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The signs in the sky are . . . ugly PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 18 July 2012 14:05

Port Washington’s efforts to make the new Highway 33 a welcoming city entrance are being undermined by the state’s insistence on installing overhead eyesores

    When the rebuilding of Highway 33 between Port Washington and Saukville as a four-lane highway was first proposed by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, a number of observers, including this newspaper, expressed the fear that this road that functions as an urban street connecting two small communities would end up looking and acting like an expressway.

    Now the project is nearing completion and guess what—the DOT wants to add finishing touches that will make it look like an expressway.

    The City of Port Washington has done its best to avoid that by selecting attractive, traditionally designed street lamps to light the way into the city, opting for elaborate decorative plantings in the median and paying an outrageous amount of money to We Energies to bury power lines.

    But now comes the DOT with a plan to install large overhead signs—expressway-style signs—over the entrances to the roundabout at the intersection with Highway LL, the gateway to the city that segues in a few short blocks into the gracious, tree-lined, mostly residential Grand Avenue leading to the downtown and Lake Michigan.

    This is wrong on so many counts that it was not surprising that three aldermen have roundly criticized the DOT’s plan and are pushing for an effort to persuade the state to drop this bad idea.

    The signs, massive on their steel poles and frameworks, would be an aesthetic affront. That would be bad enough even if the signs were needed, but there is no evidence they are. Drivers have been dealing with the three roundabouts on the Port-Saukville route for weeks now without major problems and few indications of confusion.

    This in spite of the fact the roundabouts are currently marked with an array of temporary signs so ludicrously cluttered that it looks like a mad scheme intended to drive drivers nuts. Just looking at the photo of the mess in last week’s Ozaukee Press was enough to cause profound disorientation.

    Yet drivers are driving ‘round the roundabouts just fine—exactly as, ironically, the DOT said they would. The DOT has been selling roundabouts, which are proliferating in the agency’s projects all over the state, to the public as intuitive, easy to use and safe. But by insisting on overhead signs at the Port roundabout in addition to the planned ground-level directional signs, the DOT undermines its own roundabout hype.

    The DOT is right about roundabouts—they are a vast improvement over conventional interactions. But it’s wrong about the overhead signs.

    The Common Council should not accept Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven’s assessment that there is no alternative to going along with the state’s overhead-sign dictum. Rather, the aldermen should instruct him to make the case with the DOT that the signs are not just superfluous, but damaging to the character of the city’s western entrance.

Snooping fad steals privacy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 11 July 2012 15:44

Talk of surveillance cameras in a Fredonia park brings home the digital-age phenomenon that sacrifices privacy to an obsession with security

    How prevalent are close-circuit video security cameras in public places? Here’s one measure: You can buy an app for your smart phone called iSpy that enables users to access live webcam images all over America and beyond. In many cases, the user can control the cameras’ pan, tilt and zoom functions. Ranked one of the top 10 best selling apps shortly after it was introduced in 2010, iSpy costs only 99 cents. One critic described it as “super good fun” and recommended that iSpy users refer to the “best-rated list” of public webcams to find the best entertainment.

    When a couple strolling in a sylvan park in an American city share an embrace and a kiss, there is a good chance they’re providing “super good fun” for a large audience.

    Police and private-enterprise security agencies hired by public entities have had access to such entertainment for years, of course, as television monitoring of public places has grown into a snooping fad. Public officials have presided over this with the view that citizens will accept the theft of their privacy so long as it’s done in the name of security.

    It was refreshing, then, to hear members of the  Fredonia Public Safety Committee express skepticism over a proposal to install a security camera system in the village’s Stoney Creek Park.

    Village President Chuck Lapicola recommended the cameras as a means to combat frequent vandalism in the park. He further suggested using portable cameras to provide “coverage all over the village,” including the police station and water department, which, he said, have been identified as potential terrorism targets.

    He didn’t mention privacy, but Trustee Jill Bertram saw that issue clearly. “I don’t have a problem putting cameras on the water plant,” she said, “but I don’t believe in having them in public places where we can watch everyone. It is intruding on people’s privacy in our parks.”

    Trustee Fritz Buchholtz, chairman of the committee, got it too, saying privacy concerns have been exacerbated by the wide use of camera phones. Perhaps alluding to issues raised by the iSpy phenomenon, he said, “You never know when someone is taking your picture with their phone. They are everywhere.”

    Whiz-bang spy webcam technology, especially when it’s relatively cheap (Lapicola said the entire village could be covered by security cameras for $1,000), is apparently hard to resist, but how effective it is in crime fighting is a matter of debate.

    In Fredonia’s case, it wouldn’t help the village marshal catch a vandal in the act; the village is not going to pay someone to monitor the camera feeds 24/7. Even after a criminal act in a surveilled location, police officers bleary-eyed from watching hours of video will attest that such evidence is inconclusive or outright useless most of the time.

    The village president opined that posting signs saying the village is covered by security cameras would be a deterrent to bad behavior even if the cameras were turned off. It’s hard to find any data to back up that theory, and experience casts a lot of doubt. Bank robberies, for example, are increasing at a fast pace across the country even though banks have state-of-the-art surveillance systems. The bank robbers keep coming with their notes and real or simulated guns though even the dullest of them must know they will be the stars of TV programs in police stations and the nightly news.

    It goes without saying that banks should have security cameras and that facilities that have a high likelihood of being a terrorist target should employ high-tech surveillance. It would be stretch to say the Fredonia water plant meets that standard, but better cameras there than in the park.

    Citizens have a right to be in parks and other public spaces without being spied upon. Their privacy trumps notions of safety through webcam snooping

    The people of Fredonia deserve security—the security of knowing they can enjoy their parks without being photographed in police surveillance or as entertainment for smart phone spies.

Construction project: rebuild the economy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Tuesday, 03 July 2012 15:05

Vast numbers of construction workers remain unemployed while America’s infrastructure is failing; solve both problems and boost the economy

If there was any doubt that the recession that started in 2007 was an economic disaster second only to the Great Recession, it was removed by data released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week.

    In Wisconsin from 2007 to 2010, more than 6,700 companies went out of business and 163,355 jobs were lost.

    The numbers are shocking both in their sheer size and in what they represent in the diminished lives of so many in this state and all of the states. They are distressing too in that they remind us that though in technical economic terms the recession is over, its effects linger.  

    Many who lost their jobs in the recession are still unemployed. Families’ wealth—the product of years of hard work and saving for college and retirement—has not recovered to pre-recession levels. Nor has the nation’s economy, now growing so slowly that economists of a pessimistic bent talk of a new recession born out of chronic economic malaise.

    All of which begs the question: Why isn’t government using more of the tools it has to revive the economy? Economies are not wheels of fate that turn at their own whim. They are instruments of humans that can be influenced and stimulated. There are bills in the House of Representatives that would create jobs—the essential drivers of economic recovery. Yet there is zero hope they will be enacted by a legislative institution that exists in an execrable state of dysfunction, crippled by blind ideology and political venom.

    The most promising of the proposals would put construction workers back to work on necessary infrastructure projects.

    Two facts refute any claim that these would be make-work stimulus projects:  America’s roads, bridges, tunnels and other essential infrastructure are so in need of repair that they will soon add to the country’s economic woes. Construction workers were the most sorely hurt of any class of workers in the recession (in Wisconsin one-fourth of all construction workers lost their jobs).

    Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Alan S. Binder, former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve and professor of economics at Princeton University, put it like this: “Legions of construction workers remain unemployed while we drive our cars over pothole-laden roads. Does this make sense?”

    It doesn’t, of course. Binder points out private business investment is growing at an acceptable rate, but public investment, as essential as private investment to economic growth, is lagging.

    “America’s infrastructure needs are so huge, and so painfully obvious, that it’s mind-boggling we’re not investing more,” Binder writes.  He makes the case that it is a grievous mistake for the nation to fail to take advantage of “the rare combination of historically low government borrowing rates and historically high unemployment among construction workers.”

    Sensible proposals to do just that are being blocked in Congress with the phony rationale that this is a noble stand against excessive government spending and debt.

    That’s a political, not an economic, calculation. Most economists agree that America will not be able to deal with its debt problem until its economy is functioning at a high level again.

    That’s the big-picture economic rationale for government investment in jobs. The human rationale is even more compelling: Americans, like many of those 163,000 Wisconsin residents who lost their jobs, are still hurting from the recession. The federal government has the wherewithal to help heal them and the economy and must not fail to do so.

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