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Openness report: a mix of sun and clouds PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 15:47

Since James Madison set the standard, efforts to keep the bright light of public scrutiny on government have grown—with mixed results

“A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

    A few things have changed in the more than two centuries since James Madison made the statement that is frequently cited in asserting the essential need for freedom of information in a democratic government: The federal government and many states have passed laws requiring most government meetings and certain records to be open to the public. And an observance called Sunshine Week, timed to coincide with Madison’s birthday on March 16, has been created to emphasize the importance of open government.

    Some things have not changed: Ringing statements affirming the importance of freedom of information and an informed citizenry are still being made. And some government officials, even those who give lip service to those precepts, are still trying to thwart openness in government.


    Members of the Obama administration are among them. On taking office, the president pledged that his administration would increase transparency in government. It has done the opposite.

    A study by the Associated Press has found that officials in the Obama executive branch have censored documents or denied access to records requested under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act significantly more than previous administrations. Much of this was done in the name of national security.

    National security, of course, was the reason no one in government released any information that let the American people know their telephones calls were being monitored by the National Security Agency. It is only because of former NSA employee Edward Snowden’s infamous theft and public release of his employer’s records that everyone now knows.

    Call him traitor, whistle blower or computer geek coveting fame, but Snowden has revealed a secret of government so alarming that it has resulted in the closest thing to bipartisan cooperation seen in the current polarized Congress. A number of Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, have united in condemnation of NSA’s spying on innocent citizens. No proof has been presented by the administration that any of Snowden’s disclosures threatened the nation’s security.

    In Wisconsin, the Open Meetings and Public Records laws, though not enforced as aggressively as they should be, have set a standard for openness in government that many officials take seriously. One of the most encouraging examples in the past year was the Port Washington Common Council’s insistence that the Port Main Street board of directors comply with the Open Meetings Law. The Council saw it clearly: Main Street is partially funded by tax money; decisions on how that money is spent must be made in meetings open to the public. On the darker side, incursions into open-government principles around the state have often taken the form of bogus interpretation of open meetings law exemptions, imposition of bureaucratic hindrances to open records requests and legislation that narrows freedom of information.

    In the latter area, State Sen. Glenn Grothman, who represents parts of Ozaukee and Washington counties, has taken the shut-out-the-sunshine prize by sponsoring two bills that would restrict access to information that should be public. One would limit the court records available to the public on the Consolidated Court Automation Program (CCAP) website. The other would eliminate the requirement that political campaigns disclose the employer of donors of more than $100.    

    Since James Madison’s time, the temptation to obscure the public’s view of its government has continued to be irresistible to some officials.

    They succumb because openness—that sunshine we celebrate this week—makes their jobs harder. Public scrutiny is an irritation. It’s annoying to answer all of those questions and produce all of those documents, especially when, as is often the case, it leads to criticism and opposition.         

    Democracy wasn’t meant to be easy or orderly. It’s a frustrating, messy affair. And that is the price that has to be paid for government by the people.


 
A safe breakwater—and a safe dock PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 12 March 2014 15:00

The efforts of breakwater advocates pay off in a March surprise; meanwhile the Common Council sets the stage for a better idea for Coal Dock Park dock safety

Battered for months by gales and brutal seas, Port Washington’s outer harbor emerged from the onslaught of foul weather on a halcyon day last week to find calm water, a gentle breeze and a clear sky.

    A nautical metaphor is apt, for what happened on that day brought relief to Port Washington not unlike that felt by seafarers who have survived savage storms.

    The day was Tuesday, March 4, a day when good news arrived for two critical arms of the harbor—the north side breakwater and the south side Coal Dock Park dock.

    At 5 p.m., Rep. Tom Petri telephoned Ozaukee Press to report that the Army Corps of Engineers had found enough money to do what everyone said could not be done anytime soon—repair the breakwater this year to make it safe for fishermen and walkers to use.

    Just over three hours later the Common Council made a wise decision that could lead to the installation of a proper railing on the dangerous Coal Dock Park promenade.

     For the breakwater, the Corps found $950,000 in uncommitted funding. Its contractors will be working on projects near Port Washington this spring, which will help expedite the repairs here.

    The council’s decision, encouraged by a strong showing of citizens, was to withhold approval of the so-called “curb” that has been proposed as a safety measure for the promenade along Coal Dock Park’s 1,000-foot dock. The aldermen thus provided time for the city to come to the obvious and essential conclusion that a railing is needed to guard what is now an invitation to tragedy.

    As for the unexpected breakwater development, two aspects stand out:

    First, it wasn’t just good luck. Petri, Republican congressman from Fond du Lac whose district includes most of Ozaukee County, was instrumental in making it happen, and his efforts were a sterling example of effective constituent service. But Petri was involved, and the Corps of Engineers was primed to act, because officials and citizens of Port Washington (as well as this newspaper), relentlessly advocated for help for a structure whose failure would have been a disaster for the city. The result of this campaign, which was led by Mayor Tom Mlada, is that the squeaky wheel it dramatized is about to get a shot of WD40.


    Second, the $950,000 expenditure the Corps says will yield a repair that will be good for a number of years is eye-opening. Federal officials had led people to believe it would cost as much as $17 million to make the breakwater safe. It may yet cost that much to do the complete rebuilding of the structure that the Corps says will eventually be needed, but the fact that an immediate fix can be accomplished for a veritable pittance in federal money raises questions about why this wasn’t done sooner. In any case, advocates for breakwater rebuilding will need to stay focused to ensure that long-term improvements are done at some point.

    Meanwhile, the opportunity presented by the council’s questioning of the dock plan should be put to good use by the Coal Dock Committee by abandoning the misguided idea of a curb—a concrete construct that would be only two feet high—and getting to work on a railing.     

     The faulty rationale for avoiding the obvious choice of a railing has been that it would somehow interfere with access to this deep-water dock by large vessels, including tall ships. Yet a railing and vessel access are not mutually exclusive. Docks serving large ships elsewhere have guard rails. Surely one can be designed for Port Washington that accommodates both ships and the need for a basic safety measure for park users, while being aesthetically acceptable as part of the waterfront park.                

    A  hazard any time of the year, the unprotected dock standing some 10 feet above current-laced harbor waters has been especially treacherous this winter when it was an ice-covered slide angled toward water.         

    If the debate over the dock safety issue were a court case, attorneys for the pro-railing side could find a powerful piece of evidence in a photo on the city’s own website. The picture shows a Port Washington Street Department employee working on the Coal Dock Park promenade. The edge of the dock is guarded by a temporary railing.

    If a guard rail was needed to keep strong, adult city employees safe while working on the dock in ideal weather, how can anyone argue that a permanent railing is not needed to keep children and careless adults from falling into the water?

 
Snowplowing for drivers and walkers PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 05 March 2014 18:30

Officials understand taxpayers have no tolerance for shoddy snow removal; but no worries in Port, where even walkways are plowed with alacrity

When it comes to public services, taxpayers can be quite understanding.

    Seriously. We’re not kidding.


    Citizens generally understand that municipal budgets are strained and there is a limit to how much local governments can do to make their lives more comfortable.


    Now let us add a prominent asterisk to that statement. There’s an exception, and it’s a big one. Taxpayers are understanding about most municipal services, but not about snowplowing. Definitely not snowplowing.


    It’s hard enough to endure a brutal winter like this one without having to deal with streets and roads that are not cleared of snow and ice with reasonable speed. The public has zero tolerance for letting that happen.


    The attitude is universal, found anywhere in the U.S. where snow falls. Years ago Chicago voters famously ousted a mayor because city streets weren’t adequately plowed after a series of snowstorms. In February the new mayor of New York started his job under withering criticism for his inadequate response to a storm that all but paralyzed the city. The governor of Georgia may yet pay a political price for his spectacular failure in preparing for the winter storm three weeks ago that shut Atlanta down for two days. Across the snowy reaches of America, public officials are on notice that failure to keep roads free enough of snow and ice to allow reasonably safe travel is not an option.

    Officials around here obviously get that. From all reports, the Ozaukee County Highway Department and the public works departments of the cities and villages in the county are doing yeoman’s work dealing with snowfalls that seem to occur every three or four days.


    In the City of Port Washington, during the winter its snowplowing boss, Street Supt. Dave Ewig, ranks as the worst in his 37 years as a city employee, a force of up to 22 workers from the street and water departments starts plowing and salting streets at 2 a.m. after a nighttime snowfall. The early start is needed because more than 55 miles of streets have to be cleared for the morning traffic of school buses and workers heading for jobs.


    That’s pretty much the norm for other well managed communities too, but Port Washington stands apart from many of them for its snowplowing services that benefit walkers rather than car and truck drivers. Throughout this winter distinguished by the frigid air of the polar vortex and snow accumulating in small but maddeningly frequent increments that feel like the climatological equivalent of death by a thousand cuts, Port Washington’s public walkways have been cleared without fail by power sweepers, snowblowers and small plows.


    This is a significant benefit, because Port Washington is a walkers’ town. Besides standard sidewalks adjacent to private property (where snow removal is the owners’ responsibility), this city has mile after mile (no one knows exactly how many miles but it’s certainly in the double digits) of marvelous walkways that take people along a waterfront that is a magnificent sight even in winter, on the bike trail through the wooded ravine that is well populated by songbirds and (of course) deer the year around and through many parks, including the incomparable Rotary Park and Coal Dock Park at the harbor.


    For the many city residents who enjoy walking (or running or mountain bike riding), the work done by the staff of the Street Department and the Park and Recreation Department to keep walkways walkable amounts to an antidote for cabin fever.


    Sure it’s a rough winter, but in Port Washington that’s no excuse to forego outside exercise or the manifold visual pleasures of the lakefront, parks and bike trail, thanks to the snow removal crews that take as good care of pedestrians as they do of motorists.


 
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