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How to restore high court’s integrity PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 15 February 2012 17:30

Obscene amounts of special interest money threaten to politically corrupt the Wisconsion Supreme Court; the remedy is to appoint justices

A wise decision came out of the Wisconsin Supreme Court last week. If it is heeded, it could one day restore confidence in the state’s highest court as a fair arbiter of justice.

    No such confidence exists today. The court is perceived as a political playpen in which some justices are bound more by the influence of special interest money than by fundamental rules of judicial impartiality.

    The decision was not a ruling handed down in a case, but rather it was the decision by two respected members of the court to speak out in favor of merit selection of justices instead of direct election.

    Justices Patrick Crooks and Ann Walsh Bradley said alternative methods of selecting justices should be considered to counter the influence of money in judicial campaigns. Neither used the word “corrupt,” but it was clear that they were acknowledging what has been obvious to many observers—that election spending is corrupting the Supreme Court.

    Both justices, centrists with long tenure on the court, had formerly defended direct election of court members.

    Now, they told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, they think it’s time to explore other options because election spending has contributed to divisiveness on the court and is undermining its integrity.

    They are right.

    This is a court that became an embarrassment to the state as the scene of a scuffle between a male justice and a female justice that was investigated by authorities as a potential assault case.

    The justice-versus-justice combat has since been eclipsed as a source of nationwide contempt by the latest dubious behavior by Justice Michael Gableman, which recently earned a scolding editorial in the New York Times.

    This time it’s not about Gableman’s vile election campaign that nearly got him sanctioned by his own Supreme Court for violating the state judicial code. Now it’s about his failure to recuse himself from hearing the case that determined the legality of Wisconsin’s controversial limits on collective bargaining, even though he got free legal services from a law firm involved in the case.

    The perception is that he owed the law firm a favor, and if so he delivered it by voting in favor of the side argued by the firm that had represented him at no charge. The court upheld the Act 10 legislation by a 4-3 vote.

    Justice Bradley said last week that she favors changes “to repair the elective methods through meaningful and constitutional disclosure rules and meaningful recusal rules.” She added that this remedy might not be forthcoming, and the way justices are chosen might have to be changed.

    Make no mistake, money is the root of the evil afflicting the court. In the 2008 election between Gableman and incumbent Lewis Butler, a total of $6 million was spent, of which $4.8 million came from special interests. In the 2011 race between incumbent David Prosser and JoAnne Kloppenburg, special interests spent $4.5 million, twice as much as the candidates raised themselves.

    Much of the special interest money came from out-of-state groups bent on influencing policy and laws in Wisconsin in ways that further their agendas.

    One way to counter the influence of money in judicial elections is merit selection of justices, in which panels select qualified aspirants for judicial seats.

    Wisconsin is one of only 22 states that directly elect Supreme Court justices. Most of the other states use variants of merit selection. Twelve states allow voters to decide whether appointed justices should be retained when their terms expire.

    Direct election of justices sounds like the right thing to do. A survey taken last July by the non-partisan Justice at Stake organization found that 59% of people queried in Wisconsin opposed appointment of justices; only 23% approved.

     That shouldn’t be surprising. This is a democracy, after all, and the people should be in control of who serves on their courts.

    The problem is, with direct election they’ve lost that control to organizations that can afford to spend millions to buy influence on the court.

    Two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices have seen the light. It’s time for us all to open our eyes to it.

Uncle Sam and his city cousin want you PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 February 2012 15:28

When government can’t or won’t do its job, organizations, companies and citizens can fill the void; Port Washington has opportunities waiting

    The proposal to build an 80-foot observation tower on the high point of Port Washington’s Upper Lake Park has prompted a useful community discussion on how funds raised by civic-minded groups and donated by individuals could be better spent.

    Many people who think the tower does not belong in the park are nonetheless impressed that the group proposing it wants to raise a considerable amount of money to finance a public amenity, and alternative projects have been suggested. One, outlined in a letter to the editor in last week’s Ozaukee Press, involves a Port Washington icon, the lighthouse at the end of the north breakwater.

    The lighthouse is a widely recognized symbol of Port Washington and also a symbol of the creeping austerity in government institutions that is becoming the norm. The lighthouse is federal government property and serves an essential public need as a navigational aid. Yet maintenance of the structure is lagging, and with spreading rust it’s starting to look worn.

    You can get an idea of what a burden the feds think lighthouse maintenance is from the fact that a number of fully functioning lighthouses have been leased to private parties, in some cases as residences with terrific water views.

    The Press letter writer made his point well: The lighthouse, noteworthy for its distinctive art deco design, is Port Washington’s civic symbol, memorialized in the city logo, and it shouldn’t be allowed to look shabby. It would be a meaningful boon to the city for the Friends of the Tower, or another organization, to pay to have it painted.

    The old government services paradigm is becoming obsolete at all levels of government. It used to be taken for granted that when something under the aegis of the government—federal, state or local—needed doing, it was done, and the taxpayers paid for it. Now the idea that government can’t stretch tax dollars far enough to take care of all of its responsibilities is taking hold, and people and organizations that don’t want to see facilities valued by the public deteriorate as a result are encouraged to step up.

    Port Washington has several such needs connected with its most valuable asset, the lakefront. The very breakwater on which the lighthouse sits is deteriorating, with little or no hope of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doing its duty to maintain it anytime soon. Only the Corps can handle structural issues, but the broken ladders and missing life rings on the pier are a serious problem that lends itself to fixing by local sources.

    Here is a contribution that could save lives while at the same time improve the city’s image as a place for visitors and residents to get close to the magnificence of Lake Michigan. Fishermen and lake lovers walk out on the breakwater the year around. The lack of safety equipment is sure to lead to something bad.

    The shamefully neglected entrance to the north beach is another crying need for a group to step in and do what the city should have done years ago. Why the city has turned a blind eye to this blight is a mystery that apparently won’t be solved soon. The wide, sandy beach below the Lake Park bluffs is one of the city’s most  heavily used recreational areas, visited by thousands each year. But to get there people have to transit a pitched walkway that is rough with broken asphalt, crushed stone and concrete rubble and is frequently awash in mud, or as it was last week, covered in treacherous ice.

    In the spirit of the generous gifts made in the past to the city lakefront, including fish cleaning stations, a lakeside pavilion and a contribution that helped create the splendid downtown park jutting into the harbor, a service organization, or even a corporate donor, has an opportunity at the north beach to make a gift of enduring value by providing an attractive and safe entryway to what is surely one of the most beautiful places in the city.

    Recognition is part of this new dynamic of private sources helping government to do its job. An element of the beach entrance improvement would be the erection of a proper sign welcoming the public to this place and crediting those whose generosity made the beach easier to enjoy.           

    And wouldn’t it be nice to see plaques at the  foot of the breakwater and on the lighthouse recognizing local organizations for their good deeds there?   

Lake Park tower R.I.P. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 25 January 2012 20:01

The Common Council is poised to keep a visually disruptive structure off a high point of the park, but what were parks and planning panels thinking?

The 80-foot Upper Lake Park observation tower is as good as dead.

Rest in peace.

The Port Washington Common Council has not yet officially rejected the tower, but the comments of aldermen leave no doubt that it will not be built on the proposed Lake Park site.

The tower succumbed to the careful consideration of council members. Some of the aldermen went to the trouble of ascending to the proposed height of the structure in the fire department’s ladder truck, an exercise that revealed that the view from the tower would be underwhelming and the view of the tower from afar would be a disconcerting intrusion into lake vistas and the city skyline.

The council will do the right thing and the tower will not be built on the park bluff overlooking the lake and the city, but any satisfaction over this is tempered by the knowledge that if two other city governmental bodies had their way the outcome might have been different.

Both the Parks and Recreation Board and the Plan Commission approved the tower in the Upper Lake Park location with emphatic enthusiasm.

That an anonymous group, known only by its spokesman, with no standing as a non-profit organization or anything else, and no bona fides to offer concerning its ability to complete or finance such a project, was given a quick green light to place an enormous structure on one of the public’s most prominent and valuable pieces of parkland is as puzzling as it is alarming.

Troubling too is the fact that neither the board nor the commission expressed much concern about the aesthetic impact of a massive, utilitarian construct on a park whose natural beauty is widely praised.

This matters because the board is the steward of the public’s parkland. And the commission, by virtue of its role interpreting city codes and ordinances regulating structures, is in effect the steward of the city’s appearance.

The park site proposed for the tower ought to be regarded as sacred ground not to be made available for this use or that just because it sounds like a nifty idea.

The site is near the dramatic lake overlook in the city park created in 1934. Consisting of 63 acres of precious lakeshore land, the park was designed by Alfred L. Boerner, the renowned landscape architect who designed Milwaukee’s Whitnall Park and Boerner Botanical Gardens.

Boerner wrote that his vision for the park was a sprawling green space that would offer vistas, open meadows, wooded areas, playing fields and proximity to the water. 

It is not hard to imagine what Boerner would have thought of a blocky, eight-story tower on the high point of this public green area.

In any case, the great appeal of the park was that the land, bought by the city during the Great Depression for $25,000, came with natural vistas, some of the most magnificent views of Lake Michigan anywhere.

The PWFD demonstration made it clear that a tower would not improve on nature and that its presence would in fact diminish what nature and a gifted landscape architect had given the park.

Several council members have said they would reconsider the tower in another location, perhaps the coal dock recreation area suggested in an earlier Ozaukee Press editorial. There, in the loom of the gigantic power plant, its size and design would likely be inoffensive.

Or, as a more meaningful alternative, if the group calling itself Friends of the Tower still wants to make a generous gift to the city park system (and with an estimated cost of as much a half a million dollars the tower gift would certainly have been generous), it could fund a project to stabilize a portion of the Upper Lake Park bluff and, below it, rebuild and beautify the long neglected entrance to the north beach that is such a splendid feature of the park.

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