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A cloud over government transparency PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 March 2017 19:20

The people of Wisconsin should be told less about the actions of their elected officials.

That message is implicit in bills in the state Senate and Assembly that would repeal the state law requiring that meeting minutes, ordinances and budgets of municipalities and school districts be published in newspapers.

The bills would allow local governments to satisfy public notice requirements by posting the information on their own websites.

This legislation would make it harder for citizens to get information about their government and would be a setback for the transparency that is an essential element of democracy.

Newspaper publication of public notices, required by law in every state as one of the checks and balances of government, ensures an independent source of easily accessible government information—a permanent, unedited record of the actions of public officials.

Citizens should not have to search for this information on websites controlled by government agencies. It should be presented, as it is now, on the pages of the newspapers most citizens rely on for information about their elected governments.

Acting to reduce the availability of government information to the public is hard to defend, thus supporters of killing the newspaper public notice requirement have had to resort to the argument that it will save the taxpayers money.

Newspapers are paid to publish government minutes, budgets and ordinances. The rates are set by the state Department of Administration as part of detailed regulations that also specify the typestyle and size of the printed notices.

The payment rates, substantially less than commercial advertisers pay for newspaper space, barely cover the cost of processing and printing the information. 

In newspaper public notices, taxpayers get good value for expenditures that represent a tiny fraction of government budgets.

When Port Washington aldermen passed a resolution late last year supporting legislation to end the newspaper public notice requirement, it was in character for city officials who have often appeared insensitive to the public’s right to know about the actions of their elected representatives. 

The aldermen who urged state legislators to relieve them of the requirement to publish meeting minutes in Ozaukee Press, the city’s official newspaper, were the same Common Council members who held an unprecedented series of closed meetings from which the public and press were excluded in 2016. 

The meetings were mostly about the subject that has ignited strong public opposition, the proposed Blues Factory development on the lakefront, and were frequently followed by unanimous votes in favor of the development with little public discussion.

In a letter to the editor published in last week’s Ozaukee Press, Ald. Bill Driscoll exaggerated the potential savings of eliminating the newspaper public notice requirement by more than 50% and made dubious claims about declining newspaper readership (as does State Sen. Duey Stroebel in a letter in this issue of the Press).

Surveys have shown that Wisconsin residents depend on newspapers for information about government more than any other source. Circulation of community newspapers—those most affected by the proposed public notice change—remains robust. 

Readership of Ozaukee Press, the largest paid circulation community weekly in Wisconsin, is steady or growing in all of the communities the newspaper serves. In Port Washington, more than 75% of the households are reached by Ozaukee Press.

The Press, which devotes significant staff time and newspaper space to comprehensive coverage of local government in the communities it serves, is the primary source of public knowledge of local government issues in Ozaukee County. 

The official record of government activities, including the complete text of ordinances and budgets, belongs where citizens go to get information about their local government—in newspapers. Ending that is bad public policy that would erode open government. The public should not stand for it.

Let state law banning guns at schools stand PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 01 March 2017 17:59

Is the convenience of people who carry concealed guns more important than the safety of students, local control of schools and the views of a majority of the public?

The answer should be obvious, but State Rep. Rob Brooks (R-Saukville) doesn’t seem to get it. He and State Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) introduced legislation last year that would force school districts to allow guns on school grounds.

The bill did not advance in 2016 and it is not clear what its prospects for passage in the current legislative session are. Given the demonstrated influence in the Legislature of the NRA gun lobby, whose agenda calls for eliminating gun-free zones such as schools, anything is possible. 

Sensible existing state law forbids guns carried by civilians, including concealed-carry permit holders, on school grounds and in school buildings. Most school districts have policies reinforcing that ban.

The Brooks-Lazich bill would weaken the state law and limit school districts to restricting firearms only in school buildings where classes are taught. Concealed-carry permit holders would be allowed to have guns on school grounds and, apparently, at school facilities not physically part of school buildings, such as athletic fields, stadiums and fieldhouses.

One purpose of the bill is to relieve conceal-carry permit holders of the risk of violating the current law by driving onto school grounds with guns in their vehicles. This would be a convenience for armed citizens that could come at a price. Schools and their grounds are gun-free zones for a simple reason: The presence of guns is a safety risk.

Since 2007, according to data gathered by the Violence Policy Center, shootings by concealed-carry permit holders have caused 898 deaths in America that did not involve self-defense. The toll includes 139 deaths caused by permit holders in 29 mass shootings.

What is disturbing about the bill, besides its effect of introducing deadly weapons into children’s environments, is that it steps on local control of schools. Brooks has described the bill, which is misleadingly named the “Wisconsin School Zone Empowerment Act,” as “empowering school boards to develop conceal-carry policies,” but in fact it would deprive elected boards of power—the power to declare their school grounds off limits to guns, an authority the public supports. 

A survey conducted by the highly respected Marquette University Law School polling organization last year found that 65% of Wisconsin residents oppose allowing concealed-carry permit holders to have guns on school grounds.

The current state law makes possession of a gun on school grounds or in school buildings a felony. The Brook-Lazich bill would reduce the crime of taking a gun into a school building to a misdemeanor, and would extend the privilege of carrying guns on school grounds to not only holders of permits issued in Wisconsin, but those from other states as well.

When the bill was introduced a year ago, it drew criticism from a number of school officials. Recently, opposition to the bill has been voiced in the Grafton School District by the public, as well as by school board members.

A parent told the school board at its Jan. 23 meeting that the bill endangers children’s safety and raises “the risk of deadly accidents.” Board member Clayton Riddle urged the board to “vehemently oppose” the legislation for taking away local control. At a meeting last week, board member Julia McNally called for a resolution opposing the bill. The board will consider sample resolutions at its next meeting.

Other school boards that object to “empowerment” that weakens their ability to keep their students safe should follow Grafton’s example and get ahead of this misguided legislation.

Balancing citizen and business rights PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 22 February 2017 17:42

Residents of the hamlet of Little Kohler in the far northwest corner of Ozaukee County may soon get a bit of relief from a persistent nuisance. It’s about time—they’ve had to put up with the aggravation for years.

The nuisance derives from the popularity of a tavern near a cluster of homes. The bar doesn’t have adequate parking for its many patrons, who end up parking their cars, trucks and motorcycles along Highway H, sometimes intruding on private property, sometimes creating hazardous congestion on the county road.

It’s government’s responsibility to deal with the problem, but the Fredonia Town Board, which has jurisdiction over Little Kohler, has done little until now, except to enact a permit system several years ago to limit the number of live performances the bar can host, to respond to the residents’ complaints.

No doubt it’s an uncomfortable situation for town supervisors. On one hand, they see something desirable—a local business that is thriving, with a hard-working owner who has brought success to the Little Kohler Haus, a historic establishment (subject of an Ozaukee Press feature story several years ago) that for most of its more than 80 years of existence was a sleepy roadside watering hole. They seem to feel that, as articulated by Supr. Mark Schubert, “You can’t run a guy down for running his business the way he wants.”

On the other hand, they are getting legitimate complaints from constituents about a business that is annoying its neighbors and making travel on Little Kohler’s “main street”—Highway H—more dangerous than it should be. 

A vexing conflict, to be sure, but resolving it is what local government representatives are elected to do. Almost all towns, villages and cities have to face it at one time or another. When a business, whether it's an industrial operation plaguing neighbors with overloud equipment noise, noxious fumes or heavy truck traffic or a tavern whose crowds can overwhelm a neighborhood, infringes on the rights of citizens to lead relatively undisturbed lives in their homes and yards and be safe in using nearby roads, the public should come first.

It is fortunate for the residents that Highway H is a county road, because now the county government is involved and is providing the impetus for mitigating at least some of the problem. 

The county’s Traffic Safety Commission’s response was to propose a ban on parking on the north side of the road between Highway E and Kohler Drive, a distance of just over a quarter of a mile.

Town Board members thought that went too far. Supr. Jim Stemper argued against the no-parking zone, but in doing so helped illuminate the problem, pointing out that the cause was bar customers who ignore the rights of property owners. “It was a little country tavern,” he said, “but now it can draw 200 to 300 people to an event.” 

The Town Board proposed the compromise of banning parking on both sides of Highway H for a distance of about half of what the county commission recommended, and last week the county’s Public Works Committee went along with it.

If the parking ban is approved by the County Board, enforcement will be up to the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department, which could improve the residents’ plight in other ways.

It’s no secret that part of the neighbors’ irritation stems from the disturbance made by bar patrons when leaving the establishment at late hours, especially the many who ride motorcycles and like to punctuate the evening’s fun with a detonation of unmuffled, sleep shattering Harley exhaust noise. The presence of deputies might dampen some of that exuberance.

It’s likely that most people would cheer the success of a small business like the Little Kohler Haus, but would agree that success should not come at the expense of the peaceful enjoyment of their properties by residential neighbors.

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