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.

Grocery Preliminaries (Part 2)

I wrote yesterday about a grocery in town, in a post entitled, Grocery Preliminaries.  The post’s subject line used the word ‘preliminaries’ because it seems likely that Whitewater will get a new grocery, whatever one thinks of a public subsidy to entice one.  

In this way, that post presumed a deal, and so was meant to be preliminary to one.

(Needless to say, whatever the challenges of subsidizing a grocery, it’s noting like importing trash into the city as a get-revenue-quick scheme.  Waste importation is a truly bad idea, destructive to the environment, health, and development of the city.)

One of the conditions for a new grocery at the old Sentry location is that the university’s interest in the property  (as a term of art and a general desire for expansion) be satisfied.  

It’s worth noting that unpublished discussion of UW-Whitewater’s interest in the property has percolated through parts of the community for months; it’s not new information for everyone.  

This only reinforces, however, the point from an earlier post, Informed Residents, about the need for open government.

This morning, many residents are sure to be surprised  (‘the university has a connection to this property?’) and a few will be frustrated  (‘why didn’t we know?’ & ‘is the university standing in the way of a deal?’).

These are merely elements of a transaction, and they could have been disclosed sooner.  This community needs neither confusion about a project nor frustration with the university over it. 

I know that open government seems soft and starry to some, but it’s neither. Open government is both a principled (as a right) and a prudent (as a practical) approach.  It’s not in opposition to realism, but rather a higher expression of realism, embodying as it does the recognition that information typically wills out, at a higher price for the delay.

I’m sure we will get a grocery, and almost certainly with a public subsidy. That’s not what I’d advocate, but the proposal has obvious support. 

We could (and can) have one, however, more smoothly than this. 

Informed Residents 

One week ago, at a Common Council meeting, one heard that Whitewater’s municipal government would use a software application to increase opportunities for residents’ input on local issues. See, Common Council meeting of 6.21.16,, beginning at 1:28:17.

Assuming that the means are reliable and accessible, more opportunities for collecting opinion are better than fewer. I’ve always supported a community of more voices over fewer.

Any number, however, needs to be informed. Surveys should mean more than merely asking people questions.

They should require, indeed reasonably must require, providing sufficient information for residents to consider a proposal knowledgeably.

One week later, this evening, the same government that seeks to reach greater numbers is itself silent about the principal terms to purchase a former supermarket building. Residents know neither the purchase amount, possible buyers after municipal purchase, or other significant terms. (See, below, the agenda for tonight’s meeting.)

This is no ordinary transaction; municipal governments don’t commonly purchase grocery buildings. Whatever one thinks of the merits of a possible deal, the residents of this community lack basic information to consider the matter.

There one finds a problem for this municipal government greater than a single purchase: in the space of a week, professions of support for residents’ input fade before closed-session deliberations. Last week it was the means of open government; this week it’s the ends of dealmaking. That’s not an enduring expression of open government and residents’ informed opinion; it’s an opportunistic picking and choosing, placing ends over means.

An ardor for open government that fades after a week is no worthy ardor. It’s as though one professed undying love for one’s spouse, unless and until someone better should come along.

There is no better.

Approve or reject, purchase or walk, yes or no: they all require a more open posture than what’s on offer.

Download (PDF, 157KB)

The Newspaper-Caused Public Records Problem

Not far from Whitewater, Janesville’s local newspaper finds itself in an access-to-information conflict with the Janesville School District.  There’s no surprise in any of this.  (Quick note: I’m using that paper as an example because it’s close-at-hand.  One could find other examples easily enough.)

For years that paper has ridiculed citizens’ petition efforts, toadied to business insiders, pushed government spending for those same business factions, included itself in a supposedly elite group (oh, brother!) of Janesville movers-and-shakers, all-the while producing some of the weakest editorials of any paper in Wisconsin.

It’s no wonder that Janesville’s school superintendent shows no respect to that paper: public records requests are either ignored or answered with what seems to be a laughable inadequacy. Having spat on so many who exercised free speech in that city, Janesville’s waning paper now finds itself without the clout to assure full compliance with public records requests, requests that are, after all, a matter of law.  Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31-19.39.

It seems unlikely that the paper will spend the time and money to litigate public records requests to assure full compliance.  This unwillingness to commit the time and effort is no doubt evident to Janesville’s school district – they can probably spot a paper tiger (yes, it’s an awkward play on words) when they see one.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s more than a Janesville problem – it’s a problem for others nearby.  Officials’ ability to brook lawful requests there will likely influence policymakers nearby, and encourage them to provide inadequate answers, too.

That leaves the rest of us – residents, bloggers, etc. – starting at a disadvantage: the Janesville paper’s toothless response will lull policymakers in other communities to assume falsely that they’ll be able to disregard requests as Janesville’s policymakers have done.  One will have to begin every step with the commitment and expectation to enforce those rights at law.

In this environment, it won’t matter what one says, hopes, or expects – it will only matter how one proceeds.  Proceeding may be inconvenient,  but the alternative is far worse: enduring passively the infringement of one’s right to open government.

What a mess it is that print is leaving left behind, that others will have to clean up.

City of Whitewater’s Proposed 2016 Budget

Embedded below readers will find the City of Whitewater’s proposed 2016 budget.

An open and confident government would embed the budget on the city’s main webpage; an inquisitive and worthy press would embed (or at least link) to the budget file.

For the city there’s still a long way to go; for the print press there’s little time left to do, at least once, the right thing.

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The Public Records Law Still Stands

After a push to alter Wisconsin’s Public Records Law (Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31-19.39), we’re now secure with the original law intact.  

Below one will find a recording of Wisconsin A.G. Brad Schimel’s Open Government Summit, held earlier this week at the Concourse in Madison.  

J.B. Hollen, Schimel’s immediate predecessor, started strongly in favor of the Public Records Law but was less supportive in his second term.  A.G. Schimel’s approach is better for the public, although it’s disadvantageous for public officials seeking to conceal information from the very residents to whom they are legally obligated.

(It’s also helpful that support for the law is widespread, and not confined to the party in opposition.  Two of the key opponents of gutting the law have been the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank, and Rick Esenberg’s Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative-leaning public interest firm.)

But one has this problem, that has grown worse over these last few years: too many officials, in cities, towns, and universities, have decided that they can reply to a public records request however they’d like.  Replies like this are dares: will you go to court over this?  Alternatively, will you accept what we’ve supplied, however inadequate in reply it so obviously is? 

Some denials may be over fair questions of interpretation; that’s not what I’m describing.  Many denials are a test of one’s citizenship, of one’s rights in a free, well-ordered society: can someone successfully compel others to accept less than their rights require, consigning them to an inferior position in disregard of the law?

There’s no way to know how a requester will respond to an insufficient reply until the need arises, of course.  It’s helpful, though, to state plainly a path one will follow.  Having stated as much, officials will not be able to say they’ve been blindsided.

This summit was long, I know, and time is precious.  Still, there’s much in here, useful for thinking about government, on one’s own, rather than relying on officials’ superficial, self-serving declarations.  

Whitewater’s Common Council Votes to Fund a Vendor Study

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 9 in a series.

Whitewater’s Common Council Votes to Fund a Vendor Study from John Adams on Vimeo.

In this post, I’ll look at the Council’s decision to pay Trane at least $70,000, and up to approximately $150,000, so that Trane could fund its own feasibility study of a digester energy project for Whitewater.

(Every question in this series has a unique number, assigned chronologically based on when it was asked.  All the questions from When Green Turns Brown can be found in the Question Bin.  Today’s questions begin with No. 91.)

I’ve been asked two questions that I’ll answer before beginning. First, the questions in the series have a unique number so that I or others may refer to them, specifically. That’s useful to me for compiling formal requests to the city, derived from this series of posts, and organizing a later, composite work in a different form.

Second, the video clips to which I am referring in these posts are longer than the more concise, quoted segments that I will use in a short-form video account. Some of the claims these gentlemen have made are, to say the least, noteworthy. Later in the series, but before a finished work, I will begin to use shorter clips to illustrate & highlight specific claims that vendors, City Manager Clapper, Wastewater Superintendent Reel, or others have made.

91. Wastewater Superintendent Reel (Reel) contends that the purpose of the project is to realize energy savings. At the Council meeting prior, Black & Veatch’s representative contended that the principal economic gain of the project is tipping fees (that is, money waste haulers pay to truck and dump other cities’ unwanted waste into Whitewater). (See, Question Bin, No. 85.) Shouldn’t Reel concede that the principal plan is a dumping plan? Isn’t calling it an energy savings plan simply a way to latch onto a more favorable-sounding public-relations pitch?

92. Reel says that dealing with ‘biosolids’ has been added to the feasibility study (rather than just liquids) for ‘clarification.’ Why was that entire portion – omitted in a prior draft of the deal? Does Reel think that solids from a digester are a minor matter? What does this say about the thoroughness of the draft agreement developed weeks earlier?

93. Reel says that “this opportunity” came on us “pretty quickly.” Why does Reel think that the opportunity arrived quickly? If so, how did it arrive so quickly?

94. Doesn’t Reel’s own 12.3.13 presentation to Council, listing previous, failed iterations of this same idea, show that there’s nothing that’s been quick or need be urgent about this?

95. Reel confirms that he met with a larger waste hauler (that would dump waste into Whitewater’s digester from other cities that didn’t want it) on 1.29.14. Who was that waste hauler? Why doesn’t he mention that waste hauler’s name?

96. How can residents of the city properly evaluate the project if a city bureaucrat withholds the waste hauler’s name? Is part of Whitewater’s fiscal, economic, and environmental future to be shaped by a single wastewater superintendent’s lack of candor top the very public that pays his compensation?

97. Reel says that the unnamed waste hauler with whom he spoke hauls one-hundred million (100,000,000) gallons of waste per year. How much of that would Reel want directed to Whitewater?

98. Reel says that Whitewater is within the “geographic range” of that waste hauler. What’s that range? Why doesn’t Reel say? Where does that hauler get its waste? Why doesn’t Reel say?

99. Reel also says he received another letter of interest, from another waste hauler. Again, why won’t he speak that waste hauler’s name? Does Reel believe he owes a duty of confidentiality to the waste hauler? If he does, then does he believe that duty of confidentiality to a large commercial business trump a duty of candor to Whitewater’s residents?

100. Reel contends that he is not sure that, if Whitewater does not proceed now, it would have the same level of supposed expertise it has now (Trane, Black & Veatch, Donohue). Why does he think that, that is, if this project should be so valuable by his account, why could Whitewater not find capable vendors at a later time?

101. Reel says a possible discrepancy between parts of the draft agreement in question is “just a language thing.” What does that response say about Reel’s understanding of, and respect for, large-sum contractual agreements?

102. What is Reel’s background, if any, in negotiating large-sum contracts previously?

103. How is it that Trane’s representative (“Rachel”), who Reel claims was responsible for the document of agreement, admits that there was a typo only after someone on Council points it out to her? How is it that she doesn’t even know whether the agreement would allow Whitewater to see preliminary study data before deciding whether to proceed with a second phase of the study?

104. Watching Rachel’s responses, can anyone have confidence in her ability?

105. Why would anyone accept Reel’s assurance that the city will get information apart from the actual agreement language on which the city is voting?

106. Reel contends that there are projects like this in other cities. Why does he not show how his project is similar to the other places that he mentions?

107. Councilmember Dr. Ken Kidd contends that “clearly it is better to be early in the game than late in the game.” Why does he think so (that is, why does he think that it is – clearly – better to be an early adopter on a proposal with fiscal, economic, and environmental impact)?

Original Common Council Discussion, 2.4.14


The City of Whitewater Digester Clarification That Could Use a Clarification

There’s a paragraph from Whitewater’s City Manager Update for 3.20.15 that proposes a clarification about the digester project proposed as part of an overall, $20.7 million-dollar upgrade to the city’s wastewater treatment facilities.

First, the city’s clarification (my emphasis added):

Wastewater Treatment Facility Upgrade Clarification

When an issue as complex and technically detailed as the proposed upgrades to the wastewater treatment facility gets in the news, there are bound to be errors and points needing clarification. Such is the case with the wastewater project. One such point of confusion is related to waste digesters. Some in the community believe that part of the proposed project involves the installation of digesters at the wastewater treatment facility. The truth is that the wastewater treatment facility already has two anaerobic digesters on site. The existing digesters were installed when the plant was built in the early 1980s. These digesters have been fully functional and in use for 30 years. What is under consideration as part of the project is the installation of additional equipment within the digesters that would increase operational efficiency within the digesters. Staff thanks all those who have provided coverage of this project whether it be through websites, blogs, or newspapers. Staff further hopes that those covering the project will continue to do so. If anyone in the community has a question regarding the project, they are invited to contact a city staff member for further details.

I’ll offer three points now, in order of importance.

First, the clarification’s implication that what is under consideration is simply an increase in operational efficiency is false, and patently so. This proposal isn’t a matter of degree, but of kind. For city officials to suggest otherwise is either to misunderstand their own project, or to hope that residents misunderstand it.

Second, there’s something risible about the claim that the city’s update aims to set others straight about this ‘complex and technically detailed’ proposal. One can easily demonstrate – and I will — that Wastewater Superintendent Tim Reel has from his earliest discussions before Council, and since, both misrepresented Whitewater’s history with digesters and failed to consider even the simplest facts about his own project. One can show that virtually every presentation he’s given has been riddled with these problems of analysis, foresight, and (it seems) basic candor.

Here’s an opportunity: I’d invite Messrs. Clapper and Reel to consider the City of Whitewater’s recent presentation to the Whitewater School Board (for which, after all, they are responsible). If upon reviewing it they think their explanation of the project is sound, then I’d invite them to consider whether they see clearly what a sound project is. I mean this sincerely: there’s still time to rethink what good work requires.

Third, I have no idea what some residents misunderstand; it’s enough to see and demonstrate that city officials have both a weak grasp of fundamentals, an apparent penchant for withholding key information, and a willingness to flack the project rather than describe it candidly. (That the city update on the digester begins condescendingly, all these problems to be presented, is too funny.)

As for my own, upcoming writing about this proposal, I’ve a tentative start date (mid-April), but still many questions to resolve in my own mind. There’s vital information that the city has not made public (but should have). There’s more than enough to see and show that this is a shallow effort, but still a full assessment requires more information that city government has not provided. There should be an order to getting that information; I’ll follow that order.

Finally, this project is necessarily important for Whitewater, but aspects of it may have a greater appeal, to a wider audience. This proposal may be suitable for a case study on error and overreach. (Many thanks to those helping me see it this way.) That won’t change my work on the project, but may influence how I write about it.

In any event, the start of a long process of published assessment will begin soon.

Former Coach Fader Vindicated Five Times Over

It’s been over nine months since Chancellor Richard Telfer suspended former UW-Whitewater wrestling coach Tim Fader, and later effectively fired him (Fader’s contract was not renewed). 

In April 2014, a woman alleged that a wrestling recruit assaulted her, and Fader has consistently said that he contacted the Whitewater Police Department about the incident, and that he (Fader) had someone accompany the accused recruit to the WPD at our municipal building.   

In these many months since, Mr. Fader has been vindicated in his principal claims, (at least) five times over:

1.  Fader was exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing (this never should have been even a question, truly, based on the circumstances of the allegations).

2. Fader, did, as he claimed, see that an assistant coach escorted the alleged assailant so that the accused recruit would speak with officers of the Whitewater Police Department. 

3. A university committee assembled under Chancellor’s Telfer’s direction recommended changes to the wrestling recruiting program, but recommended no sanctions or disciplinary action against Coach Fader.

4.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, in reviews comprising three-hundred pages of documents, recommended or imposed no sanctions against Coach Fader or UW-Whitewater’s wrestling program.

5.  Athletic Diector Amy Edmonds, in published remarks from 2.18.15, admits that after the NCAA and WIAC reports, specific changes have not been made to recruiting visits.

So, here we are: Chancellor Telfer and A.D. Edmonds ended a career, but by Ms. Edmonds’s reported account, she made no specific changes to recruiting.

Chancellor Telfer & A.D. Edmonds rushed to suspend, and soon thereafter to terminate, and announce as much, but now? 

Now, Ms. Edmonds implicitly contends that although she effectively fired an award-winning coach, there was no substantial basis for that action. 

More concerning, here’s how Amy Edmonds, a publicly-employed athletic director at a leading UW System Division III school, describes her responsibility to open government and accountability:

“Certainly we weren’t as transparent, if you want to say that,” Edmonds said. “We didn’t have all these wonderful links and documents and such on our website. Now we’ve done that to allow anybody and everybody to take a peek at what our practices are.”

Transparency of public employees at a public school supported at public expense: you know, it’s just ‘wonderful links, ‘documents’ and ‘such’ on a website. 

Ms. Edmonds generously offers that others may now ‘take a peek’ at all this.

Honest to goodness, could Athletic Director Edmonds speak more glibly and cavalierly if she tried?

Does our university not deserve greater seriousness and commitment from an athletic director than ending a career the way Ms. Edmonds has done?

Does our university not deserve greater seriousness and commitment from an athletic director than these light and flippant remarks about open government?  

Does our university not deserve greater seriousness and commitment from an athletic director than these light and flippant remarks about providing prudently and legally-significant information about keeping students safe?

The very official at UW-Whitewater who acted promptly and practically to alert authorities to an alleged assault is a person who is no longer employed at UW-Whitewater.

That person would be Timothy Fader.

Support the Campus Accountability and Safety Act

Discussion is better than silence; knowledge trumps ignorance. Thousands of universities receive federal funds, including our own campus.

Under the law, those universities are required, since the Clery Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1092(f), 34 C.F.R. 668.46 to record and report instances of crime on and near their campuses. (UW-System schools publish that information in compliance with federal and state law.)

Unfortunately, it’s not enough – auditing of reports is underfunded. Even if reporting statistics are accurate, there’s no way to know with assurance how university administrators addressed incidents of violence. The Campus Accountability and Safety Act, S.2692 — 113th Congress (2013-2014), a bipartisan federal proposal, would require campus administrators to report more comprehensively, and to disclose how they’ve handled reported acts of violence.

(Individual identities would be protected; the goal is to learn of violent incidents and their handling.)

One would prefer – especially a libertarian would prefer – a country that needed fewer laws.

But some of those administrators who count their institutions as entitled to millions in aid will still contend that they’re equally entitled to conceal how they address campus violence. University administrators of better character would be more open; there are too few leaders of that kind.

Those schools that take federal money should both report publicly the crimes on their campuses and how they’ve addressed those reported crimes.

A better climate would push public-relations to the back of the room, or into the hallway, where it belongs:

“Right now schools have reason to repress reporting and be focused on public image rather than being focused on the problem, because there is no real penalty for not accurately reporting and there is no standardized survey,” said Nancy Cantalupo, a research fellow with the Victim Rights Law Center and a researcher at the Georgetown University Law Center, who acted as an informal consultant during some stages of the bill’s creation.

Ms. Dauber [professor of law, Stanford] says transparency is the single most important change that Congress could bring about. “Absent transparency, we don’t know what problem we are trying to solve and we have no idea how to solve it,” she said. “We are just fumbling around in the dark. When you want to change, you take an honest inventory of your situation.”

The legislation is not perfect; it could use stronger provisions for investigatory efforts. More money should be authorized for audits of university reporting and handling of campus-related crimes.

Even without the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, our campus and the entire UW System should begin reporting more openly the disposition, and not merely incidents, of violence. (Particular identities are not the goal, but information about the number of incidents and how they were handled should be.)

Administrators throughout the UW System should demand state legislation to require for Wisconsin provisions like CASA’s proposed federal requirements.

Anything less is inadequate.

Embedded below readers will find a summary of the legislation and a draft bill.

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A Municipal Building’s No Proof of a Progressive, Modern Outlook

A public building doesn’t make a city respectable – a city’s respectable, high standards and open government make a public building worthy. 

It’s more than odd that, literacy notwithstanding, an editorial board would contend – as one did recently about Milton, Wisconsin – that Milton’s new [city] offices suggest professional, progressive city (subscription req’d):

Milton residents have reason to beam about their new City Hall and police station.

The offices are so new that workers were adjusting door locks and downspouts while Mayor Brett Frazier and City Administrator Jerry Schuetz gave a tour Wednesday. Boxes from Monday’s move had yet to be unpacked or discarded. Seeding and landscaping awaited.

Milton is, after all, a city struggling economically, and one that somehow thought it wise to make its police chief a city administrator and now a newly-created public relations specialist for Milton’s school district. 

Here’s how a newspaperman who covered that city for twenty years assessed the transfer (again, subscription req’d):

Because of this history of [district] frugality, it surprised me when I saw the district job posting for a new public relations position—but not because of the need in this age of competitive school choice. I was surprised at the position’s $80,000-per-year salary. It can be argued the district would have attracted many highly qualified candidates from the public relations professional world at two-thirds that salary.

When I learned former Milton Chief of Police and current City Administrator Jerry Schuetz was offered the position, my inner red flags of cynicism went up—not because I question Mr. Schuetz’s abilities but because these are questions that once were expected of me by taxpayers of Milton. Was this all preordained? Is this what used to be termed a “good old boy” hire?

Those questions were only intensified when The Gazette broke the story early this week and the article, seemingly, was all about this position being able to allow Mr. Schuetz to find “balance” in his personal life.

No, a new city hall doesn’t make a city modern – true modernity comes from the high standards of a community.

To think otherwise is to fall into the amazement of Oklahoma!‘s fictional visitor to Kansas City, convinced as he mistakenly is that “they gone about as fer as they can go.” 

Shhh….Milton’s City Planning is a Big Secret

Over in Milton, with a ‘development professional’ for a mayor and a city administrator who’s quitting for a job where he can spend more time with his family, there’s a new municipal development:

MILTON—A proposed restaurant and convenience store at the corner of Sunnyside Drive and Highway 59 is “somewhat monumental” in that it kicks off the development along the new Highway 26/59 corridor, Milton Mayor Brett Frazier said Tuesday.

Both retail stores are “internationally known and well respected,” City Administrator Jerry Schuetz said. The end users cannot be released yet due to confidentiality agreements.

The plan commission on Tuesday unanimously approved the project’s memorandum of understanding with the Department of Transportation and the conceptual site plan.

See, subscription req’d, Milton moves forward with development on Sunnyside Drive, Highway 59.

A few simple points:

1.  Confidentiality.  Milton’s Plan Commission and the DOT – government entities – approved a plan about businesses the identities of which are a secret from the very public that these government bodies are by law required to serve?

That would be funny, if it were not perverse. 

2.  Not worth the pulp.  The Gazette and Milton Courier have, apparently, offered no legal challenge to a claim of confidentiality in these public actions. 

The Courier‘s scarcely a legitimate paper, but the Gazette still has those (unfounded) pretensions. 

If they’ll not fight confidentiality in secret deals like this though legal challenge, these papers aren’t worth the pulp.  

This is one reason why print’s in decline. 

These papers will have to keep selling assets and retrenching until there are no more assets to sell and no more cutbacks to be made. 

3. The Grandiose.  I’m sure the residents of Milton are thrilled that they’re in store for a “somewhat monumental” deal for “internationally known and well respected” stores. 

Oh, brother. 

To whom are these political gentlemen speaking?  One would have to think very little of the people of Milton (or very much of oneself) to speak to them in this patronizing way.

This Milton story describes a situation where a mediocre few treat an entire community of adult men and women as though they were children. 

Government and the press can – and should  – be better than this. 

Show Your Work

We’re in a new round of big-project proposals for Whitewater.

Here’s a suggestion, that this municipal administration would do well to follow, for any large-scale proposal:

(1) Release any feasibility study, analysis, or performance contract on the city’s website a month (thirty calendar days) before Council consideration.

(2) Hold a public hearing specifically and exclusively on any major proposal.

(3) For proposals with a long-term environmental impact upon current residents and the next generation of residents, submit a final proposal to a city-wide vote no earlier than two months’ time after the release publicly of all feasibility studies, analyses, and performance contracts, etc.

If municipal leaders believe in their proposals, they will submit them into the marketplace of ideas with ample time for public consideration.

That’s not what’s happened with the initial performance contract from Trane, for example: that company didn’t have its document ready for the respective meeting packet at which it was to be discussed.

No doubt, a hungry pooch foiled that vast corporation’s original plan. They would have provided their documents sooner, I suppose, if only those papers hadn’t found themselves in a canine’s tummy.

(On a smaller financial scale, Dave Mumma of Janesville Transit has done the same thing to Whitewater: he’s sometimes held back his shoddy work until the last minute, literally bringing documents to Council just before he was about to speak.)

It’s a convenient way for a big vendor, etc., to conceal its work from those who will foot the bill.

Watching this municipal administration, one sees a contrast with the last one. Our former municipal manager was his own cheerleader, boosting ill-considered projects as though civilization depended on them. (He collected a few of similar ilk along the way.)

Our current municipal manager is better educated and more affable than his predecessor, and more outwardly cautious, too. He holds back at meetings, allowing his department heads to do the cheering for him.

Cheer they do – watching some of them, one might be forgiven for thinking that those department leaders worked for the very vendors whose projects the city administration should be scrutinizing.

They are so very eager, and at least one so callow, that one wonders: do you not understand these matters, or do you hope that others won’t?

It’s worthwhile to approach these proposals methodically and dispassionately. Here’s my method for blogging on a topic: (1) read, (2) walk around, (3) write initially, (4) ask informally of government (if useful), (5) submit formal requests if necessary, and (6) consider action at law as a regrettable but necessary last recourse.

(See, for an elaboration of these steps, Steps for Blogging on a Policy or Proposal.)

Deliberate, disciplined, determined.

If these gentlemen believe in their ideas – and they very much want the city to believe they do, and to support them – then surely they have the confidence to show their proposals to others for consideration.

It’s a simple suggestion:

Show your work.

Janesville Doubles Down

There’s an update about Janesville’s fire station debacle: Janesville’s city attorney reportedly contends that Wisconsin law does not allow a petition to overturn what the City of Janesville contends is an administrative decision.  See, City attorney: Fire station question not for voters to decide

For now, consider the politics of this position.  (Here, I mean this broadly, an an expression of participatory government.)

Council and the Janesville municipal administration now stand to defend against the city’s own voters a process that was once concealed in an unlawful closed session, that will destroy some residents’ homes, and at a high municipal price tag. 

City Manager Mark Freitag had been working to promote a reputation for openness in the aftermath of the closed session.  Those PR gains (such as they were) will now be ignored or treated with scorn.

The Gazette has been on the wrong side of this issue, and now they’re on the wrong side of this issue along with local politicians and the city’s attorney.  That’s not as bad as being on the wrong side of an issue along with Vladimir Putin, but it’s hardly an esteemed group. 

The last place a declining paper should want to be is beside insiders and so-called influencers. It’s even worse when media outside the city are picking up the issue (rather sympathetically) via television.

Circling the wagons against residents is a mistake; when those circling the wagons already look dodgy, it’s a worse strategy.

What should have been done here? 

Any claim about the stated unlawfulness of a resident’s petition should have been combined with a political commitment to open the issue again.  One would say: we don’t believe you can proceed via petition, but we’re prepared to offer an alternative of further discussion (community survey, etc). 

The prior, unlawful closed session taints this whole process; attempts to shut down redress through legal procedures will only exacerbate political alienation.

Honest to goodness, these are maladroit men and women. 

It’s hard to overestimate how poorly all this has been handled.

How the Local Press Fails

There’s a story at Channel 3000 (the website for WISC-TV) entitled, Janesville resident to petition council’s decision to build a new fire station.

The story says much about (1) government spending, (2) unlawful use of closed sessions to conceal projects, and (3) press competition. 

Here’s the cause of residents’ ire:

Janesville resident Billy McCoy is fighting back against the city’s decision to build a $9.6 million center fire station, saying he and other residents are “fed up” with both the city’s spending and the closed session the council held last year regarding the plans for the new station. McCoy has started a petition asking council to resend its decision.

“It’s time that these people realize, you know they say one thing and turn around and try to do something else, or they go behind closed doors and want to do something. The citizens are fed up with it,” he said.

McCoy needs the support of 3,165 residents to sign the petition. A referendum would require the city to allow residents to vote to support or reject council’s decision to build the new central fire house during the November elections….

Spending.  Ordinary residents see that $9.6 million is a lot of money, but so many local politicians get in office and forget as much.  Politics is littered with candidates who say they’ll hold the line on spending, but who become incumbents who can’t spend fast enough. 

Whitewater has one or two ‘proud conservatives’ whose political careers were exercises in backing every insiders’ big-ticket project that came along. 

Closed Sessions.  Janesville residents know, and so does the Gazette, that Janesville’s city council held at least one unlawful closed session about the proposed fire station.  Excessive spending is a piker compared with unlawful concealment to bring it about. 

Caving on Open Government.  Knowing that there was a council vote that was unlawful, the Gazette‘s editorial board still chose to cave on defending open government from government transgression: “The Gazette or the district attorney could attempt to make the council pay for its illegal meeting, but that time and money might be better spent elsewhere….”

Later, that same editorial board backed the fire station, and told this to residents who learned that their houses would be destroyed to make room for a multi-million-dollar project:

….No, it wasn’t a perfect decision, and neither was the process. The biggest mistake was making the initial choice to expand at the same location behind closed doors. Madison attorney Bob Dreps, an expert in media law, said the council’s closed-session November vote violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law.

Regardless, what’s done is done. Residents don’t have to like how the decision was made, but it’s time to accept it. Sometimes, thinking long term creates immediate pain. That’s the case here…

That’s not watchdog journalism…it’s lapdog journalism. 

Look at the Madison station’s account linked in my first paragraph above, and you’ll see that they’re covering this story without patronizing and condescending to Janesville residents. 

Not only that, they’re covering the story without a subscription fee, and with the added value a video clip of residents’ concerns.

A local paper should be leading the charge against this station, and the planning behind it. Instead, they’ve capitulated to government insiders, and now a Madison news station is poaching their readers.  Running a story now about voters’ concerns is simply scrambling to catch up.

Worse, anything now comes after a shut-up-and-eat-your-peas attitude. 

Still, press capitulation to government causes damage, but not indiscriminate damage: other media gain at the expense of a local newspaper’s sycophancy. 

Confronting Bad News

There are always a number of accidents, crimes, or tragedies in a community.  One hopes for as few as possible. 

The best way for government to address those misfortunes is to act quickly and openly to take whatever actions law and charity require.

Along the way, however, it might be useful for big talking officials to comprehend that the exaggeration of good news is both laughable on its own and also a source of added scorn when contrasted with actual, bad news. 

Honesty going in brings sympathy during bad times; exaggeration going in brings frustration and derision during bad times.

One would think that so many clever officials would think so, too, but then they’ve the problem of not looking ahead

The Whitewater Schools’ Recent Budget Cuts

I wrote last week about proposed budget cuts in the Whitewater Unified School District.  (See, The Whitewater Schools’ Budget Cuts.)

Since that post, the WUSD School Board met Monday, and following that contentious meeting made modifications to proposed cuts on Wednesday afternoon.  (At each stage of this process, proposed cuts have been in the aggregate – there have been both cuts in some areas and increases in others, for a net reduction of over $200,000).

What the district and board undoubtedly (but naively) expected to be an orderly process was anything but orderly.  Those who advocate limited government (and thus fiscal restraint) can take only slight comfort from these cuts – cuts managed poorly will only increase the likelihood of a return to perpetual revenue-cap-exceeding referenda to plug budget shortfalls.

(The whole meeting has been recorded, and is available on the Whitewater Community Television website at Vimeo.) 

A few remarks:

1.  Insiders’ Processes Often Fail, Especially Against Grassroots Opposition.  No doubt, District Administrator Eric Runez and Business Services Director Nathan Yaeger spent a long time considering these cuts, as part of a months-long process.  That matters little, however, if the community doesn’t know what’s coming. 

Here’s Mr. Runez, as quoted; in the Daily Union, on the district’s process:

“It is challenging,” he said. “Quite honestly, we did have a three- to four-month-long budget process that started with community focus groups and our financial advisory committees. With all of those groups, we asked what their priorities were, particularly in the community focus groups. They came back with elementary class size and a commitment to, or a value of, the wide range of offerings that we have. It is not necessarily surprising to see such strong advocacy for the arts, but it is challenging because we are now coming to the end of our budget process and have to address some of these concerns.”

I understand Mr. Runez’s frustration, truly.  But here’s the problem: if the district ran into a parental firestorm of surprise and frustration at the end of its budgetary process, then the district’s budgetary process was inadequate

It doesn’t matter how many leadership teams meet, or how many hand-picked groups talk among themselves, when compared against community surprise and outpouring.  Relying on a business-as-usual approach doesn’t bring tomorrow’s success, but rather invites a return to yesterday’s failures

A committee, team, or focus group counts for nothing against a room full of organized parents. This week’s events only show how unrepresentative those focus groups must have been. 

I was not part of these complaints in any way, but I know very well how well-organized people in Whitewater are, through email, Facebook, text messages, etc. 

Unwillingness to appreciate that social media and networking (of whatever kind) will trump an inside-out approach is something that leaders in Whitewater still have trouble understanding. 

2.  Forget Happy Talk – Let People Know There are Challenges Ahead.  Look, Old Whitewater loves nothing more than to hear the soothing lies that there have never been and never will be any problems here.  That’s the worst possible approach.  Better to be honest and tell everyone – not just a few safe and reliable committee people – that we will have years of rough going ahead.       

The district should tell this truth to groups big and small, and send out communications to everyone with that message.  Lightning won’t strike.  The old-style, give-no-bad-news approaches don’t bring success.  They bring a room full of irritated residents.

3.  Conservatives, Do You Even Know Where You Live?  Like many others, I support budgetary restraint.  Unlike some (but not all) conservatives, this libertarian knows that this is not a red city, but a blue one; it’s not a red school district, but a district with a blue center with red areas beyond.

That sort of political environment will not support any kind of cuts, but rather ones carefully distributed and balanced between faculty labor, administrative labor, capital, and even programming.  (Here, I refer to labor positions and labor compensation, both.) 

Conservatives who are jonesing for labor-heavy cuts alone will only muck up the case for any cuts.

Here’s why: The whole district is no longer reliably red, but rather is about evenly balanced between blue and red.  (Even in a spring election, once thought to be a right-leaning election time, the last referendum passed.) 

In a district where all school board seats are at-large, a concerted effort in Whitewater could flip the entire board not just blue, but strongly blue.  Residents who think that’s unlikely are living in the past, and their error will only produce a climate hostile to budgetary restraint.

Fiscal restraint can win, but it will only win if cuts are distributed to avoid an unwelcome political reaction.  In the district, that reaction could easily mean perpetual referenda. 

4.  Communicating Directly to People.  It’s important to communicate directly, in a persuasive way. The district produced a multi-page pdf document that explained the rationales for each proposed cut.

That was a good idea. The document should have been on the district website’s main page, not tucked away in a sidebar link on the Business Services page, for goodness’ sake. 

It’s fine to seek others to carry water for the district’s message, although that’s a role I would never play (and a role which no one would be foolish enough to ask me to play). 

Still, the district tried to get its rationale out through an obliging website, and all it got was a room full of irritated people. 

It does no political good to rely on a site with writing below the standard we would expect from our own high school graduates.  Better to use the district’s own website, and to place explanations prominently – and properly expressed – on that website’s main page. 

5.  One Shouldn’t Make Changes to a Program without Speaking with Teachers and Parents of Students.  Making changes to the music program – or any other program – without talking to teachers, students, and parents interested in that program is just embarrassing. It’s insulting to them, a transgression against open government, and threatens the prospects for future fiscal restraint. 

6.  Notices of Non-Renewal.  Suggestions from the board to consider issuing and perhaps later rescinding non-renewal notices are bad suggestions.  One shouldn’t play with labor that way – one should be sure before one acts.

Don’t take my word for it — Brad Pitt (as Billy Beane) holds the same view:

There’s good that can come out of this kerfuffle, if the district and the board make adjustments in their approach. 

‘Best Practices, Fair Treatment, Transparency’

Writing about the city requires reading the public documents of local government, even if one chooses not to write about what one’s read.  Reading and observing come well before writing.  

Daily observation inclines an observer not to the immediate, but the distant – one takes a longer view of things.  

Along the way, sometimes one reads something that’s a harbinger of our city’s future.  

While reviewing the Common Council packet for Tuesday’s scheduled meeting, I saw a resident’s application for a prominent commission.  At the end of the application, in her own hand, she wrote that she hoped to continue her work toward “best practices, fair treatment, and transparency.”  

One day, resting on that present hope, we will have a new and better city. If we were to have a motto, ‘best practices, fair treatment, and transparency’ would be a good one.  

That’s not this time, but a future one.  From now until then will require hard and relentless work.  We will find, I’m sure, that ‘kind words and a real good heart‘ will not be enough.  

To bring about a better, fairer, more transparent city will require of us what Nietzsche felt necessary of an advocate — “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”

We’ll have that better city (I’ve no doubt), but it will require tenacity.

Nothing less will do.    

Could the Koch Brothers Dominate Whitewater’s Politics?

Assume for a moment that Charles and David Koch decided to use their vast billions to dominate Whitewater’s local politics.  They’d spend whatever they had, under this hypothetical, to put their hand-picked candidates in office, for advertising, public relations, goodwill community events, and lobbying to get their way in elections, appointments, and in pressuring local officials over policy.

(Two disclosures are in order.  First, as the Koch bothers are former libertarians, having abandoned our movement for big-party politics, they seem misguided and repulsive to old-family – movement – libertarians like me.  Second, though I find them repulsive schemers, still they have a right to spend to influence politics; in fact, restrictions on that right seem even more repulsive to me than political apostates like Charles and David.)  

Let’s suppose, though, that they decide to move to Whitewater, and to wield their influence over our small town. 

So the question: Could the Koch brothers dominate Whitewater’s politics?

The answer is no, they could not.  No matter how hard they tried, at whatever expense, a campaign in opposition would defeat them, so often in the polls and so often in popular opinion that they’d fail in their attempt. 

Our conditions are unsuited to the Kochs. 

Even a few people, arguing in opposition diligently, day-in, day-out, would overcome them in Whitewater’s marketplace of ideas.  Anyone in Whitewater who tried sincerely and repeated to argue against them would prevail.

And yet – and yet – this inspires a further question: if all the vast power of the Koch brothers would not be enough to dominate our city’s politics against opposition, what chance would a smaller, local pressure group have?   

In this, one finds a political question for the next few years.