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Prison for a teen locker room video? Really? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 11 January 2017 19:58

It would defy common sense to think that the Wisconsin legislators who voted to enact the state’s revenge porn law in 2014 intended to give law enforcement a tool to crack down on locker room horseplay by teenage boys. 

Yet the law is being used to charge a 17-year-old Port Washington High School student with a felony punishable by 1-1/2 years in state prison for posting a video of another boy’s buttocks taken in the school locker room.

The colloquial name of the law describes the behavior the law aims to punish: Maliciously posting sexually explicit photos of former lovers or spouses as acts of revenge.

Nothing like that was involved in the behavior of the Port High senior. According to the complaint, the boy, who is charged as an adult, made a cell phone video showing a student’s bare backside as he tried to retrieve underpants someone had thrown on top of a speaker box. The alleged crime consists of posting the video on Snapchat, the mobile app that displays submitted images for 10 seconds and then deletes them.

Locker room horseplay is nothing new. Often it’s just boisterous fun, though it can be mean bullying. In any case, it’s behavior that is best avoided, but it’s not usually behavior that results in intervention by police and courts. Social media seems to have changed that. Opting not to handle the video incident as a matter to be dealt with by the school, high school administrators called the police.

The Snapchat post that drew attention to the locker room activities could have deprived the subject of the video of privacy and exposed him to ridicule. Discipline for the student who sent the video for its 10-second run on Snapchat is warranted. But a felony charge?

The charge is so out of proportion with the offense that it mocks the generally accepted definition of a felony as a crime serious enough to justify a prison term along with the loss of various rights, including the right to vote. Can anyone imagine a 17-year-old boy being sent to prison for posting a locker room video?

Over charging is a standard prosecutor’s gambit frequently used as leverage to speed the wheels of justice by motivating defendants to accept plea bargains. But in this instance it’s an unnecessarily hard-nosed tactic that inflicts punishment even before the case is decided. 

Regardless of the outcome of the case, the stigma of being charged with a felony could follow the boy for years, affecting his ability to enroll in college and start on a successful working career. The seriousness of the charge also means that the accused boy’s family is facing the significant cost of a lawyer to safeguard his rights in the plea bargaining and court process.

District Attorney Adam Gerol is a respected litigator with a solid record prosecuting offenders and managing of the Ozaukee DA’s office. His decision to bend a law designed to punish the malicious use of pornographic images to fit locker room behavior that appears to be more prank than crime is surprising and disappointing. If prosecution is truly justified, Wisconsin statutes offer ample means to apply a misdemeanor charge to an offense of this nature. 

Many successful prosecutors are known for their unrelenting focus on doing whatever it takes to win a guilty plea or verdict. That’s not needed in this case. The accused teenager has admitted posting the video, according to the complaint. What is needed is a touch of the spirit of a hallowed tenet of justice: The punishment should fit the crime.

Driving the DOT bus on a bumpy road PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 04 January 2017 18:31

There will be no speculation here as to whether Mark Gottlieb retired as Wisconsin’s secretary of the Department of Transportation just because he wanted to, or was asked politely to step aside, or was summarily fired. 

No matter what the reason he is leaving the cabinet post on Friday, it doesn’t change the fact that he gave the state outstanding service for six years trying to do a job that ultimately proved to be impossible.

Interviewed by Ozaukee Press when he was appointed transportation secretary by Gov. Scott Walker, he called it his “dream job.” When interviewed by the Press about his retirement last week, he said, “I’m just not talking about it.” He didn’t have to; everyone could see that the most important part of his job—keeping up with the state’s needs for highway maintenance and construction—had turned into something more like a nightmare than a dream.

The DOT chief’s hands were tied by the insistence of the governor that no new revenue, not even that which would result from a modest increase in the gas tax, be spent on roads. During his tenure, Gottlieb put together creative financing proposals that paired the bonding favored by the governor with a small gas-tax hike and some experimental use of fees based on miles driven. But nothing flew against the anti-tax wind that prevailed in Madison.

As a team player, Gottlieb gave the governor the budget he wanted for the coming biennium —one that included no new revenue, just new borrowing, but not enough for the state to stay on pace with its road repair and building needs. 

In a statement that was as honest as it was politically incorrect, Gottlieb told the Assembly Transportation Committee several weeks before his retirement was announced that the effect of the budget would be to double the number of roads in poor condition in the state in the next 10 years.

Gottlieb was also known to tell it like it was when he was the mayor of Port Washington, a position he held after serving as a city alderman and before being elected to the state Assembly. The Common Council meetings over which he presided were known for the open and frank airing of issues, often marked by lively and illuminating exchanges among council members and the citizens in attendance.

The city generally fared well under Gottlieb, though this editorial page did not agree with the mayor’s approach to the most important issue he faced—the decision that ensured that the city would have a huge power plant on its lakefront far into the future.

When We Energies announced that it planned to shut down the Port Washington coal-fired plant and replace it with a new one using gas-fired generators, Press editorials, arguing that the city and its residents deserved relief from the nuisance of the power plant they had endured for some 70 years, urged the mayor and council to deny permits for the new plant and acquire the lakefront site for public use and non-intrusive private development.

An engineer through and through and a practical man, Gottlieb measured the difficulty of a small town with limited resources fighting a giant utility to rid the site of the massive structure and the residue of its operations, and with council backing opted to make a deal.

The results of the arduous negotiations led by Gottlieb are obvious today. The city has the new plant on its lakefront—enormous, brutally industrial, shockingly out of place. But it also has possession of the former power plant’s deep-water dock, the sprawling Coal Dock Park, more than 40 acres of former We Energies lakeshore land soon to be developed, access to the south beach and an annual cash stipend from the utility in lieu of taxes.

It’s not the perfect outcome, but it is one that benefits the city significantly, and Gottlieb would be entitled to regard it as his legacy to his hometown.

As for his record as transportation secretary, he won’t be able to claim credit for smooth roads. But that is not for lack of trying as the head of a huge and complex department of state government who, as Assembly Majority Leader Robin Voss put it in a gracious send-off, was “one of our most hard-working and articulate public leaders” whose “expertise and candor will be missed.”

Short shrift for knowledge PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 28 December 2016 16:25

If the term “knowledge economy” is accurate, it is no wonder that Wisconsin is underachieving compared to other Midwest states.

The term is frequently used to describe these economic times in which innovation, research and a well educated workforce are essential to the ability of regions and states to compete and thrive.

The government of Wisconsin, where job creation lags well behind that of neighboring states, continues to demonstrate hostility to the public education that is an essential element in a knowledge economy.

That hostility is evident in a list of actions and attempted actions by the Legislature and the governor that includes: some of the most drastic cuts in state funding for K-12 public schools in the nation; cuts totalling $362 million in state funding for the University of Wisconsin system since 2012; the governor’s attempt to rewrite UW’s mission statement to resemble that of a vocational school; the Legislature’s attempt to do away with teacher licensing.

Now the threat by some Republican legislators to deny additional funding for the university system if UW-Madison does not cancel a course they don’t like can be added to the list.

The title of the course, an elective, is “The Problem of Whiteness.” It deals with racism, which would seem to be a relevant topic. The spokesman for the objecting legislators, State Rep. Dave Murphy of Greenville, says the course must be eliminated because it would add to “the polarization of races in our state.”

But Murphy is on the hunt for more than polarization in his bid to wield veto power over the UW curriculum as a representative from a Fox Valley city about the size of Port Washington. He said he has instructed his staff to examine other courses to see if “they’re legit.” The legislator, who has some clout as chairman of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, indicated that funding will suffer if the university refuses to honor his definition of “legit” courses.

Regardless of his threats, it is unlikely the university, which is governed by the Board of Regents, not the Legislature, will bend to interference from officials who were not elected to police the course offerings of the UW system. Academic freedom is not so easily sacrificed at a university famously dedicated to the “fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Yet the threats expose a vindictive streak in the Legislature and suggest the possibility that previous cuts in UW funding were meant to punish the public university where diversity of thought has flourished for 169 years.

There is no question that the effect of the cuts has been punishing. The fall of UW-Madison from the top five U.S. research universities, where it has been ranked for 44 years, is widely attributed to budget cuts caused by reduced state funding. 

The drop in the status of this world-class university could have economic reverberations far beyond the world of academia. The UW system contributes $15 billion a year to the state economy, a substantial part of which is tied to research. While doing that it provides a first-class education for young men and women who will be the key to the state’s economic future. 

The UW budget for the next two years calls for $42.5 million in increased state support so it can attract and retain the best teachers and researchers and improve neglected facilities on its campuses.

Now some legislators are saying UW might not get any of it if its courses don’t pass their “legit” test.

How that works out will be a clue to whether Wisconsin is going to have a knowledge economy or a know-nothing economy.

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