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When a little less democracy is better PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editorial Board   
Wednesday, 14 July 2010 15:57

The Port Washington Town Board has the right idea in proposing to appoint, rather than elect, the person who holds the administrative office of town clerk

Towns are the most democratic form of government in Wisconsin. In some cases, they are a little too democratic.

They qualify as the most democratic because their residents are empowered to set the town property tax rate (and make decisions on other town government business) by direct vote at annual meetings.

Some of them carry democracy a bit further than it needs to go by electing the person who carries out the administrative duties of the position of town clerk.

Electing instead of appointing a town resident to this post certainly brings government closer to the people, but potentially at the expense of efficiency and competent management of town affairs.

It’s good to see that the Town of Port Washington is facing this reality. Its Town Board has begun the process of making town clerk an appointed position.

The board saw the light regarding this need when the town’s longtime clerk, Susan Westerbeke, resigned last spring to take a position with the City of Port Washington.             

The board had the power to replace her through an interim appointment, but could only choose from people who met the criteria for an elected clerk, meaning they had to be town residents, and could not adjust pay to fit candidates’ qualifications.

As Town Chairman Lee Schlenvogt told Ozaukee Press, the board’s “hands were really tied on filling the position.”

It’s not hard to imagine an even worse scenario. Say a town clerk decided not to run for re-election. At first, no candidates come forward. Then at the last minute an unqualified person looking for a job manages to get on the ballot without opposition. The result is an incompetent person in charge of the day-to-day operation of the town government.

Towns are a simpler form of government than municipalities, but that is not to say that keeping them functioning smoothly isn’t a demanding job. In towns that don’t have appointed administrators (some of the more populous towns do), this is the clerk’s job. How well he or she does it is important to many Wisconsin residents—30% of the state’s roughly 6 million people live in towns.

With an appointed clerk, the Town Board essentially hires a person for the job. It advertises for applicants, interviews candidates, checks references and negotiates a salary. In making the choice, the board is not bound by meaningless residency requirements, but can concentrate on finding a motivated candidate possessing the communication, computer and advanced office skills needed for the clerk’s duties, which read like a multi-tasker’s to-do list and include managing the town’s elections.

The Town of Port was fortunate to come out of its recent clerk vacancy with the office competently filled, but prospects weren’t good at first when most of the applicants lived outside of the town and thus were not eligible for the job. Two qualified town residents eventually came forward, including Jennifer Schlenvogt, the town’s chief election inspector, who was named clerk and will serve until the term ends in spring.

The town will hold a public hearing on Sept. 7 on a proposed ordinance to make town clerk an appointed position. Passing the ordinance would simply transfer the power to fill the position to Town Board members, who are elected and thus responsible to the voters for their choice of clerk.

Town residents who like the idea of democracy close to the people should be pleased to know that the decision on whether to appoint or elect the clerk will be made through an exercise of pure, direct democracy—by a referendum in November. A yes vote will help ensure a well administered democracy in the Town of Port Washington.

We’re sorry (sort of) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 07 July 2010 17:34

The apology has many uses and, judging from political statements in venues from Congress to the Ozaukee County Board, some have little to do with actually apologizing

The apology is one of the most effective survival tools available to humankind. Saying you’re sorry can avoid wars, save marriages, restore friendships, forestall a firing, assuage unhappy customers, get a naughty child back in the good graces of a teacher.

The apology is the weapon of first resort in the arsenal of public relations consultants called to bail out misbehaving politicians, entertainers, sports stars, business executives and corporations. The defense starts with an apology. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s sincere or even completely justified by the offense, real  or perceived. The road to rehabilitation starts with saying you’re sorry.

Thus the media-consuming public has been treated to New York Gov. Elliot Sptizer, with his wife at his side looking as though she were about to commit an act of spousal revenge, saying he was sorry for consorting with prostitutes; South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford saying he was sorry he shacked up with his girlfriend in Argentina instead of going camping as he had told his wife and the press he would be doing; Tiger Woods saying he was sorry for doing something not clearly specified but apparently quite bad and of a sexual nature—the details didn’t matter; the important thing was that he was apologizing.

As old as the apology is—at least one sensitive caveman must have apologized for whacking another knuckle-dragger on the head with his club and making off with his mate—it continues to morph, sometimes in ingenious ways. The latest iteration is a apology given for what someone else has done as way to make a back-handed political statement.

The most dazzling model for this aberrant form of apology was crafted by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, who during a congressional hearing apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for the pressure put on him by the United States government to establish a $20 billion fund to compensate people economically damaged by the BP oil spill. Barton wasn’t responsible for pushing BP to pony up; far from it—he’s a big-oil supporter whose campaigns are heavily financed by oil company contributions. He just wanted to let the oil industry know he was there for them (and please keep the contributions coming) by apologizing for what President Obama did.

A member of the Ozaukee County Board recently adopted a similar approach in introducing a resolution calling for the County Board to apologize to the State of Arizona for a decision by the Milwaukee Area Technical College District Board to stop buying goods and services from Arizona businesses to protest that state’s hardline immigration policy.

Supr. Robert Wallerstein of Mequon said he wants the board to make the apology because  Ozaukee County residents support MATC with taxes. MATC board member Peter Earle said the board took the action because it has a responsibility to MATC’s many Latino students  to see that tax money isn’t spent to support a state that is hostile to immigrants.

The criticism-masked-as-an-apology ploy has many possible applications. The Milwaukee County Board, for example, could issue an apology to everyone who values lake Michigan for the City of Chicago’s and the State of Illinois’ refusal to block waterways that could let Asian carp are enter the lake with devastating consequences for its ecosystem.

Or the Tavern League of Wisconsin could issue an apology to smokers for the Legislature’s passage of the law banning smoking in taverns.

The possibilities are endless. In fact, we’re tempted to get in on the act:

We hereby apologize to the taxpayers of Ozaukee County for the supervisors who are wasting the County Board’s time by meddling in national immigration politics when Ozaukee County has plenty of pressing problems of its own.

For sale: high school sports PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press Editorial Board   
Wednesday, 30 June 2010 15:45

Judge blesses commercialization of high school sports by ruling access to games can be sold and news coverage restricted

In explaining his flawed decision, a federal judge confirmed our worst fears about the future of high school sports: “Ultimately this is a case about commerce, not the right to a free press.”

Commerce indeed. Judge William Conley’s ruling giving the Wisconsin Interstate Athletic Association the right to sell exclusive rights to images of high school sports relegates teenage amateur athletes to the status of entertainers and speeds high school sports down the slippery slope toward the commercial contamination that afflicts college sports.

The decision supports the WIAA’s claim that it owns high school tournaments and has the right to limit public access to these events through the news media.

The organization has an exclusive agreement with a company called When We Were Young Productions that shows live video of high school games on the Internet. When the Appleton Post Crescent put live coverage of football playoff games on its website, the WIAA sued that newspaper and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, of which Ozaukee Press is a member.

The judge’s assertion that upholding the WIAA’s claim that it has the right to sell images of high school games does not limit freedom of the press is an impossible stretch. The decision restricts the means by which the press covers high school sports; it denies the press the freedom to use technology that is increasingly part of newspapers’ online news coverage to deliver information to the public.

The courts should not be able to tell news media how to cover these public school events.

The public loses twice—as consumers of information gathered by the press and as the rightful custodians of high school sports.

Taxpayers fund high school sports programs, pay the coaches, buy the equipment, cover teams’ expenses and build the sports facilities. The boys and girls who take part in high school sports are the last pure amateurs in sports. Their families invest their enthusiasm and their emotional support in the school sports programs that provide joyous moments and precious memories.   

High school sports belong to the public in every way. They are not the property of an organization to sell for its own enrichment.

The WIAA seems to want to model itself after the NCAA, which has commercialized college athletics by selling sponsorships of games to the point where college sports are barely distinguishable from professional sports.

Robert Dreps, Wisconsin’s preeminent First Amendment lawyer, who represented the Appleton newspaper and has represented Ozaukee Press, clearly expressed what the judge missed when he wrote:

“School children are not entertainers and their athletic contests are not commercial events like Packers or Brewers games.

Taxpayers support interscholastic athletics, including tournaments, for their educational value, not commercial value.”

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