Whitewater Common Council Meeting, 9.9.20: 5 Points

Evening of 9.10.20: Updated with full session video. As always, the best record is a recording. Original post follows —

Last night, at a special meeting of the Whitewater Common Council, that public body voted 5-1 against consideration of a municipal ordinance to regulate mass gatherings during the pandemic. (The agenda packet, with the ordinance that has now been set aside, is available online.) The city manager and staff will, however, try to craft a proposal (although likely not a revised mass-gatherings ordinance) concerning public health now that our local campus is in session.

That’s a simple description of the meeting, but there were revealing moments last night (and from trends building before the meeting) that deserve separate and detailed consideration. Those will be presented on their own, with accompanying video clips and transcriptions of those clips, next week.

A few remarks —

1. Ripe to Rotten. The last FREE WHITEWATER post on the Whitewater Common Council mentioned that a mass-gathering ordinance was not yet ready (ripe) for commentary. A week later, that ordinance proposal has gone from not-yet-ripe to rotten. Local politics and culture always made that specific proposal a hard sell. Reacting too quickly to a proposal is something like walking toward an illusory oasis in the desert: it disappears by the time one arrives at its supposed location. See Whitewater Common Council Meeting, 9.1.20: Culture & Prohibitions.

There will be something next proposed; it’s unlikely to be the same thing.

2The Interim Chancellor. The interim chancellor at UW-Whitewater, Dr. Greg Cook, spoke a few times during the session in favor of an ordinance regulating mass gatherings off campus. He alternated during the meeting between an insistence that his hands were tied without an ordinance, to appeals to economic dependency, to public health, or to acknowledgment of campus planning failures. He didn’t take a single tack, but several, each at a different point in the meeting. Part brow-beating, part conciliatory, part lamentation, but nothing to advance the ordinance.

(In fact, the ordinance wasn’t about to pass, and the early 5-1 straw poll vote against confirmed as much. There’s a problem university administrations in Whitewater have had, for many years, understanding how non-student residents perceive them. It’s a small town, and that understanding should not be hard, but it has bedeviled more than one chancellor, interim or permanent.)

3. The Amateur Epidemiologist. Whitewater’s common council president has advanced himself as something of an amateur epidemiologist, where he both recites statistics and offers presumptions about them. He’s free to presume, but he has no training whatever to undergird those presumptions. When he’s speaking in council or writing as an ersatz reporter, he’s providing his untutored assessment of communicable disease metrics.

He’d do better simply to read the metrics without comment, as his own views only incite criticism from those whose training is no less than his (that is, whose training is equally inadequate).

(In the case of the school district, he has twice now – on 9.1.20 and 9.9.20 –  cited as a district measure one that is no longer the school board’s adopted metric for coronavirus spread. For the school board change, see Whitewater School Board Meeting, 8.24.20: 5 Points.)

 4. Municipal Prohibition. Banning gatherings was always going to be problematic in Whitewater, with concerns about freedom of activity, favoritism, and a need for the university to establish what it had done in detail before a municipal ban. I’ve supported a mask ordinance, but have had considerable doubts about the ability of the community to enforce stringent measures in a time of cultural and political division. As before: “And yet, a draft ordinance, an adopted ordinance, or a litigated ordinance will never matter more than a culture that doesn’t believe in the aims of the ordinance.”

Could all this have been different with earlier, and more, local planning? It seems possible, but then again this was always going to be fraught considering a national leadership that for months denied or delayed concerted action.

A topic to address next week —

 5. Open Government and Public Comment.  For over a decade, the Whitewater Common Council has respected principles of open government in its meetings, including fair public comment opportunities for residents. There is in this city, to her credit, an ordinance on open government that has served this city well for the last ten years. See Municipal Code, Chapter 2.62 (Whitewater Transparency Enhancement Ordinance).

Since April, there have been three council meetings in which there has been a notable retreat from the prior, sound practice of public comments at meetings. The session of 9.9.20 was the most egregious example of that departure, but there have been other departures or deprecations of the public comment period in the last five months.

Those three have been three too many. No one serves this city that way; this should not go unanswered.

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3 years ago

Good points.
This cake wasn’t baked. They may have something bake but this was not ready. Everyone gets that (almost everyone). People expect the university to do more. That’s it right there. They want rules but the meeting had multiple people contradicting the statements from the university about being proactive. It does not work to say how much people need the university when a lot of people in town aren’t directly connected to it. Lecturing about how much money the campus brings in won’t do it. The campus has to show what it does for its own students. ANything other is a nonstarter.
Yeah, there is a problem with how these meetings are being handled. This is a feeling from people across the board. Binnie acts like he wants hang up as soon as he can. He acts like other people’s opinions aren’t worth his time. This may be a bad role for him. Singer never had problems like this with letting people speak. You haven’t even mentioned his Banner stuff but that is a big topic also. We will have to see what council does next but it won’t be easy to make a dent now.

Life Resident
3 years ago

people feel like it has been too much about city sacrifice not college sacrifice. there is no more to give. people are broke! stop asking us. in dane they said students should stay in one said that here. we want others to pay for this we do not have it.

3 years ago

It’s a bad situation. No one on campus knows what will happen. There is probably not a lot the city can do. Really there is not much that the administration can do. No one wants to send students home but the Madison situation is a terrible harbinger for us. Most faculty do not expect students to stay.

Well, I see you are putting your Take Literally But Not Seriously mantra to good use for the city council’s amateur epidemiologist. I remember a neighbor kid years ago who learned about barometric pressure and would not stop telling everyone what he thought he knew about the weather. We nicknamed him Barry for a while.