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Fredonia’s ‘Bleak House’ PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 14 May 2014 14:44

In a parallel to Dickens’ classic novel, a dispute over taxpayer land and money that should have been settled years ago has grown into a six-figure monster

Where’s Charles Dickens when we need him?

    There’s a story in Fredonia crying for telling by the great 19th-century writer that would be a blockbuster followup to “Bleak House,” his classic satirical novel about the futility of the English legal system.


    In “Bleak House,” generations of would-be heirs stubbornly carried on a fight for an inheritance that crawled along in a dysfunctional court system for decades until the dispute became moot because the inheritance had been consumed by legal fees.


    In the Fredonia version of “Bleak House,” a school district and a property owner have stubbornly carried on a fight over land drainage that started with a bill for $8,300 but has grown to a cost nearing $150,000 in lawyers’ fees.


    The story has two twists Dickens would have loved: The property owner is a member of the district’s school board and the eventual losers in the fight could be the taxpayers.


    Fredonia’s version of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the case in Dickens’ novel, is Northern Ozaukee School District v. Kendall J. Thistle and Carla C. Thistle. The lawsuit was filed in 2011, though the dispute dates back to five years before that.


    The facts of the dispute are not complicated enough to warrant a prolonged legal battle. Grading of land by the company developing the Village Green subdivision (which went out of business before the subdivision was completed) disturbed natural drainage and caused nearby land owned by the Thistles to flood.

    To protect their property, the Thistles constructed a berm. The berm deflected water runoff to adjacent land owned by the school district, creating a pond that district officials considered a safety hazard. The district had the pond drained at a cost of $8,300 and asked the Thistles to pay the bill. When they refused, the School Board sued.


    Who’s at fault? Blame can justifiably be heaped on the irresponsible and evidently incompetent subdivision developer, Regency Hills Mastercraft, but that serves no purpose because the firm is bankrupt.

    Beyond that, the question of who is responsible for the district’s pond-draining expense has faded into virtual insignificance in the shadow of the inflated and ever-growing consequences of the failure of both sides to resolve a disagreement over a comparatively small amount of money.


    The fact that Kendall Thistle is a member of the School Board of the district that is suing him has been a complicating factor. He has dutifully recused himself from discussions and votes concerning the lawsuit, yet the fact remains that his part in failing to settle the issue could cost the people he was elected to represent.


    A majority of his fellow School Board members obviously believe they are in the right, but fighting for a principle is a luxury best indulged in by individuals. Representatives of public bodies, on the other hand, should be looking for the course of action that best protects the interests of their constituents, which is often not the same thing as “winning.”


    No one involved in this mess can escape responsibility for letting a disputed bill of $8,300 grow into a six-figure monster that someday will have to be paid by someone—the defendants or the plaintiffs, including taxpayers and presumably the district’s insurer, or all of the above.


    A recent attempt at settlement failed, to no one’s surprise, and the case is scheduled to go to trial in Ozaukee Circuit Court in late June.


    In the meantime, we recommend that the parties to the dispute read “Bleak House.” It’s a very long book, and frankly, a bit tedious in places, but it teaches a lesson in the futility of stubbornness in pursuit of legal remedies that this group needs to learn.

 
A committee that delivered PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 07 May 2014 13:47

Port volunteer group has made good on its pledge to improve lakefront safety with a list of accomplishments that show it’s worthy of continued support

At long last, there are life rings and ladders on the Port Washington breakwater, as well as life rings on the city’s north and south beaches.

    A kiosk near the marina launch ramps provides loaner life jackets for Lake Michigan boaters.

    Classes offered by experts in Great Lakes safety have taught adults and children alike how to enjoy Lake Michigan safely.

    Large, well-conceived signs erected at the entrances to both city beaches provide practical information as well as reminders about lake currents and other hazards.

    These are the remarkable accomplishments of Port Washington’s Waterfront Safety Advisory Committee, a group formed just more than a year ago in response to the drowning of 15-year-old Tyler Buczek off north beach on Labor Day weekend 2012.

    The word “advisory” in the committee’s name suggests that it doesn’t have the same standing as other committees. In fact, it’s not an arm of city government but a volunteer group that, more than merely advise, has inspired, spearheaded and financed a long overdue initiative.

    Much of the group’s success is owed to the fact its members questioned the excuses used to justify years of inaction when it came to making the waterfront safer. Among the now discredited excuses:

    • There is no money for waterfront safety improvements.

    Without relying on taxpayer-generated contributions from the city, the committee has raised thousands of dollars in donations from individuals, corporations and civic organizations to pay for its first year of work and help finance its ongoing mission. Not necessarily accounted for in that figure are the hundreds of hours of work dedicated by volunteers from all walks of life.

    • Red tape makes some improvements impossible.

    That was the conventional wisdom when it came to the idea of the city putting life rings and ladders on the breakwater. The structure’s owner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, would never allow it, and even if it did, the city would expose itself to unreasonable liability if it assumed responsibility for the life-saving devices.

    As it turns out, the Army Corps allowed the volunteer group to do what the government agency should have done, and the life rings and ladders that resulted are checked regularly by city employees to make sure they’re ready to use in case of emergency.
   

    • Life rings and other life-saving devices will be targets for thieves and vandals.

    Committee leaders report that one life vest was taken from the marina kiosk and not returned. It has been replaced.

    In addition to challenging the conventional wisdom, the committee has engaged the community and city leaders in its mission, which although focused on safety has sparked a renewed appreciation for the city’s greatest asset.

    Credit for that belongs to committee leaders like Kevin Rudser, a city alderman, and Mayor Tom Mlada, the chairman of the group who since its inception has articulated the importance of its objective and inspired results.

    “There are certain times when life gives you a calling,” Mlada told Ozaukee Press last week, referring to Buczek’s death. “It certainly did move us to a place of action. If there’s anything good to come out of this tragedy, it’s this. As a community, we should be very proud of that response, but there are still things that can be done.”

    Among the additional improvements the committee has planned are a second waterfront safety day tentatively planned for May 31, additional beach life rings and life vest kiosks built by Boy Scouts at both beaches. Eventually, the group wants to install emergency phones on the beaches.

    A related project is the construction of a Coal Dock Park pavilion in memory of Buczek and Peter Dougherty, who drowned while kayaking off Port Washington in 2012, being spearheaded by Buczek’s uncle Jim, a member of the committee.

    These are projects worthy of public support in the form of participation and donations of money, time and talent. Those who join the effort can feel good about contributing to a cause that enhances the ability of Port residents and visitors alike to enjoy Lake Michigan safely and is led by a committee that in just a year has proven its effectiveness with a notable list of accomplishments.

    There remains, however, one glaring safety improvement that has yet to be addressed — a railing along the Coal Dock Park promenade to divide the walkway from the water 10 feet below.

    This issue, which is not under the purview of the Waterfront Safety Advisory Committee, languished for months in the hands of the Coal Dock Park Committee.

    Despite hand wringing about how a railing could diminish views from the park and interfere with ships that may someday dock there, the issue has come down to money. The city is waiting to see if it will be awarded a state grant to help fund the project.

    Instead of waiting for what will undoubtedly be another summer, officials could follow the lead of the Waterfront Safety Advisory Committee and find a way to get the job done sooner rather than later.


 
Let private enterprise shine on new arena PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 30 April 2014 17:39

Residents of Ozaukee and other suburban counties won’t tolerate another tax to support pro sports teams that enrich owners fabulously

There is still talk about taxpayer funding for a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks, as though that’s actually a possibility. It’s not. That ship sailed the instant Bucks owner Herb Kohl accepted $550 million for his basketball team.

    It doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to understand that big-time professional sports franchises are money-printing machines. Anyone who didn’t know that before the Bucks’ sale does now.

     The Bucks are the worst team in the National Basketball Association by at least three measures. The have the worst won-loss record this season; they play in the least lucrative market; they were rated by Forbes magazine as the NBA team with the lowest financial worth.

    Yet two canny, ultra-successful Wall Street investors were happy to pay more than half a billion dollars for the team and throw in an extra $100 million to put toward a new arena.

Kohl bought the team in 1985 for $18 million, about one-thirtieth of what he was paid for it 19 years later.

    No one should begrudge Kohl the good return on his investment; he was a generous owner who did much for Milwaukee, not the least of which was fashioning a sales agreement that included $100-million contributions for a new arena from both him and the new owners. But the astonishing amount of money the Bucks fetched underlines the absurdity of any attempt to have the taxpayers pick up some of the cost of a new venue for the team.        The arena should be paid for by those who stand to benefit most from it—the owners of the Bucks.

    Things don’t often work that way in the NBA, however. The league and its teams have leverage, and they’re not bashful about using it. The Bucks’ new owners made a lot of happy talk about keeping the team in Milwaukee before it was revealed the sales contract gives the NBA the right to buy the team for $575 million and move it to another city if a commitment for a new arena is not in place by late 2017.


    This has stirred considerable angst in Milwaukee, and with good reason. The Bucks mean a lot to the city, in direct economic benefit and in prestige that enhances the metropolitan area’s efforts to attract economic development.

    How to pay for a replacement for the outmoded BMO Harris Bradley Center is a fraught subject. The contributions of the old and new Bucks owners would probably cover less than half of the cost of a new building. Hence the talk about taxpayer contributions.

    It’s wasted breath. Southeastern Wisconsin taxpayers will not abide another hit to help finance a facility that enriches team owners. There is plenty of bad feeling already about the Miller Park sales tax surcharge, especially in the suburban counties where it’s levied, including Ozaukee. The tax has collected more than $400 million for the Brewers’ stadium and the end is not in sight. One of the most popular votes of the Ozaukee County Board in a long time had to be the one last year that approved a resolution opposing any new regional sales tax.

    If money spent on an arena is a good investment, as those who tout public financing of such facilities maintain, then it is something the smart investors who own teams should jump into.

    It has been preached ad nauseum that government should not be doing what the free market can do on its own. Let the uber capitalists who can afford to invest half a billion in a basketball team prove the validity of that aphorism and build the arena that will serve their needs and those of the region in which they do business.

    Milwaukee has to do what it can to get the arena built, of course. Loans, TIF district financing and creative ways to involve suburban areas in supporting the city’s entertainment and cultural offerings short of direct taxation should all be on the table.

    What should not be, because it would be a waste of good table space, is any proposal for a regional arena sales tax. Like a “brick” thrown up by an inept free-throw shooter, that is not going to fly.


 
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