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Fight this move to silence citizens on natural resources PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 18 February 2015 18:50

The move to strip a citizens board of its power to counter political control of conservation must be stopped by the Legislature

If Gov. Scott Walker has his way, the outdoors-loving citizens of Wisconsin who have had a voice for decades in the management of the state’s natural resources will be silenced. Before that happens, the anglers, hunters, campers, hikers, boaters, birdwatchers, bikers, skiers, conservation supporters, every person who has a care for Wisconsin’s natural environment should be anything but silent. They should be loud and they should say to state legislators: Don’t you dare let this attempt to take oversight of the stewardship of our resources away from the public and give it to political interests succeed.

    The attempt is in a proposal in the governor’s 2015-17 budget that would end the power of the Natural Resources Board to vote on policy decisions of the Department of Natural Resources. The board is made up of seven citizens appointed by the governor.


    The change would be radical. The board has had authority over DNR rules and decisions since it was created by state statute in 1927.


    The change would kill the last vestige of citizen control of natural resource management. The role of the board’s members would be limited to “advisory only.” DNR authority would reside exclusively in the office of the politically appointed DNR secretary.


    The move would further shut off citizen input to the DNR’s resource management by rendering the Wisconsin Conservation Congress useless. The congress, which has five delegates from each county, was established by state law to give recommendations on conservation issues from the public to the Natural Resources Board, which then could act on them in determining DNR policy.

The governor’s proposal stands out boldly in the budget, as though it were wrapped in deer hunters’ blaze orange. Like all recent Wisconsin budgets, the new Walker spending plan includes plenty of policy matters masked as financial issues, but with the natural resources move there is no pretense about being a legitimate budget item. The proposal has nothing to do with money. Natural Resources Board members are not paid. Taking away the board’s power will do nothing to alleviate the state’s deficit.

    Nor is any need for change addressed by the move. The DNR has functioned well with a measure of citizen control. The record over many years shows that the Natural Resources Board has effectively balanced the interests of the individuals who enjoy the state’s parks, waters and hunting grounds with those of business and environmentalists.


    All of this has been done in full public view. Meetings of the Natural Resources Board are 100% open to the public without exception. If the board is denied a voting role, decisions of the type it once made will likely never see the light of day until they’re final when exclusively in the hands of a political appointee.


    The National Resources Board has been a safeguard against political contamination of the management of the state’s natural resources, the sort of influence buying implicit, for example, in the secret donation of $700,000 by Gogebic Taconite, the company seeking to develop an environmentally controversial iron mine in northern Wisconsin, to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a major Walker election supporter.


    George Meyer, who was DNR secretary under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, called the stripping of power from the board “the final removal of citizen-based conservation in Wisconsin. It gives all the power to the political appointee of the governor.”


    Meyer is currently executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, one of more than a dozen conservation organizations that have come out against the governor’s proposal.


    Wisconsin citizens need to add their voices to this opposition. Nothing that Wisconsin has to offer its people is more valuable than its incomparable natural resources, and the people are entitled to a voice in deciding how those resources are used and protected.

 
Shortchanging education is not the Wisconsin Idea PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 11 February 2015 19:46

The governor’s budget, with its slashed education funding and failed attack on the UW mission, feeds a perception of hostility to public schools

Is it merely a case of misplaced priorities or is it outright hostility to public schools?

    The question refers to the treatment of education, from K-12 to universities, in the budget proposed by Gov. Scott Walker.

    Following funding reductions in a previous Walker budget that ranked as the biggest cuts in state school aid in the nation, the new budget proposes to decrease state money for public schools by another $150 per student in the first year of the 2015-16 budget.

    The budget drops the other shoe on education by cutting state funds for the University of Wisconsin system by $300 million. If approved by the Legislature, it would be the largest cut to UW ever.

    These cuts come with no rationale, no attempt at justification other than the refrain that state has a deficit that mandates reduced spending.

     This is the deficit that was not supposed to exist given the state’s improved economy and the governor’s claim to have fixed the so-called structural deficit so successfully that taxes could be cut. Yet the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau is now forecasting a shortfall of as much as $2 billion.

    The budget feeds a perception that the Walker administration has a special animus for public education.

    The same budget that reduces funding for already hard-pressed school districts provides increased funding for private schools. The same budget that cuts state money for UW by 13% also included, in the first version made public last week, a stunning rewriting of the university’s mission statement that erased the long respected Wisconsin Idea.

    The Wisconsin Idea is the principle embedded in the UW mission: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” The University of Wisconsin mission statement, which was written more than a century ago and became known as the Wisconsin Idea as admiration for it grew across the nation, honors the idea of public service and cites the university’s purpose to not only educate people, but to serve society and “improve the human condition.” The statement is recorded in a state statute.

    That soaring language was crossed out in the Walker budget and replaced with a new UW mission—“to meet the state’s workforce needs.”

    Walker’s attempt to redefine UW, one of America’s great public universities, as a trade school, and presumably an institution that could get by with $300 million less in state support, will be remembered as one of the more astonishing miscalculations in the state’s political history.

    The governor apparently didn’t reckon with the fact that a vast number of state residents, including conservatives and Republicans who voted for him, are graduates and proud and loyal supporters of the UW system. When his attempt to change the university’s mission became public, the reaction, including veritable explosions of criticism in social media, was overwhelmingly negative.

    Walker backed down quickly but clumsily, claiming the mission changes were a “drafting error.” The claim was found to be a pants-on-fire lie by the Politifact network and the language has been excised from the budget.

    Nonetheless, the Wisconsin Idea is still under attack in the budget. Its noble aspirations apply not just to the university, but to the state of Wisconsin, and its precepts have guided the state in its progressive tradition as a national leader in good government and good education. The proposed cutbacks in state education spending stand in the way of living up to its ideals.

    Simply put, the spending cuts, if not mitigated by the Legislature, will hurt education in Wisconsin, from kindergarten to the UW’s graduate schools.

    The governor was forced by overwhelming public opinion to abandon his attempt to change the purpose of the state’s university system. Now it would be a service to the people of Wisconsin—and in spite of presidential campaign distractions he is still duty bound to serve them—if he would realize on his own that adequate funding for schools is essential to, as the still vital Wisconsin Idea expresses it, “educate people and improve the human condition.”



 
It’s no time to abandon Port’s senior center PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 04 February 2015 18:13

As the population ages, Port’s facility for seniors serves a key role in providing services that enrich the lives of city’s oldest residents and the community as a whole

As the American population grows increasingly older, senior centers that provide services ranging from wellness programs to activities that encourage senior citizens to remain active and involved in their communities are more important than ever.

    That’s what the experts say, and the importance they place on senior centers should be considered a resounding affirmation of the City of Port Washington’s long-standing policy of providing a facility and programs for senior citizens.

    Long before the Baby Boomers began flooding the ranks of senior citizens, Port officials realized the importance of maintaining a center and offering programs for its oldest residents. In 1972, The Port Washington Senior Center was established when the city used money provided by the Older Americans Act to renovate the former firehouse at the corner of Pier and Wisconsin streets.

    In 2011, city officials opted to lease the former St. John’s Church on West Foster Street and move the senior center there, a questionable decision that has contributed to the uncertainty surrounding the future of a senior center in Port.

    Almost overnight, it seems, City Hall’s attitude toward the Port Senior Center has changed. City Administrator Mark Grams said last month it’s unlikely the city will provide a center after its lease on the former church property expires in two years. A needs assessment has been commissioned to determine what senior services are needed in the future.

    While the city’s role in providing future services for senior citizens is nebulous, it’s clear that if it does not provide a senior center as it has for more than 40 years, services for Port Washington’s oldest residents will be greatly diminished at a time when an aging population makes them more important than ever.

    Consider that the median age of Ozaukee County residents is 44.5 years — among the oldest in southeastern Wisconsin — and the segment of the county’s population that is 65 and older jumped from 15% in 2000 to nearly 28% in 2010, and it makes the move to abandon the senior center that much more vexing.

    Aldermen aren’t questioning the demographics, but the thinking seems to be that future senior citizens won’t need or want a senior center.

    Ald. Bill Driscoll, a member of the city’s Commission on Aging and an ad-hoc committee studying the future of senior services, has questioned the need for a center and said alternatives include having seniors share facilities with other organizations or provide their own center.

    “I’m 57, and I cannot picture ever going to a senior center,” he said. “I’m very busy, very active. I can’t picture a day when it will be different.”

    Driscoll may never darken the doorway of the senior center, but that doesn’t mean others don’t rely on it for everything from a meal site to a place to socialize and participate in a growing number of programs.

    The Port Senior Center has 488 members, and the programs it offers have multiplied to include the Green Felt Club pool league, Chicks With Sticks knitting group, exercise and wellness classes, art and craft programs and book clubs.

    While the city pays for the center and the salary of a director, seniors pay a membership fee, albeit nominal, and a fee for some programs.

    Whether the senior citizens of the future — Baby Boomers who work until later in life and remain active longer — will find value in senior centers is a question that has been asked and answered. Ronald Aday, director of aging studies at Middle Tennessee State University, has concluded that while senior centers must evolve to meet the needs of a changing demographic, they will continue to serve a vital role in providing services such as wellness programs and remain the means by which older adults remain active and engaged in their communities.

    The merits of senior centers aside, the city’s current course of action looks a little like an exit strategy. In 2011, with its center in the former firehouse in need of renovation, officials chose the new site in the former church, and not just because officials thought it would be a good facility for seniors.

     By agreeing to lease the former church from the owners of Franklin Energy, whose offices were there, the city not only convinced the company to stay in Port but filled vacant office space on the second floor of the downtown Smith Bros. building, which has since been Franklin Energy’s headquarters.

    But now, after investing $235,300 to make a former church and office building a senior center, the city is having renters’ remorse. The building, officials have said, is not an ideal facility for a senior center, and the annual rent payment is difficult for some aldermen to abide.

    This may be true, but a bad deal for seniors three years ago isn’t reason for the city to abandon its four-decades-long policy of providing a senior center. Instead, confident that tax dollars are well spent on a facility that is important to delivering services that have and will continue to improve the quality of life for a rapidly growing segment of the population and the city as a whole, aldermen should commit to maintaining a Port Senior Center. Then they, with input from senior citizens and others, can decide whether the current facility will do or if it’s time to find a new home for the center.



 
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