A Sign for Whitewater High School

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

Whitewater Planning Commission – A High School Sign from John Adams on Vimeo.

Anyone who thinks that small town politics is simple hasn’t watched small town politics. In the video above, the Whitewater Planning Commission took 28 minutes to approve conditions for the local high school to place an electronic sign on school property. (Whitewater is a small city of about fifteen thousand, half of whom are college students attending a local campus.)

I’d invite readers to watch the video (and the video of the full meeting, too, online @ https://vimeo.com/250492564).

A local family raised donations toward the cost of an electronic sign with a scrolling message the school could display. One sees signs like this across America.

Whitewater’s planning commissioners, one of whom sits on the Whitewater city council, consider here whether the sign would be a distraction, where it would be placed, what kind of message should scroll on it, how long the messages should scroll, when some messages but not others should scroll, etc.

The summary written immediately above takes only a few seconds to read; the  discussion of these topics consumes nearly a half-hour.

A few remarks:

1. A lawyer in town raises concerns about the sign. He contends that traffic in the area is intense. That’s a relative term; there are millions of commuters who travel safely each day in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York under conditions that they would consider intense.

2. How risky is driving at the intersection near the sign? The local lawyer says it’s intense, and a commissioner/council member mentions that the commission might have asked the police department for accident reports from the area.

No one, however, took the simple step before the meeting of asking for a summary of existing accident data for the area. It wouldn’t have been hard, but instead of looking for the best available information, the commissioners and city planner speculate without it. No data will offer a perfect assessment, but it’s a sign of a lazy mindset to know one could get better information – and relatively easily – and not even bother to try.

3. Hyper-rationality isn’t rational. It’s right to ponder something, to think it through, and yet, and yet – some matters will remain undiscernible even after lengthy consideration. Some scrolling letters might be less distracting than other letters, at some times of day, under some weather conditions, at some months of the year, etc.

It’s not a higher reasoning, but instead a lower one, that delves into unknown (and unknowable) speculation. Significance (relevant & material) constrains – as it should – right reason. On and on doesn’t bring one closer – it takes one father away.

4. The question for Dr. Elworthy. Mark Elworthy, the school district administrator, appeared to answer any questions that the commissioners might have. Commissioner/Council member Lynn Binnie decided to ask him one (@ 6:20 on the video):

Binnie: You received a copy of Mr. Devitt’s [lawyer-resident objecting to sign’s location]  letter. What comments would you have with respect to those concerns?

Elworthy: We’ve talked about that, but Mr. Devitt has spoken to the school board, and the school board has responded to all of those. I apologize, I did not, I got the copy, if I could look at those I could answer it. [Receives Devitt letter, examines.] I guess I came here this evening to share that the school board has listened a couple times to Mr. Devitt, responded, we have spoken privately as well, the board has listened to those concerns, after listening to his concerns the board approved the sign.

Elworthy’s right, here, about how to respond. He’s an appointed administrator of an elected, collectively-governing body. He neither can nor should offer an individual, point-by-point reply if there’s already been a decision of the board to which he is responsible. Elworthy’s right to point to a decision of the collective body to which he, Elworthy, is responsible. A point-by-point reply would inch Elworthy away from whatever the board has decided on the matter. It’s the board’s position, and the board’s language, that controls the school district response.

Binnie’s free to ask the question, of course, but Elworthy answered soundly. (One can’t tell whether Binnie expected the response he received. Perhaps he didn’t know that there had been prior discussions with the school district, perhaps he didn’t see that the proper answer precluded a point-by-point reply, or perhaps Binnie just asked the question regardless to appease a complaining constituent.)

5. Conditions. One hopes that there will never be an accident at the high school intersection, or any other intersection in town, for any reason. The relationship between the commission’s conditions for use of the sign and the actual value of those conditions for safety, however, is unknowable.  What one can say, however, is that it’s much easier to impose conditions – one after another – than to show how any of them will actually reduce the chances of an accident.

These conditions should also give pause, that the commission regulates easily, and readily, even over a simple matter.

It would have been a moment of candor for the members of the commission to admit as much.

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.

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)

Reading and Reviewing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Legacy of China’s Family-Planning Rules

The Party does more than blunder – what it touches, it injures & ruins:

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, China implemented rigid family-planning measures to slow population growth—the most controversial of which was the one-child policy. In 2015, China announced that it would drop this rule. However, millions of second and third children were born during these decades and are not legally registered. This short documentary, Invisible Lives, by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, follows three of the estimated 13 million unregistered people born outside the one-child policy. “You can’t get married without registration,” says Li Xue, a 23-year-old who struggles with the implications of her status. “Then, if you have a child, your child can’t be registered.”

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

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

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

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

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

Commissioner: ‘Cause I have.

Neighborhood Services Director: Well…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here’s a follow-on to yesterday’s post, Business Dependency in Whitewater.

There’s a huge effort locally, from the Community Development Authority in particular, to spur growth through large, publicly-funded incentives.  

These addled few are like men who’ve heard the expression, ‘if you build it, he will come,’ but don’t understand when it applies and when it doesn’t.  That’s a much bigger topic than I intend here, and it has both economic and legal implications (ones that are being litigated elsewhere in Wisconsin now). 

Sometimes – and here in Whitewater all too often — building something doesn’t attract anyone, doesn’t attract the target audience, or only attracts someone at an unsustainable cost. 

Consider the story of men in rural Pennsylvania who built a commune, only to find no one else to take them up on the venture:

….They were born Michael Colby and Donald Graves, but once there, on 63 acres in the Mahantongo Valley, a bowl of land in central Pennsylvania, they changed their names to Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf and called themselves the Harmonists, inspired by a splinter group of 18th-century Moravian brothers who believed in the spiritual values of an agrarian life.

Their ideals were lofty but simple: They would live off the land, farming with Colonial-era tools, along with a band of like-minded men dressed in homespun robes wielding scythes and pickaxes. They would sleep in atmospheric log cabins and other 18th-century structures that they had rescued from the area and that they began to reconstruct, painstakingly, brick by crumbling brick and log by log.

But what if you built a commune, and no one came….

The 25 buildings that dot the landscape are mostly dormant, save for Zephram’s house and Johannes’s house….

See, They Built It. No One Came @ The New York Times.

These utopians, to their credit, tried to build a community with their own money; Whitewater’s development gurus want to do this with vast heapings of public money. 

They’ve both the same problem, though: an ambition that exceeds aptitude, a conviction that they know what others want, perhaps better than others, themselves, do. 

Meetings & Motivations

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 11 in a series.

This is series about a proposed digester energy project for Whitewater, one that would rely on importing other cities’ unwanted waste into Whitewater for processing.

A series like this is only indirectly about general wastewater upgrades, at whatever price. It’s about waste importation, and officials’ claims that importation would be clean and profitable. It’s necessarily and directly about the consequences of waste importation, fiscally, economically, environmentally, and as an expression of a city’s business and political culture.

Updated 6.9.15 with video.

Planning for a Public Meeting from John Adams on Vimeo.

During a recent Common Council meeting from June 2nd, at item C3, Common Council discussed a public presentation about upgrades to the wastewater facility. Part of that discussion implicates the digester proposal, but much concerns other matters.

During that discussion, at C3 and again later, City Manager Clapper expresses his confidence in the full project, including implicitly a plan to import waste into Whitewater (he’s not alone in that confidence, among those in attendance).

Part of City Manager Clapper’s confidence comes from a mild or positive reception that he’s received from selected stakeholder groups.

This raises two questions, not needing to be enumerated, but implicated in the entire project and this series.

First, why would anyone doubt that the response to city officials, from among selected audiences, would be other than mild or positive?

Second, does anyone at the 6.2.15 meeting actually believe that my questions are designed simply toward a political vote on the project?

Of the first, there are good examples from across America of waste-importation projects like this one, and how local government approves or rejects them. I’ve no idea what Whitewater’s various engineering firms have said about these votes (if anything), but then, it’s always better to do one’s own research. What Mr. Clapper is now seeing is common, almost predictable, in the short-term in these situations.

Of the second, I’m not interested solely in the short-term, of Whitewater getting or rejecting an importation plan. If City Manager Clapper wanted a vote on this project tomorrow, including importing as much waste into Whitewater as he could shovel, he’d receive easy political approval for that idea.

But looking at this project as a matter of approval or rejection isn’t looking at this project, it would be looking at approval or rejection of it.

Looking at an importation plan (and that’s what this series is about) has value far beyond Whitewater, as an examination of how communities consider, approve, and implement these supposedly green and supposedly energy-generating ideas. What matters most happens only after a program like this starts running.

There’s Whitewater’s importation plan, there are the longterm implications of Whitewater’s plan for Whitewater, and there are the implications of Whitewater’s plan generally, for any community, as a supposed digester-energy project.

These three aren’t the same.

I’ve a guess – and it’s just a guess – about why the obvious, long-term motivation of my series doesn’t (at least doesn’t seem) apparent to City Manager Clapper.

I’ll write about that tomorrow, using an observation a longtime resident sent me about marketing efforts for Whitewater.

Original Common Council Discussion, 6.2.15
Agenda: http://www.whitewater-wi.gov/images/stories/agendas/common_council/2015/ccagen_2015-0602.pdf
Video: https://vimeo.com/129697983


First Vendor Presentation of 1.21.14 to Whitewater’s Common Council

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 8 in a series.

First Vendor Presentation of 1.21.14 to Whitewater Common Council from John Adams on Vimeo.

In this post, I’ll look at the first vendor presentation on the digester proposal to Whitewater’s Common Council.

(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. 60.)

60. City Manager Clapper (Clapper) mentions that one of the vendors presenting, Trane, is working with Whitewater to evaluate energy efficiency as part of a separate project. What happened with Trane’s energy efficiency contract with Whitewater?

61. Wouldn’t how Whitewater’s energy efficiency contract with Trane progressed show (1) what Trane is like as a vendor and (2) how skillful city officials (particularly Clapper) are in evaluating and managing city projects?

62. Clapper mentions that city officials (full-time staff, presumably) and the vendors did not have time to draft an agreement before the 1.21.14 meeting, so the 1.21.14 meeting will be a presentation only (that is, there will be no request to vote on a contract). Does Clapper think that a presentation and vote on the same night without time for later reflection would have been a good practice, had the vendors and city staff produced timely a draft agreement?

63. If Clapper thinks that a presentation and vote on the same night would have been a good practice, then what does that say about the level of diligence his administration (full-time staff) should be required to meet?

64. Wastewater Superintendent Tim Reel (Reel) claims that Whitewater would produce energy by “bringing in and increasing our acceptance of different and variety [sic] of industrial wastes.” What kinds of industrial wastes – by Reel’s account there are different kinds and a variety – would he import into the city from other places?

65. How would Reel’s contention that the city would need to “increase our acceptance” of waste influence the current standards for waste processing at the plant?

66. Reel contends that there would be an energy savings, but he doesn’t say how much. Why not? By his own admission from 12.3.13, there have been multiple meetings (off-camera) by this time, with vendors and a waste hauler. Why no energy estimate, even a loose-fitting one?

67. Reel mentions that there is excess capacity at the city’s existing digesters, as he has previously (12.3.13). Using his own analogy of a digester as like a human digestion system (3.16.15 presentation to Whitewater School Board), if a person’s stomach is half-full, does that compel eating until one’s stomach can hold no more? Even if Reel contends that it does compel engorging oneself, does Reel believe that what one puts into one’s stomach – what foods (or in a digester’s case what wastes) doesn’t matter?

68. How does Reel estimate the value of an idle digester? That is, not as how much, but how he arrives at a particular figure? Did he, himself, produce a figure? If not, who did? What is the analysis underlying that dollar figure?

69. Reel contends that, on behalf of the city, he sent letters to 12 industrial waste providers to see if they would be willing to dump industrial-strength waste into Whitewater’s digester. To which providers did he send that letter? How did he arrive at that list of twelve names?

70. Reel claims that three companies expressed interest in dumping industrial-strength waste into Whitewater’s digester. Which three?

71. Reel claims that although three vendors have expressed interest without a commitment, the volumes that they could dump into Whitewater’s digester could “drive the project.” What would those volumes be? How many trucks would that require, on what schedule?

72. Reel introduces two sets of vendor representatives, three from Trane (“Rachel, Jeff, and Todd”) and two from Black & Veatch (“Steve and Paul”), all on a first-name basis. How well does Reel know them? How much time has he spent with them, particularly those from Trane (as Trane was at this time already in the city working on an ‘energy efficiency’ project)? How often has he met them, and in what settings?

73. Trane advocates a performance contract where the “design team and the construction team are one in the same,” over a traditional designer-contractor partnership. Trane’s representative contends that a performance contract approach means no details will be missed within a unified team. How does he think so (does he believe that one business formation over another assures infallibility)? Can he show that no performance contract has ever failed for want of a detail?

74. What risks can Trane guarantee?

75. Trane wants Whitewater to pay for a feasibility study. Isn’t that simply asking Whitewater to pay for Trane’s cost of a sales (feasibility) presentation? Shouldn’t Trane alone bear the risk of what it can and cannot do for Whitewater? How, if at all, is this different from a baker asking a potential customer to pay for an estimate of whether the baker can bake bread for a would-be patron? Shouldn’t that be a cost that the baker bears?

76. Where is the (completed) Trane study? Did Trane complete the study?

77. Trane contends that Trane would manage and Black & Veatch would build the project. Can Clapper show, himself – with concrete figures – that this performance contract approach with self-selected companies would be superior to a conventional bid process?

78. If Clapper can’t, himself, do so, then how is he fulfilling a duty to manage and protect the city’s financial interest? Does Clapper’s fiscal obligation to Whitewater merely involve relying on what private parties looking for municipal payment tell him?

79. Black & Veatch’s representative lists a project, by his own admission, ten times the size of a likely Whitewater project. How useful does the Black & Veatch representative think that an order-of-magnitude-larger project is to Whitewater? He says that’s the most similar project to Whitewater’s project that his company has. Has he nothing closer? Why not?

80. The Black & Veatch vendor contends that Whitewater might increase its waste by importation to handle in total up to four times (or even eight times) as much “high-strength” waste as it now produces locally.

81. Do Clapper and Reel think that importing into Whitewater multiple times as much waste as we produce locally will have no environmental impact? Why do they think that (that is, what environmental analysis have they done)?

82. Black & Veatch contends that they could “get the plant off the grid” and “sell some excess [power] in addition.” How would they know this, even before a city-paid feasibility study?

83. The Black & Veatch representative admits that among industrial wastes, there are “good wastes and bad wastes to receive.” Who will secure and assure, day in and day out, that Whitewater will receive only “good wastes”? Who will monitor that importation, and how will others see results that are accurate and reliable?

84. Reel mentions that he has a 1.29.14 meeting with a waste hauler. Which one? How did Reel learn of that hauler? Did they meet? Did Reel take notes for that meeting?

85. Black & Veatch’s representative states that “typically tipping fees [paid by those who dump waste into a location] will generate more revenue for the city than for example selling peak power back to the grid.” If so, isn’t this truly less an energy project than a waste dumping project?

86. Reel says that a conservative estimate might be “twenty thousand gallons” for a facility that “would be open 24/7.” How many trucks would that require?

87. Is a large flow of waste haulers’ trucks into Whitewater a reason for the business lobby’s interest in truck traffic in the city? Will each and every member of the business lobby personally stand by waste importation into Whitewater?

88. Why would a hauler as far as Fond du Lac (as a council member mentions apparently from notes) be interested in dumping in Whitewater? Will no one closer take that hauler’s waste? Why won’t anyone closer take it?

89. What does it say about one of Trane’s representatives that he cannot answer a question about the study’s initial cost, but instead relies on a council member to quote that figure to him? Does the vendor representative not know? Is he shy to mention a $70,000 initial cost?

89. Clapper mentions that Reel will be the one who will “ultimately answer” questions about the project. What is Reel’s educational and professional background?

90. Why would City Manager Clapper, as city manager, not assume ultimate responsibility for the information about this project?

Original Council Common Presentation, 1.21.14
Agenda http://www.whitewater-wi.gov/images/stories/agendas/common_council/2014/2014_1-21a__Complete_Council_Packet.pdf (link broken)
Minutes http://www.whitewater-wi.gov/images/stories/minutes/common_council/2014/2014_01-21.pdf
Video https://vimeo.com/86074358


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.

Arguments on Cost & Flexibility Under a Complete Streets Ordinance

There are two questions that I promised yesterday that I would take up today about the Complete Streets ordinance recently passed at Council on 1.20.15.

The first is whether the draft ordinance was flexible enough, and the second about the costs of new roads or reconstruction that would include sidewalks or bike paths.

I read the draft that Council saw before the Tuesday vote, and I’m unpersuaded that the draft was lacking in flexibility for future planners. The 1.20.15 draft (before amendments) is embedded below.

One could argue over should or shall, but 11.51.040 E as drafted offers ample grounds to reject a bike path or sidewalk project if Council or a future one wished to do so.

More generally, I’ve contended time and again that thousands upon thousands of Whitewater residents are sharp and capable. One doesn’t need to have been a legislative aide to read or draft an ordinance for the city. There are myriad paths to an equal comprehension, to say the least.

Libertarians don’t contend it’s true that most people are smart and capable because we say so; we say that most people are smart and capable because it’s true.

On the cost side, I’m sensitive to how much this city spends, and goodness knows sidewalks are expensive.

I’d be more persuaded that the Greater Whitewater Committee (GWC), a business-advocacy 501(c)(6) organization, had lower costs in mind if they’d argued more often to keep costs lower.

I don’t recall, for example, that they argued against the approximately $2.3 million dollar East Gateway Project. (In fact, one of their members, now on Council, unsuccessfully asked for another $500,000 or so for placement of underground wiring.)

I argued against that funding, and confidently so. How is our city $2.3 million richer for that roadwork?

The GWC is free to advocate as it wishes – I’m for more, not less, speech. Let’s be clear, though. Like trade unions, business-advocacy groups, etc., represent one special-interest point of view among many others. By their very federal tax designation, they’ve a necessarily limited point of view.

Public Choice Theory properly recognizes these groups as just one more special interest among many.

Individuals at the Community Development Authority who have been for hundreds of thousands in public handouts to white-collar startups, and are now looking for yet another round of the same on the public tab, don’t seem like cost-savers.

Millions on an Innovation Center, or failed tax-incremental spending, or the endless effort to write sugary press-releases boosting these wasteful things, belie a professed commitment to smaller government.

That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t, let alone can’t, advocate for businesses (even white collar ones that help few in town). Trade unions, the business lobby, etc., all play a role in a society that recognizes rights of association.

They’re not, however, something like the Roman Curia, assisting in the work of the universal Church, so to speak.

These local groups are all just special interests, sometimes arguing for better, sometimes for worse.

The best way to show one’s genuine and convincing commitment to less spending and smaller government would be for some of these gentlemen to reject the white-collar welfare and crony capitalism of the WEDC, for example.

I’ll be waiting.

GDE Error: Error retrieving file - if necessary turn off error checking (404:Not Found)

The Common Council Session for 1.20.15: Complete Streets

I posted briefly yesterday on Tuesday’s Common Council meeting, and in that post mentioned that I would look a bit more at some of the remarks for, or against, the Complete Streets ordinance that passed Tuesday night.  (I supported the ordinance.)

Council discussed this issue previously, on December 16th.  See, Common Council 12/16/2014.

I’ve included only some of the speakers from the January 20th discussion, for particular points.  Readers interested in the full discussion – always worth watching – can find it online at Common Council Meeting 01/20/2015

For now, I’ll consider the comments of these speakers: Ken Kienbaum, David Yochum, Larry Kachel, and Chris Grady.

Ken Kienbaum, 3rd District Candidate

WhitewaterCouncil012015A from John Adams on Vimeo.

Mr. Kienbaum makes, I’d say, two principal arguments, one of which I’ll consider here, and the other of which I’ll consider tomorrow. 

For today, I’ll address his remarks about cyclists riding on the sidewalks.  Mr. Kienbaum made similar remarks at a council meeting over thirty days before, on 12.16.14.  (See, Common Council 12/16/2014 @ 38:30)

His contention is that cyclists can ride on our sidewalks, without the need for added bike lanes. 

It surprised me when he first made this argument in December, as someone seeking office or following city policy should know that it’s a violation of our ordinances to ride one’s bike on many of our sidewalks.  (See, 11.40.070 – Obedience to vehicle or traffic regulations and riding regulations.)

When I wrote in support of the Complete Streets ordinance, I omitted mention of the existing limitations against riding on sidewalks, as I assumed that as Mr. Kienbaum was likely to speak again this January, he would take the opportunity to correct his prior misunderstanding.

He made no correction, but instead repeated his prior error.  That’s hardly a good sign.  It suggests to me that either no one in Mr. Kienbaum’s circle was aware of the ban on bikes on sidewalks, or no one bothered to tell him about it. 

On Mr. Kienbaum’s second point, about costs, I’ll have more tomorrow. 

David Yochum, Resident

WhitewaterCouncil012015B from John Adams on Vimeo.

Watch this presentation, and I think you’ll see what I see: a strong, conversational speaker, who speaks extemporaneously about his own observations on cycling in town.  It’s persuasive, I think, about what it’s like to bike in town (I do so, too).  It’s persuasive, also, for the quality of delivery. 

Larry Kachel, Great Whitewater Committee, a 501(c)(6) business advocacy organization

WhitewaterCouncil012015C from John Adams on Vimeo.

Mr. Kachel leads with an unexpected opening:

I’m Larry Kachel, I feel the need to speak due to some disparaging remarks I believe have been made by a certain city official which I will deal with tomorrow morning.

I’m not sure what to make of this.  It’s among the most counter-productive openings that an advocate could offer – it scuttles just about everything thereafter. 

Mr. Kachel is a leading member of the Greater Whitewater Committee, a 501(c)(6) business advocacy organization.  He’s speaking on a public issue, and he’s a public figure by virtue of his organizational role.  (The organization’s been around for a few years.)

There are two kinds of speech, from the point of view of public advocacy: speech actionable at law (defamatory speech) and everything else.  Disparaging speech, acerbic speech, polemical speech, etc., all fall in the latter, everything-else category.

It’s a mistake to react to disparaging speech when – as here – that reaction so obviously ruins the tone for successful persuasion.  

I’m quite sure there have been, and may be yet more, many disparaging remarks directed my way from city hall, etc. 

That is for me – and should be properly for anyone – just water off a duck’s back.  To borrow a question from Hillary Clinton: what difference does it make?

The residents of this city – including city officials – have a free-speech right that will sometimes include sharp remarks.  Neither the residents of this city nor her officials are employees of the Greater Whitewater Committee. 

Members of the GWC are free to complain, surely.  When delivering those complaints, they’re no less – but no more – important than any other citizen. 

In any event, it does no good for the Greater Whitewater Committee to advance a literacy program earlier in the evening, only to mute a positive tone with an opening like this.  One doesn’t follow champagne with a chaser of brine. 

One should be careful, too, about declaring a need to speak after supposedly disparaging remarks.  If critical remarks compelled an advocate to appear, city officials might hit upon the opposite idea of sending valentines to keep him away in the future. 

Some of the arguments on flexibility – like Mr. Kienbaum’s on cost – are ones that I’ll consider tomorrow.  (I’m particularly sympathetic to cost arguments.)

Chris Grady, 3rd District Candidate

WhitewaterCouncil012015D1 from John Adams on Vimeo.

Mr. Grady begins with a solid opening, and a gentle rebuke to his Third District opponent, Ken Kienbaum:

I want to start out with a question: Is it legal to ride a bike on the sidewalk?

(Answer from council: no, it is not.)

That’s perfect, just perfect: simple, direct, clear. 

There are times when a single question does the trick.  This was one of those times. 

Cameron Clapper, City Manager

Here, I’m referring to Mr. Clapper’s demeanor throughout the night, rather than a particular point (as with those above). 

Now I have agreed and also disagreed with policies during City Manager Clapper’s tenure. (We may yet have ahead a strong disagreement over a commercial digester for the importation of waste into this city from other places.)    

And yet, and yet, I’ll not underestimate his strengths, nor the evident, widespread hope in this city that his administration succeeds.  (I hope for that success, too, disagreements notwithstanding.)

He kept his cool, all evening, and came out looking stronger for it.


Tomorrow: Arguments on Cost & Flexibility Under a Complete Streets Ordinance.

The Common Council Session for 1.20.15

I’ve two quick remarks about last night’s Council session. 

On an appointment to the Third District seat until April, I’d say Brienne Diebolt-Brown was a solid choice.  Three residents were willing to be appointed, two of whom (Ken Kienbaum, Christopher Grady) are running in the spring general election. 

Ms. Diebolt-Brown doesn’t plan to run in the contested election.  In any event, she’s more than qualified to represent the district.   Best wishes to her during her term.

On the Complete Streets initiative, having passed last night, I’d say that the result was both positive and interesting.  (I supported the initiative.  See, from FW, In Support of the Complete Streets Initiative for Whitewater.)

Interesting is important, too: several residents spoke for, or against, the proposal, and their arguments are worth considering in detail.  After Whitewater Community Television posts the video online, I will offer readers a look at some segments from the discussion, along with analysis.

It’s useful to show some of those speaking as they spoke, in their own words and in their own manner.  

One last thing, so that I may be very clear — it’s not a man or woman, but a man or woman offering an argument over a proposal, that should govern policy, and make the difference. 

Old Whitewater is infected with DYKWIA.   Needless to say, I don’t care about status or entitlement, but rather about the quality of argument a man or woman makes.

(That’s not putting it so plainly as I might when expressing myself directly, but one sees my meaning.)

It’s what one advocates that interests me.

There were, to be sure, interesting arguments in this discussion, worth considering.

More on that soon.

In Support of the Complete Streets Initiative for Whitewater

This Tuesday, January 20th at 6:30 PM, Common Council will consider a Complete Streets ordinance (item O-3) for Whitewater. A Complete Streets program simply requires planners to consider bike and pedestrian travel, for example, when either building or reconstructing streets within our city.

(I listened closely to discussion of the idea at our 12.16.14 Common Council session; I look forward to the discussion on 1.20.15.)

It’s an excellent idea, and one that I fully support.

If we are to have planning – and this libertarian knows that one cannot build or reconstruct a road without planning – then it is the least to expect that planners should be forward-thinking, and look ahead to designs that consider “healthy, active living, reduce traffic congestion and fossil fuel use, and improve the safety and quality of life of residents of the City of Whitewater by providing safe, convenient and comfortable routes for walking, bicycling,” for example.

That’s what this idea requires – simply to look at more, to think beyond today (let alone yesterday, or decades ago) – and craft those possibilities into one’s future plans.

We cannot have growth and prosperity merely because we call for them, just as we cannot have good health merely because we say we are fit. Our future in these matters rests in our own hands – if we are to be a better place, then we will have to promote better ideas over worse ones.

We will have to do more than repeat tired platitudes that all is well, or that nothing needs to change.

Honest to goodness, this is a city of fifteen-thousand, not one or a few. There’s every right to advocate from one’s own experiences, but there’s something odd about believing that because a few people can’t imagine change, because they’re satisfied, that such a singular complacency should be a compelling policy argument.

This city is no insect in amber, to be placed as a paperweight on someone’s desk.

A Complete Streets perspective does not serve a few, but manypeople of all ages, all backgrounds, all ideologies, all ethnic backgrounds – could and would benefit from more attention to biking and walking safely within the city. Unlike so many schemes that benefit only a few insiders’ friends, this mere expectation of planning with biking and walking in mind would benefit people from all parts of life.

Looking around, beyond the city, to successful and prosperous communities elsewhere, one sees that this is what they’re doing, to their own enrichment and betterment.

A proposal of this kind would place our city farther along the path to the hip, prosperous city she can be, and is destined to be.

It’s a discussion worth following closely, with best wishes to the proponents of a good idea for Whitewater.

Ordinances & Department Regulations @ Public Meetings

Whitewater’s last Planning Commission meeting was a week ago, Monday (10.13.14). 

I’ve two suggestions:

First, it would be a good idea to keep a copy of Whitewater’s ordinances and regulations available at the meeting. 

It may be that a city employee cannot recall a certain requirement or provision of our local law.  That’s not surprising; we have many regulations.

The easiest fix is to keep a indexed copy of our ordinances or other policy documents on hand: at-the-moment inquiry would be possible for simple, matter-of-fact-questions.

There may be some reluctance to look up a simple provision on the spot, as some might fear it suggests an embarrassing ignorance.  Strictly, it does suggest ignorance, but not embarrassing ignorance: one should  only be disappointed by not trying. 

It’s much better in appearance and result to take a moment to consult a book than it is to say, “I can’t recall.”  The latter adds nothing to participants’ knowledge; the former leaves participants knowledgeable.  

Second, there will also be times when a city department not present may need to evaluate part of a proposal.  These evaluations should be arranged, when possible, without the need for a return visit to the Planning Commission. Planning approval can and should be conditioned on a subsequent and satisfactory evaluation (by, for example, the Fire Department over basic code requirements).

There’s (needlessly) reduced value in having rewritten our zoning laws only to delay planning decisions through repeated appearances before the Planning Commission.  

The commissioner who suggested an approach that didn’t require a return recommended sensibly. We are neither a sluggish county nor a large city.  Candidly, for government oversight, most counties and cities should act less like counties and large cities.

One last point, always worth making: every time a commissioner suggests a change or addition to a plan, he or she adds an additional expense for the applicant, if even the cost of revising a plan.  These costs accumulate quickly, and when they do a planning commission becomes, in effect, a taxing commission. 

Some commissioners see this, and evidently understand that they’ve an authority that should be exercised sparingly.  Others most certainly do not see it this way, and are cavalier about demanding changes that are at bottom costs forced on private businesses. 

If these changes are not for health or safety, they’re lower order in need, but sadly no less costly to applicants.   

Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights?

JANESVILLE—The city of Janesville is losing its second economic development staff member in as many months.

Ryan Garcia, the city’s economic development coordinator announced his resignation effective Nov. 15, according to a city release Wednesday…

Via (subscription req’d)  Janesville economic development coordinator resigning @ Janesville Gazette.

Perhaps the economy-meddling, big-government conservatives at the Gazette will scrounge up some suitable candidates, as that paper’s editorial board has done so well with advice for struggling, conflict-ridden booming, politically-placid Janesville these last several years. 

Goat-Level’s Not Enough


Political bloggers – left, right, libertarian, etc. – often find themselves critiquing the ill-considered proposals that government, business, labor groups, and a fawning press insist are for everyone’s good. 

That’s certainly true in Wisconsin – we have an active blogosphere running the whole political spectrum, and united (if in little else) at least in a commitment to something of better quality than what self-serving officials and their press pals say. 

For years, serious bloggers across this state have rebutted countless flimsy schemes of state and local governments, of the misuse of data and distortion of information, against a shifting clique of glad-handing boosters.  Come on kids, let’s put on a show is not a suitable justification for policy.

It’s not just a Wisconsin problem. Writing in The Altantic, Conor Friedersdorf quotes Ezra Klein (a policy analyst and journalist) on the scourge of poor analysis in the capital:

….are Washington, D.C., political journalists excessively beholden to so-called experts and their impenetrable jargon, people with no understanding of America beyond an insular bubble, whose track record of awful recommendations includes the Vietnam War, a conflict run by “the best and the brightest”?

….Drawing on nine years in the nation’s capital, Klein acknowledges one class of obstacles. “Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research),” he explained, “but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma.” Sweet validation! I’ve often suspected that official Washington is populated by enough disingenuous, misinformation-spreading hucksters to fill an underground container of organic waste. No one has better standing to render this judgment than Klein, whose earnest, tireless embrace of deep-in-the-weeds wonkery is unsurpassed in his generation. He wouldn’t assert a whole cesspool of intellectual waste product without having seen plenty of specific examples.

His jaded view is widely held, too.

Yet it’s rare for individual faux-experts who are getting by in Washington on affiliations, connections, or charisma to be identified and called out. Surely news consumers would benefit from a rigorous jeremiad demonstrating that particular people are trafficking in misinformation. In time, their influence would wane….

See, “Washington Is a Cesspool of Faux-Experts Who Do Bad Research.”

The bloggers in our state have not held themselves out as experts.  (I certainly never have.) On the contrary, they’ve battled and won debates against self-declared experts who are actually hucksters excelling mostly in grandiose statements and mediocre (or dishonest) work. 

In this regard, these bloggers are simply like so very many ordinary people who can see through goat-level contentions & claims

There may always be a few who won’t stop pitching poop; they’re not entitled to do so without encountering a rigorous critique, in Whitewater, in Wisconsin, or in Washington.

The ‘Paris Women’ Problem

A benign but drunk man sits in a bar, and the tavern’s waitress keeps ignoring him. He tells fellow patrons that the waitress cannot be from Paris, as she’s claimed, because that’s not how ‘Paris women’ would treat someone.

That’s the scene from part of The Sure Thing, a 1985 film starring John Cusack.

The ‘Paris women’ remark is instructive, for reasons beyond the intoxicated patron’s description of Paris women rather than Parisian (let alone Parisienne) women.  It’s reasonable to conclude that the man doesn’t know much about French culture. 

That’s not so important – there’s no obligation to know particularly about France, or Sweden, or Laos, for example – most people aren’t cultural anthropologists (and shouldn’t be expected to be). 

What’s telling about the scene is that the barfly doesn’t grasp that others – including the audience – realize that he doesn’t actually know much about French culture or the women of Paris

That’s the joke, part funny & part sad – he knows what he thinks he knows, but he can’t see what other people know.

Everyone faces the risk this problem presents, and the way to overcome it is to push beyond situation bias and confirmation bias, to look at arguments and contentions from more than one perspective. 

It’s not enough to look at a problem only as an insider (that is, just one more intoxicated barfly who relies on the ignorance or acceptance of other intoxicated barflies). 

It’s critical to look at problems from a sober outsider’s view, from an American competitive standard and not just an edge-of-the-barstool view. 

Many schemes, plans, claims, contentions, and proposals go wrong when the perspective is merely from the inside.   Proponents find themselves surprised when what seemed so clear after one-too-many drinks meets with a different reception from others beyond that small, sloshed circle. 

That’s the ‘Paris Women’ problem, and how to avoid it.