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Driving the DOT bus on a bumpy road PDF Print E-mail
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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
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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.

 
Outlier in a lakefront picture PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 21 December 2016 19:46

Astonishing, jaw-dropping, shocking. 

Those were some of the words used by the Ozaukee Press readers we’ve heard from to describe the picture that spanned the full width of the front news page of the Dec. 8 issue. 

The picture was an architect’s computer-drawn image of the Port Washington lakefront looking west from an elevated viewpoint offshore showing the buildings proposed by Ansay Development.

The astonishment felt by some readers derives from the sheer size of the development—blocks of row houses, apartments and an expansive restaurant and retail building. That’s understandable; the proposal is a radical change for an old neighborhood that consists mostly of small houses.

It is also an inevitable change. Most of the land that would be occupied by the buildings proposed by Ansay is privately owned and, thanks to its proximity to Lake Michigan and the marina, is now too valuable to not develop.

Done right, the new use of that marina district land will be good for Port Washington. Projected to add tens of millions of dollars in valuation to the tax base, it would also substantially increase the downtown residential population to support a vital and appealing business district.

Questions have been raised about the height of the restaurant/retail building and some of the design aesthetics of other buildings. These must be addressed, as well as the issue of whether a competing developer should be chosen for a city-owned parcel of land in the district.

In the meantime, the picture created by Ansay Development’s architectural firm has done more than open eyes to the future of the marina district—it has performed a public service by graphically exposing the harmful folly of the city government’s relentless drive to crowd an entertainment complex called the Blues Factory onto a piece of land owned by the public at the edge of the north slip marina.

In the Ansay drawing, the Blues Factory is shown not in detail but as a mass that is an accurate depiction in shape and scale of the factorylike building designed to house the complex. The picture makes obvious what the many people in the city who oppose the Blues Factory have said from beginning: It does not belong at the water’s edge.

The dense development that is coming to the marina district makes the Blues Factory site more valuable than ever as open space protecting the public’s visual and physical access to the water—the only such space in the entire marina district development.

The picture also exposes the specious nature of the claim repeated by the mayor and aldermen that the Blues Factory is worth the sacrifice of open lakeside land because it is needed as a “catalytic” development that will encourage other investment.

The Ansay plan proves that the true catalyst for development is the appeal of the lakefront and that no encouragement from a controversial, financially risky music venue is needed.

If anything, the Blues Factory, even beyond the aesthetic damage it would do, would be a negative influence on lakefront development. The row houses in the Ansay plan had be designed to be taller than they would have been without the the monolithic Blues Factory building across the street. Even so, harbor views from the houses would be obstructed by the brick facade of the complex, hardly an appealing prospect for would-be buyers of luxury lakefront homes.

City officials have important work to do in ironing out the details of the historically huge lakefront development that is imminent. A prerequisite should be meeting with the Blues Factory’s designated developer and working with him to dissolve the agreement to sell him the north slip site. 

With the Blues Factory out of the picture, that drawing of the future lakefront would look much better.

 
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