that nothing is said in reply.

PreviouslyThe Erosion of Political Norms, Part 1.

Tomorrow: The Erosion of Political Norms, Part 3.

The Erosion of Political Norms (Part 1 in a Series)

local sceneThis is the first in a series about the erosion of local political norms. In a recent essay on national politics, E.J. Dionne Jr., Norm Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann write of How the GOP Prompted the Decay of Political Norms (adapted from their book One Nation After Trump):

President Trump’s approach to governance is unlike that of his recent predecessors, but it is also not without antecedents. The groundwork for some of this dysfunction was laid in the decades before Trump’s emergence as a political figure. Nowhere is that more true than in the disappearance of the norms of American politics.

Norms are defined as “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” They are how a person is supposed to behave in a given social setting. We don’t fully appreciate the power of norms until they are violated on a regular? basis. And the breaching of norms often produces a cascading effect: As one person breaks with tradition? and expectation, behavior previously considered inappropriate is normalized and taken up by others. Donald Trump is the Normless President, and his ascendancy threatens to inspire a new wave of norm-breaking.

This would be bad enough if he were entirely a one-off, an amoral figure who suddenly burst onto the scene and took advantage of widespread discontent and an electoral system that tilts outcomes in the direction of his politics. But Trumpism has long been in gestation. His own party, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, has been undercutting the norms of American politics for decades. As the traditionalist conservative Rod Dreher has written, “Trump didn’t come from nowhere. George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and movement conservatism bulldozed the field for Trump without even knowing what they were doing.”

(Needless to say, this excerpt leaves aside the particular – and particularly destructive – role that Russia has played in undermining American norms.)

There’s more – and so worse – even than what Messrs. Dionne, Ornstein, and Mann see nationally: a rot of local norms in towns and cities across this country, sometimes conservative, but more often nonpartisan. A decline in local standards (of insightful analysis, accurate data, honest presentations, and open government) has afflicted  communities like Whitewater.  See That Which Paved the Way and Whitewater, Cultures & Communications, June 2017 (Part 13: That Which Paved the Way).

No one contributes to a decline while declaring that he does.  Instead, those responsible declare that their (actually) lower standards are what it means to be a ‘Whitewater Advocate,’ community booster, etc. In this way, they elevate what’s base, and make base what should be elevated.

Tomorrow: An Unanswered Local Concern About Conflicts.

Priorities: Fighting Bigotry Over Babbittry

local sceneCommon men and women can learn from the examples of great men and women. In this way, one can learn how to prioritize between concurrent challenges, applying lessons from a prior and intense conflict even to present but lesser conflicts. Some threats are worse than others, and so our it’s reasonable that one places more effort there.

It makes sense to me that the most intense focus should be on the most intense challenges, and that those challenges are national ones first, local ones embodying national ones second, and purely local ones third.

The national challenges of Trumpism (viz., authoritarianism, bigotry, nativism, mendacity, conflicts of interest, ignorance, and subservience and dependency on Putin’s dictatorship) are a greater threat to communities than purely local buffoonery and grandiosity.

In this way, one would, so to speak, prioritize the fight against bigotry over babbittry. (One sees well, to be sure, that years of local babbittry erode the standards of a community, making it more susceptible of national illnesses. Only scorn is owed to those who wasted a generation glad-handing through town.)

Three confident assumptions undergird my thinking —

First, Trumpism should go, consigned to a political outer darkness, and the ruin of that way will be a thorough good. The next generation will ask: What did you do to oppose Trump? Those who supported him will then be silent; those who were silent will then be ashamed. Those who openly defended centuries of liberty and constitutionalism on this continent, however small their own efforts, will enjoy settled consciences and the thanks of a free people.

Second, there will still be time, during this national conflict, to combat local embodiments of the national challenges that face us. There are, for example, lumpen nativists, local show-us-your-papers men,  who deserve more criticism than they’ve yet received. That’s a fight worthy fighting, and one happily joined.

Third, most of those responsible for our local challenges have no future in any event — they were irreversibly in decline in Whitewater even before Trump came to power. If the pharaohs, with all their wealth poured into the pyramids, could not thereby prevent the decline of their way of life, then one can be sure that today’s local grandiosity and boosterism will not do the trick.

Fight and prevail through collective, nationwide efforts in the greater challenge, and the local challenge will be even more easily won.

Hotel Preliminaries

local scene

Whitewater’s full-service grocery closed in 2015, and then the UW-Whitewater Foundation bought the property. (Premier Bank, successor to Commercial Bank, has a 5% interest in the property.) A developer from Minnesota, having been unsuccessful in a project near the center of town, now proposes purchasing the former grocery building & lot, and constructing a Fairfield Marriott on the property, while renovating the existing (now empty) grocery building (meeting space, office space, etc.).

Because the developer wants two buildings on the lot, he (through the existing owners) sought conditional use approval for his plan. Conditional use approval leaves many details left unaddressed, but it was a necessary first step.

A few remarks.

1. City of Whitewater obligations. If it should be true that Whitewater will incur no expenses for studies, water main relocations, or other costs – that these will be borne by the parties – then the project is of limited concern. There is no reason that the residents of this city should subsidize a hotel, but if they’ve not the burden of subsidizing one, then let the private parties do what they want.

If the UW-Foundation and Premier bank want to sell, with the expectation of a donation of a portion back later, let them. They are not unsophisticated parties – they should be free to buy and sell as they wish. If the deal goes bad, the risk would be (and should be) theirs alone.

2. Building on the lot. The parties want two buildings on the lot, but if they should want three or thirty, I’d not stop them. Practicality is a greater constraint than law. Many uses are permitted, but only some succeed.

3. Building height. There’s a funny moment when the city planner recognizes that the planned height of the hotel is 45′ not 145′. It’s true that a project of this size would not be 145′ high, but that’s not what’s funny. What’s funny is the idea that a 145′ building would be too tall for Whitewater.

Why? There are much worse things than a tall, privately-constructed building.

4. Economic benefits. This session was about whether the applicants would be granted conditional use approval. Along the way, the developer included a supposed list of economic gains. Much of it is simply unsupported, and looks suspiciously like grandiose claims meant to impress gullible or over-eager residents.

If these parties are spending their own money, and not burdening this city, then the economic benefits are their private matter. There is something risible, however, about reading the same boilerplate used elsewhere that’s meant to impress, but impresses only the ignorant or weak-minded.

It would have been faster for the parties to call residents of the city gullible than to waste time typing unsupported economic claims. (Much faster: gullible is only one word, while the developer’s memo, beginning at memo paragraph three in the packet below, uses 325 words for its economic claims.)

5. Gratitude. There’s an unfortunate moment midway in this discussion, when the council member on the Planning Commission tells the developer that “well, we’ve been hoping for a new hotel for a long time, so we’re grateful for, I would say, I’m grateful for the effort that you’re putting into this proposal…”

When one has told the developer that one is grateful for the effort, the developer understandably gets the signal that oversight will be minimal. Now, I’m not so concerned about oversight as long as this city’s residents aren’t paying for the project. Still, from a regulatory perspective – as required by law – expressions of gratitude are hardly a signal of scrutiny in the public interest.

6. Devil’s in the details. There’s another meeting of Planning Commission in October….

The 9.11.17 Plannning Commission packet, with agenda and relevant part (Item 9), appears below —

Download (PDF, 3.37MB)


Freedom of Speech, Norman Rockwell, 1943, oil on canvas, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

local scene

Norman Rockwell wasn’t the finest painter of the twentieth century (to express the matter gently), but at least when he created a painting capturing the spirit of free speech as one of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, he understood speech as a right, not a privilege, lucky break, or favor from government.

So it is with government, generally – government is nothing more than an instrument to effect the wishes of citizens possessed of individual rights. The idea of an organic state, existing apart from a limited delegation of popular sovereignty, is an autocratic concept unsuited to a free people.

How odd, then, to read that, in a small town, one should feel ‘fortunate’ that public officials will describe their plans to the people from whom their powers are, in fact, derived for limited times and limited purposes under law.

There is nothing a public official gives to the public that he does not already owe. There is nothing public, having been owed, that is wonderful. On the contrary, these are obligations one should expect to be fulfilled. Nature holds wonders; men and women, fundamentally, have rights as individuals and obligations as officials. Government is not a wonder.

In any event, a culture that fawns over ordinary presentations does public officials no favors. Cosseted men and women seldom develop fully, leaving themselves and their communities unprepared for serious challenges.

One City, Two Presentations of the Same Regulation (Follow Up)

local sceneLast week I wrote about the differences between a City of Whitewater announcement and the Whitewater Banner‘s reworking of that same message. See One City, Two Presentations of the Same Regulation. A local reporter shared some thoughts with me about the relationship between the municipal government and the Banner.

My main contention was that the Banner‘s reworking was amateurish, and somewhat more hectoring, than the municipal version. The local reporter pointed out that, most likely, city officials saw  an advantage in the Banner‘s version: it delivered the sterner message that they probably wanted to deliver (but that they knew would be unprofessional & off-putting). The use of the city’s logo above the message seemed the clincher, as the reporter followed up to say that other municipalities would have fought against the use of the logo in a re-worked message (and have sometimes done so). Either Whitewater hasn’t done so, or has done so only ineffectually.

(As you can see in the versions that embedded below – click for larger images – the Banner‘s version changes the words and style of the city’s original but still places the altered version under the imprimatur of a municipal logo.)

Under my assessment, the Banner‘s version was of lesser quality than the original. There’s another way, however, to look at this, beyond the idea of a less competent version of an original: perhaps the city wanted a second version, to drive home a restriction more bluntly (if also more awkwardly, with disparate fonts and different usage).

The Existential (Imagined and Real)

It was Michael Anton (writing as Publius Decius Mus) who exactly one year ago famously declared that 2016 was “The Flight 93 Election,” an existential fight for survival for state-loving conservatives:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic. The stakes can’t be that high because they are never that high—except perhaps in the pages of Gibbon. Conservative intellectuals will insist that there has been no “end of history” and that all human outcomes are still possible. They will even—as Charles Kesler does—admit that America is in “crisis.” But how great is the crisis? Can things really be so bad if eight years of Obama can be followed by eight more of Hillary, and yet Constitutionalist conservatives can still reasonably hope for a restoration of our cherished ideals? Cruz in 2024!….

The Flight 93 Election, Claremont Institute,

Anton now serves in the Trump Administration (“Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications”), so he may content himself with avoiding a figurative plane crash at the price of electing a man who received three million fewer votes than the leading candidate.

Anton saw an existential threat, with conservatism on the brink, yet he should have stopped at the observation that others might see his claims as histrionic: they were and are exactly that. Had Clinton won, conservatism would have gone on well enough, perhaps even a bit better, in a politics of sometime gridlock and sometime compromise between a Democratic executive and a Republican legislature. America would have seen a world of conventional politics, not of existential threat to either conservatives or liberals. For better or worse, Clinton (and Ryan and McConnell) would have held office in times mostly of business as usual, not of extreme dangers.

Contra Anton, whose false claims of existential threats look truly histrionic a year later, it’s Trump’s election that now brings America to an existential crisis: Trump daily manifests authoritarianism, bigotry, xenophobia, ignorance, subservience to a Russian dictator, and serial conflicts of interest and self-dealing.

Those who opposed Trump, had we seen Trump defeated, would have been no dire threat to anyone who supported him. Now in power, Trump and his remaining cultish operatives are, however, manifestly a threat to American liberty, to centuries of constitutional and political development on this continent.

Anton had it exactly backwards: it’s Trump’s rise to power that represents an existential threat to our ordered and civilized way of life. We are now in an existential struggle, one that Trump has forced upon us.

This struggle is fought daily in the vast space between two great oceans, gripping over three hundred million within that territory, and billions beyond for whom the outcome matters immensely.

While the field of conflict is continental, it is not – indeed cannot be – national everywhere and yet local nowhere. Much of the decaying matter from which Trumpism springs (a love of authority, entitlement, grandiosity, mediocrity, conflicts of interest) exist in even the most beautiful small towns. It’s a candid admission that many of us – and here I count myself – have not done enough to challenge these local vices that have engendered a national sin.

No doubt we had excuses for our indolence even as we saw the local fuel that now feeds this national fire, reassuring ourselves that those of that ilk were doddering & bumbling, irritating & ignorant, yet mostly harmless.

We were unwise – foolishly rationalizing our neglect as generosity. We’ve now local and national hazards before us, with neither setting able to compensate for the challenge of the other. One would think, as was rightly said during another national conflict, that ‘one war at a time is enough.’ We’ve not that compensation; we’ve both problems now, both of our own neglect.

Multitudes will see loss and suffering before all this is over. Innocent people ruined at the hands of a bigoted, fanatical nationalism.

There is, however, this advantage: those of us in opposition and resistance are holding our own even now, and we have not yet given our best. Principle and perseverance will favor us.

However late to having come to see it, this threat is unmistakable now.

Trump’s the Failure We Always Knew He Would Be

local scene Writing in the Journal Sentinel, Craig Gilbert finds that Donald Trump has squandered chance to broaden base, increase popularity, polls show:

“He’s done nothing to expand his base and, if anything, he’s sort of where he was, or experiencing greater erosion,” says Lee Miringoff, who conducted polls this month for NBC/Marist in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that showed Trump with a job approval rating in the mid-30s….

But here are some findings from the NBC/Marist survey of 910 Wisconsin adults, taken Aug. 13-17:

Trump has a negative approval rating from blue-collar whites, a group that is widely perceived as his demographic base, represents about half the vote in Wisconsin and favored Trump by nearly 30 percentage points last fall over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Among whites without a college degree, 38% approve of Trump and 47% disapprove. Democrat Barack Obama is today significantly more popular with these blue-collar voters in Wisconsin than Trump is. Obama is viewed favorably by 52%, Trump by 36%.

Trump’s standing with college grads, women and younger voters — three groups he struggled with in the campaign — is catastrophic. Only 24% of college grads in Wisconsin approve of his performance. Only 29% of voters under 45 do. Only 25% of women do, while 63% disapprove. It’s pretty extraordinary to see presidential numbers that lopsided from groups that represent broad demographic categories. Women make up over half the electorate. If you’re at negative 38 percentage points with an entire gender (25% approval minus 63% disapproval), it’s hard to overcome.

A significant minority of conservatives and Republicans express doubts, fears or disapproval of Trump. This is a polarized age. Modern presidents can expect almost unanimous opposition from voters in the other party, so they depend on nearly unanimous support from voters in their own party. But in the NBC/Marist Wisconsin poll, 19% of Republicans disapprove of Trump, 24% view him negatively, 25% think America’s role on the world stage has been weakened by his decisions, 31% feel embarrassed by his conduct as president, and 37% think he’s done more to divide the party than unite it.

There’s a telling aspect to political life in a rural small town, even if the town (like Whitewater) went for Hillary Clinton. While there’s no significant political cost to criticizing liberals (calling them weak, snowflakes, social justice warriors) or defaming former Pres. Obama (doubting his own religious identification, absurdly insisting he’s not American), there is a huge fear of upsetting diehard Trump supporters.

All these lifelong, proud middle class GOP town notables – so sure and smug – become shaking kittens when a Trumpist walks into the room. Even before Trump, this trend was pronounced.

(Funny story from two years ago. At a public meeting, a slovenly, brash woman asked some candidates if, after “all the money had been spent on special needs students and minorities,” what they would do for “normal people.” Obvious point, in Whitewater or other small towns: only a tiny fraction of any public money allocated goes to either minority or special needs residents. If one listens to talk radio or Fox News all day, however, one might falsely believe that most public expenditures go toward buying McMansions for Obama supporters or Special Olympians.)

For it all, it’s clear that Trump’s base is smaller than he ceaselessly claims, and that even among white working class voters who are supposedly his core constituency, he’s unpopular.

Those who’ve decided that local politics is only possible if they refrain from alienating Trump’s deplorable base are both weak in the face of that band and unnecessarily worried over its size. As it is, Trump doesn’t have a majority, and doesn’t even have a majority from a working class demographic, behind him. This makes sense: a majority overall and majorities within different groups now see well that Trump is an autocratic, bigoted confidence man.

Even if Trump had all the world behind him, opposition would be worth and necessary. It’s useful to remind oneself, however, that Trump never had and never will have all the world behind him. He doesn’t even have the formidable base he claims he has.

One City, Two Presentations of the Same Regulation

local scene Small towns are meant to be (or at least are depicted in Hollywood as) simple, unassuming places. That’s not always true, to be sure — the same information can be presented in more than one way. There’s a place for look and feel, for style and manner, for how a town presents itself to its own residents and the world beyond.

No better illustration of the difference between Old and New Whitewater (states of mind, not ages or individuals) is found than in how the City of Whitewater and the Banner, a politician-publisher’s website, present information on a regulation against temporary signs. (Quick note: here I’m addressing style of presentation, not the underlying merit or stated motivations for the regulation.)

Each image expands into a larger window when clicked

Here’s how the municipal government presented a sign regulation on its website:

Here’s how the longtime politician’s website presented the city’s sign regulation:

These aren’t, to be sure, the same message, and illustrate the way that presentation changes meaning. Style affects communication: go, Go, GO, GO, and GO convey different meanings.

Indeed, there’s a way in which the older style leaves in doubt the success of the city’s efforts to project a more modern, business-standard presentation.


local scene I’ve long held that Whitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way). This contention is true for several reasons, all leading to this result: “Whitewater’s major public institutions – her city government, school district, and local university – produce this unexpected result: although members of the government are certainly also sharp and capable individually, they often produce collectively a product that’s beneath their individual abilities or that of other competitive Americans.”

Why is this so? I’d suggest that in the breadth of these institutions, across all members, mentoring is weak. In a well-ordered and competitive profession or institution, a mentorship between an experienced leader and a younger work is a long process, lasting somewhere between five and ten years. There’s always particular to learn procedurally, but it’s just as true that the application of substantive, field-specific knowledge (medicine, law, finance, engineering) to particular circumstances is a gradually-acquired skill.

Some might suggest that a gifted young professional should advance more quickly than this, that someone in this position shouldn’t need a mentor for so long. I’d answer with two points: (1) some mentorships can productively last for decades, as a valuable if in later years less-used resource, and (2) it’s the most gifted young professionals who will gain the most from a long mentorship under a talented older colleague.

Ordinary grapes don’t take long to become juice; fine grapes slowly develop into excellent wines.

Mentorships in these local institutions probably go poorly because (1) the mentors are themselves weak or bad examples, and (2) younger workers are impatient to assert abilities that are, in fact, not nearly so developed as they would be in a truly nurturing environment.

Whitewater’s public institutions have particular public departments or administrative branches in which there hasn’t been a competent, capable leader for decades (literally, a generation or more). Each and every one of the employees who has come up in conditions like that has been cheated from a proper coaching and proper maturation within his or her field.

It’s worth stating what I believe to be a cold truth (almost always applicable): if an early professional’s development (the first five to ten years) is poorly guided, his or her whole career thereafter risks being markedly less than it might have been under sound guidance. Often the younger worker won’t even be able to discern the difference between his or her mediocre development and a competitive professional’s training.

Even someone with many developmental gaps can be brought to a sound professionalism if one begins early enough, and has the chance to guide positively, nurturingly. A younger professional who doesn’t have that experience is harder to guide positively, and (if there’s any chance of success) the task often requires more correction and discipline than anyone might wish.

A community that does not provide good mentors will not develop good professionals. It will find itself stuck with those who don’t know what they don’t know.  Good mentors need to be those with both practical and substantive knowledge in the younger employee’s field. General guidance and how-tos are not enough: a doctor could show a young lawyer around town, but that ordinary information isn’t why anyone consults with a doctor or a lawyer. A solid mentor, by the way, should himself or herself be reading field-specific material (e.g., as a physician with new procedures, new medicines, new approaches, etc.) or considering practical techniques (e.g., as a designer with new construction techniques, equipment, materials, etc.) each day. If one’s not thinking each day about one’s field, one needs rethink one’s line of work.

Someone who has gone nine or ten years without good guidance (e.g., no mentor, a weak mentor), is troublesome both on his or her own and to others. It’s an imposition on private time and resources to expect that private citizens to tolerate those who have wasted their own years and done little or nothing to help younger colleagues, colleagues who by then are simply a burden or risk to others.

A small town like Whitewater only makes matters worse when leaders insist all is well, all the time. Positive coaching should be a private matter. When accentuating the positive becomes the public ethos, younger workers will place public relations over the substance of their fields. Looking good as a goal impresses only the vain or weak-minded.

The public ethos should rest on the claim that whatever one does can be improved and advanced, internally through proper mentoring and externally through the adoption of best practices wherever they may be found.


Three Tiers of Public Communication

Local government – and here I am thinking primarily of a small town’s local government – has three tiers of communication: saying nothing, saying something, saying the right thing. (In the third tier, right refers to a full and fair means of communication, and not right as merely agreeable and pleasing.)

Saying nothing. Common enough and easy enough to understand: nothing’s said, and especially nothing – however truthful and significant – that might reflect negatively on officeholders.

Saying something. This is the tier at which government officials are most frequently perched: they say something they believe to be positive, omitting other portions of a story no matter how relevant or material. The climb from nothing to something is the ascent from silence to sophistry. In every case at this tier, the goal is a particular presentation, with a particular goal.

Government may play this role on its own, or it may be luck enough to find a Babbitt to speak of local authorities the way a prophet would speak of God. There are always a few people like this, but it’s truly good fortune when someone will play this subservient political role with relish.

The key problem here is that to say something isn’t to say something sensible or well-considered. Indeed, at this tier, there are very few statements that are carefully vetted. There’s no tenth-man critique when one merely says something – there’s no effort to examine whether the statement might endure a sound critique: the self-serving statements in this tier are offered without foresight, almost cluelessly.

Three quick observations here:

(1) A collection of officials’ statements on significant issues would typically be a plaintiff’s counsel’s dream: a trove of revealing, somewhat clueless admissions of ignorance, bias, over-zealousness, etc. There’s either no one in these small communities who reviews statements before they’re published, reviews them with any competency, or whose review is adopted as policy even if it’s competent.

One can see this because so many statements are, in fact, a trove of revealing, somewhat clueless admissions of ignorance, bias, over-zealousness, etc….

Sometimes local officials will concede (if privately) that there are problems elsewhere in the government, but that they are the fault of another agency, leader, etc. Liability seldom works that way, at least as a claim: everyone in the chain, touching a matter at any level, usually finds himself or herself implicated. Litigation rarely begins narrowly – it mostly begins broadly.

(2) Public relations is more than a story in the paper – it’s a story that’s presented both persuasively to a target audience and safely against possible adverse claims. It’s been my pleasure to know one of the state’s leading public relations executives: her work isn’t merely about making people look good at the moment, but equally about keeping them from looking bad later on.  She’s successful because she has a powerful, worthy foresight. (I’ve never seen her assess a situation without quickly considering, and measuring, the likelihood of adverse reactions, effectively ranking them in order of probability, and so focusing only on the remaining, meaningful ones, if any.)

(3) Here’s a simple technique that works on the untalented: Although anyone can sense danger when presented with a long and complicated question, the untalented will not sense the risk in a simple question. ON the contrary, they’ll likely think it’s a sign that the questioner is untalented, and so they’ll answer at length and without careful consideration, on, and on, and on.

It’s in that lengthy answer that they’ll reveal much, and leave myriad hostages to fortune.

Say the right thing. Here one says not merely what’s favorable, but what’s true, good or bad, favorable or unfavorable, confident in one’s ability to present and manage either.

It’s also the only tier in which one sits honorably.

Update: Sunday: Mentoring.

How a Campus Masks Local Mistakes

Many small towns, looking for something to attract visitors and newcomers, probably dream about the possibility of a college campus. Whitewater has a public university campus, and the majority of the city’s residents are students at that school. Thousands of students in the city assure a steady stream of retail traffic we would not otherwise have. Some, if not most, merchants in town would wither or shut down without the demand the campus generates.

A thriving campus is an advantage for a city.

There is a way, however, that a campus – with the demand that it alone can generate – masks failings elsewhere in town. Because a campus necessarily draws visitors large numbers, failings of local municipal and other public officials are more easily ignored or overcome. Non-university officials don’t need to work as hard or as skillfully in an environment where a university’s demand compensates (as it by volume necessarily will) for their own mistakes and sloppiness.

Consider a recent story about policing in nearby Clinton, Wisconsin, where some residents are upset that local law enforcement’s supposedly heavy-handed conduct is driving away potential visitors who would otherwise shop in that town. (A story on this matter, behind a paywall, is poorly written and almost deliberately vague, offering little beyond a general claim.)

Whatever’s happening – or not – with local officials in Clinton, Wisconsin, this much is true: like most tiny towns, they’re on their own, with no campus to compensate for local political and administrative failings.

A municipal mistake in a place Clinton echos like a single pea in a tin can – there’s nothing else to muffle the rattling.

Whitewater, Wisconsin’s public campus gives local officials (here I mean some, not all) more leeway for error, shoddy thinking, and low-quality work, secure as they are in the knowledge that demand will remain higher than if their work alone were the city’s principal attraction.

This is one reason that, despite the talent of some, Whitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way).  It’s also true that the university, itself, has generated demand even when its some of its leaders – Richard Telfer easily comes to mind – have been mediocre or worse (“There is one exception worth noting: the high-level leadership that former Chancellor Telfer gathered at UW-Whitewater is notably weak or troubled…”).

Whitewater has an advantage that towns like Clinton don’t have, but rather than use that advantage to its fullest – by producing to a higher level – some officials can batten on the demand that a public campus offers without having to provide the unassisted effort that most rural communities must.

Whitewater, Cultures & Communications, June 2017 (Part 8: Nearby)

This is the eighth post in a series considering related local topics of cultures & communications within the city.

Just beyond the Whitewater proper lie several towns that form the rest of the Whitewater Unified School District. They play a key role in life within Whitewater, far beyond school policies.

A few observations:

The New Divide. Where once the main local issue was a town-gown divide within Whitewater (a divide that also represented political divisions between red and blue), the main divide now implicates small towns nearby. Whitewater proper (the city) will never be red again. The small towns nearby are likely to stay red, at least for years to come. See, Whitewater, Cultures & Communications, June 2017 (Part 6: Divided).

Affinity. In many ways, remaining red voters in the city have more in common with those in the nearby towns than they do with their fellow city residents. Whitewater’s red-leaning residents (especially the aged ones) are now probably closer politically with voters in the Lima Center or Richmond Township than they are with Whitewater’s average voter. I would venture that local politicians like Stewart or Binnie would run better outside the city than in it. It’s not that they couldn’t do well in the city – it’s that they’re now ideologically closer to those outside of it. They’ve not appreciably changed, but the whole city has evolved in ways that make their politics closer to those in nearby red towns.

Chief Otterbacher’s outlook certainly fits more closely with the towns near the city than within Whitewater.

Jan Bilgen’s longtime role on Whitewater’s PFC & as a university staffer who describes the students whose careers she’s supposed to be developing as though they were almost feral children, and Jim Winship’s political influence as a college professor who fought to restrict student housing from his own neighborhood, would probably play even better outside Whitewater than in it.

(Perhaps Winship would describe himself as a progressive, but his views on student housing have been a reactionary departure from, for example, genuine progressive Thurgood Marshall’s recognition of the importance of freedom of association against housing restrictions. I’ve written previously, from a libertarian viewpoint, in support of Marshall’s view, expressed in his dissent in Village of Belle Terre v. Borass, 416 U.S. 1 (1974). SeeWhitewater’s Planning Commission Meeting from 5/10/10: Residential Overlay.)

The more conservative views outside the city have allowed, or encouraged, officials to advance red-leaning policies that would have been rejected within Whitewater proper. (District officials Runez, Parker, and Jaeger would all fall within this category – this, however, is a longer subject for another series. For now, a theory: professions of neutrality have actually advanced right-leaning policies with disregard to a majority of city residents’ views. Those internally who would normally be opposed to these policies often yield to the first belligerent reactionary they encounter. Others are co-opted with awards,, etc., and become advocates or appeasers of views they would reject if not for their easily-manipulated vanity.)

Unrequited. If those outside the city represent a more right-wing view that would fail within the city, what do they give in return for appeasement of their politics?

Not their money, to be sure: the longstanding move of retail shopping away from Whitewater shows that if those in towns nearby want to see an imposition of red views, they still take their money to places beyond Whitewater. Grocery shoppers in area towns, who once shopped in Whitewater, have shifted to other places for their needs; one of the main challenges of a co-op is simply gathering retail demand that has found satisfaction in other cities.

Previously: Parts 1 (introductory assumptions), 2 (population), 3 (oasis), 4 (demographics), 5 (working age), 6 (divided), and 7 (how it was supposed to be).

Tomorrow: Part 9.

Whitewater, Cultures & Communications, June 2017 (Part 3: Oasis)

This is the third post in a series considering related local topics of cultures & communications within the city.

So a blogger points out that the city’s population is mostly stagnant (with short-term decline), that the mean household income in the city is in decline, and that the city is beset with above-average child poverty (see, Whitewater’s Decade of Child Poverty).

That same blogger – the one writing this post, actually – then says that in these economic and municipal fiscal conditions, one should turn from local political solutions to private and cultural ones. See, An Oasis Strategy.

So, is it that simple? One merely moves from the failed political to the private cultural? As though it were, after all, just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right?

No, of course not: in that post, I wrote that “[t]his city’s not of one culture or one identity; we’re not a homogeneous place. We’re a diverse and multicultural community. Revanchism on behalf of some won’t make the city great for any. On the contrary, that path will prolong present difficulties, and delay significantly (although not prevent) this city’s more prosperous future.”

That is, after all, why this post is called ‘Cultures & Communications.’

So, how do others in the city see this, and whether they do, what can one say about a city of multiple cultures? The next few posts will address this topic.

Previously: Parts 1 (introductory assumptions) and 2 (population).

Tomorrow: Part 4.

Whitewater, Cultures & Communications, June 2017 (Part 2: Population)

This is the second post in a series considering related local topics of cultures & communications within the city.

U.S. Census data show that Whitewater proper (the city) has stopped growing, and is, in fact, experiencing a population decline.

From 2015-2016, the city lost about 1.1% of her population (168 people). Even over a longer period, from 2010-2016, she barely grew .8% (or 116 people).

Of those residing in Whitewater, in fact, there has been a decline of mean household income: from 47,073 in 2010 to 42,490 in 2015.

That’s longer-term stagnation with short-term decline. There are (of course) economic and municipal fiscal implications of this condition, but there are cultural ones, too.

Previously: Part 1 (introductory assumptions).

Tomorrow: Part 3.

Whitewater, Cultures & Communications, June 2017 (Part 1: Introduction)

This is the first post in a series considering related local topics of cultures & communications within the city.

I’ll start with an introductory series of assumptions, some I’ll flesh out in greater detail in the series, but all of which state plainly my views.

1.  In America’s current political climate, it’s national politics that necessarily predominates. See, The National-Local Mix (“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.”)

2.  The near-term outlook for Whitewater’s economy is a mediocre one. See, Local Assumptions and Outlook, Winter 2016 (“I’d say the outlook is for turbulence in the national political-economy, and stagnation in the local one. See, The National-Local Mix and The Local Economic Context of It All.  The way out of several years’ local stagnation is a more decisive break with past, but there’s no evidence whatever that Whitewater’s local government will take this step; nothing else will be adequate.”)

3.  Stagnation is, in a wider economy that’s growing, relative decline.

4.  Stagnation has fiscal, economic, and cultural consequences.

5.  The long-term outlook for Whitewater is favorable, significantly because many existing practices and local notables’ advocacy of them have no long-term future.  See, New Whitewater’s Inevitability.

6. Grand public solutions in this environment will prove ineffectual; they’re what created these mediocre conditions. SeeThe Next Big Thing.

7. A strategy of advancing private over public accomplishments is the best way to weather hard time in a community drenched in public initiatives. SeeAn Oasis Strategy.

8. Whitewater is a multicultural city, no matter how hard some fight to hide or deny that simple truth. SeeThe Meaning of Whitewater’s Not-Always-Mentioned DemographicsA Small But Diverse City, Seldom Described That Way, and Parts and Wholes.

9. A strategy of making private cultural accomplishments, rather than public projects, a priority won’t work if one doesn’t distinguish between the vibrant and the moribund. 

10. Choices among local cultural options will shorten — or lengthen — the duration of local stagnation.

11. Local insider accounts help others understand policymakers’ thinking, but have little or no independent policy value. SeeThe Last Inside Accounts.

12. Particular local leaders are talented; their collective product is often sub-par, as a few hold the talented ones back. SeeWhitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way).

Tomorrow: Part 2.