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Wired for arrogance PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 02 April 2014 18:51

AT&T’s demand for nearly $100,000 to bury phone lines in lakefront parking lots is an affront to taxpayers by a utility shielded from regulation

The arrogance flaunted by AT&T in telling the City of Port Washington it can like its outrageous charge of almost $100,000 to bury parking lot telephone lines or lump it should surprise no one.
 
   The Wisconsin Legislature in 2011 passed a law that granted AT&T immunity from regulation by the Public Service Commission, allowing the company to charge customers any price it wants for landline telephone service and to treat customer complaints with any degree of indifference it wants. It’s obvious that AT&T now feels empowered to stick it to taxpayers as well as customers.

    The near six-figure charge is a joke, but no one is laughing except AT&T. There are only a few telephone wires to put underground as part of the city’s project to improve the lakefront parking lots behind the Duluth Trading Co. storeand Port Washington State Bank. What’s more, AT&T won’t have to dig the trenches; its lines will go into the same trenches used for We Energies power lines.

    The city has asked AT&T to reduce the charge to a reasonable amount that reflects its actual costs, but according to one alderman, “it will not budge.”

    This would send the telephone company to the top of any graph tracking utility rip-offs of communities trying to improve the look of their streets and public spaces. The utilities have the municipalities at their mercy in projects that require putting overhead wires underground, and experience around here shows they take full advantage of it.

    In 2010, members of the Port Washington Common Council were appalled when We Energies charged almost half a million dollars to bury power lines along a short stretch of the rebuilt Highway 33. The bill was paid. It would have made no sense to invest in the rebuilding and beautification of the thoroughfare between Port and Saukville without clearing the sky of the blight of wires and poles.

    (Incidentally, in another gauge of the absurdity of the proposed parking lot charge, AT&T charged only $11,500 to bury its lines for that Highway 33 project less than four years ago.)

    In the Village of Fredonia, plans to eliminate the utility poles and wires in the rebuilding of Fredonia Avenue were dashed when the cost estimate for burying the lines came in at a breathtaking $600,000 to $1 million. The village asked voters in a non-binding referendum two years ago if the money should be spent. You can’t blame the majority for voting no.

    With their inflated charges for burying lines, the utilities are blocking progress communities need to make. The necessary improvement of streets and public spaces requires enormous investments of taxpayer money; to do that without addressing community aesthetics makes no sense. Utilities should be supporting efforts to make their infrastructure less obtrusive

    Judging from the aerial clutter, you would think electricity and communication via wires were new inventions—utilities are still stringing wires on poles the way it was done a century ago.

    It’s not just about unsightliness. As power outages from storms and accidents attest, overhead wires are vulnerable. Burying all utility lines to make them safer, more reliable and out of sight is for now an unrealistic goal, but doing it in increments should be a policy: When utility lines are installed or moved, they should go underground.

    To its credit, Fredonia has not surrendered in the wires war. Village President Chuck Lapicola said the village still hopes some of the utility lines along its new main street can be buried. Trustee Jill Bertram persuasively expressed the reason to do that, saying it could be 35 years before the road is rebuilt again, “so we’ll never get another chance in our lifetime.”

    As for Port Washington’s parking lot project, the utility lines are going to be buried regardless of the cost. If AT&T insists on extorting nearly $100,000 from taxpayers and the private property owners who will be covering some of the cost, all that is left to say is: Shame on AT&T.

 
When local government is outgunned PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 26 March 2014 16:25

Saukville proved to be no match for a powerful corporation in a fight to control land use in line with its plan for growth

The authority of small municipalities to regulate land use is no match for corporate power.

    We refer anyone who doubts that statement to the saga of Kwik Trip and the Village of Saukville.

    The story began in 2012 when Saukville officials told Kwik Trip, a billion-dollar corporation, that it could not build a complex containing a gas station, convenience store and car wash on land at the northwest corner of Highway 33 and Foster Street.

    It ended on March 13, 2014, when the Saukville Plan Commission voted to approve a conditional-use permit that will allow Kwik Trip to build its gas station complex.

    How did that happen? The answer is simple: The billion-dollar corporation would not take no for an answer. Unlike ordinary citizens who think no means no when their application for a conditional-use permit is denied, Kwik Trip was confident that no just means try again—and again and again if necessary. It was so confident it bought the land without approval to build on it.

    Saukville’s first no was unequivocal. Village officials were adamant that they did not want a gas station on prime commercial land in a designated entertainment district where a hotel was the preferred use of the site targeted by Kwik Trip.

    As the company persisted, the village based its opposition on the fact that the gas station would violate a Saukville ordinance by being too close to a wetland that drains into the Milwaukee River.  

    To a corporation with Kwik Trip’s resources, this was a softball lob waiting to be hit out of the park. There are many ways for developers to get around wetland protection regulations; when Kwik Trip representatives appeared before the Plan Commission two weeks ago they presented a package of pollution mitigation measures that seemed to answer every wetland issue.

    Even so, the Plan Commission was less than enthusiastic. The motion to approve the permit almost failed for lack of a second. Two commission members who were strongly opposed to the development refused to take part in the voting. Finally, the permit was approved by a 5-0 vote.

    Much was made at the meeting, with repeated warnings from the village attorney, of the fact that the Plan Commission cannot base denial of a conditional-use permit for a business on a desire to protect similar businesses from competition. The owners of two gas station-convenience stores located near the Kwik Trip site predicted at a public hearing that Plan Commission approval would have devastating consequences for their businesses.

    It is true that the village government must not get involved in trying to regulate competition, but from a planning standpoint it certainly was justified in considering the impact Kwik Trip would have on the mix of businesses in one small part of the village. The vision Saukville officials had for developing the great potential of the village’s eastern commercial corridor surely did not include three gas station-convenience stores clustered in two blocks of Highway 33. But that is the reality they’re stuck with now.

    It may be small consolation, but Saukville officials who opposed Kwik Trip can at least point to some positive results from their battle. They were able to get the company to drop its plan for a diesel pumping station to service semis, which could have clogged Highway 33 with heavy truck traffic from I-43. At the village’s insistence, the traffic pattern and building design were improved over the original plan. And the company has pledged to help the village find a desirable buyer for land it owns adjacent to its gas station site, such as a hotel or restaurant.           

    It can be said too that though the development is not in the best interests of Saukville and Kwik Trip pulled no punches in getting its way, the community will at least be getting a corporate resident of good repute. The company is a well regarded family-owned business based in LaCrosse that has achieved remarkable success, with some 500 gas station-convenience stores and annual revenues approaching $5 billion.

    None of this changes the fact that the Plan Commission’s action gives Saukville a development it doesn’t want. Which is more evidence that corporate power trumps municipal authority.

 
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.


 
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