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Keep democracy messy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 16 March 2016 16:06

Sunshine Week, this week’s national observance of efforts to assert the public’s right to know what its government is doing, brought a sunny news release from Gov. Scott Walker’s office. It announced that Wisconsin’s chief executive was issuing an executive order “to promote open and transparent government through the implementation of best practices and performance dashboards.”

Translated from trendy business jargon to plain English, it seems the order essentially directs state agencies to respond to public records requests from citizens and the press in a timely and efficient manner.

That is what the law requires.

Wisconsin has laws mandating that government records be available to the public and government meetings be open to the public. Even so, the movement to keep government open to scrutiny is a work in progress, as the governor himself made clear last summer when he and Republican leaders of the Legislature attempted—in secret, of course—to severely weaken the open records law.

The attempt was abandoned in the face of a furious public response. Other moves to withhold records, including officials’ emails, colored the Walker administration as hostile to transparent government.

The “Sunshine Week initiatives” referred to in the news release may be a PR initiative to change that image. If they are also a sincere effort to improve access to government records, the governor will deserve any public approval that comes from it.

One thing is certain about the so-called sunshine laws based on the public’s right to know: Without them government officials would be less accountable to the people.

The appeal of managing public affairs without the aggravation of the public watching is difficult to resist, judging from the frequency with which it is attempted at all levels of government. Examples abound in the Obama administration, Congress, and state and local governments.

Public scrutiny, of course, makes government officials’ jobs harder. The frustrating complaints, competing demands and tedious intrusions by citizens, not to mention pesky journalists, all interfere with the smooth execution of the business of government. And that is as it should be. Because government is not a business; it is not a well-oiled machine. Democratic government is a messy operation. 

In the councils, boards and commissions of Ozaukee County, when conflicts with Wisconsin’s open government laws occur they often take the form of misuse of exceptions to the open meetings law. The law allows closed meetings in narrowly defined instances involving government personnel and negotiating purchases or contracts. Whether through the intent of officials or faulty advice from ill-informed legal counsel, the exemptions are sometimes wrongly applied and matters that affect the public in important ways are settled behind closed doors.

Even when exceptions apply and closed meetings would be legal, officials who are weighing whether to close the doors should keep in mind that shutting out the public contributes to taxpayer cynicism and distrust of government. 

In the City of Port Washington, no fewer than four issues are currently being dealt with by the Common Council in meetings from which the public is excluded. Three of them involve land owned by the public. 

Citizens expect to hear and see their representatives debate issues vigorously, not to cast unanimous votes ratifying agreements made in private sessions. Disagreement among officials and divided votes in public forums are signs of a healthy democracy.

That’s what the public wants to see on the government’s “performance dashboard.”

Who we are PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 09 March 2016 21:01

“That’s not who we are.”

The words have become a mantra for the presidential primary season, repeated after each round of coarse utterances by Donald Trump.

Commit war crimes, hate immigrants, keep Muslims out of our country, Trump says. And aghast listeners say, “That’s not who we Americans are.”

True, millions of Americans have voted for Trump knowing what he has said and what he represents. Well, that’s not who we are either.

Observers in other countries, according to foreign press reports, hear Trump’s words and fear that America is morphing into his image—racially, ethnically and religiously intolerant, reckless and crude, devoid of empathy and mercy. No, that’s not who we are.

There is evidence of who we really are right here in the heart of Ozaukee County. You can find it in a project in which hundreds of people from our communities are giving their hard work and their hard-earned dollars to help children of various races, ethnicities and religions, including the religion of Islam. The children they are helping have in common that they are hungry, many in danger of starving.

The project is to buy and pack food for 100,000 meals for children in countries where, for reasons that include famine, poverty and war, they do not have enough to eat. Under the aegis of Feed My Starving Children (FMSC), a Minnesota-based charity that devotes more than 90% of the money it raises to the cause of feeding children, the local effort is being led by volunteers from the three Port Washington-Saukville Catholic parishes.

The fundraising goal is $22,000, which is enough to buy food for the 100,000 meals. Doing the math is eye-opening. A meal for only 22 cents? That’s possible because food scientists working with FMSC have devised a formula for a low-cost, dehydrated mix of rice, soy protein, vegetables and added vitamins and minerals that is at least as nutritious as a fast-food order of chicken nuggets an American child might consume.

Buying the food is step one. Step two—packing the meals six-to-a-bag—is where the hard work comes in. It will be done Friday and Saturday, April 8 and 9, at the Portal in Grafton. Scores of volunteers will work two-hour shifts.

The packed food will be shipped by the FMSC network of charitable agencies to countries as close as Mexico and Haiti and as distant as the likes of Liberia, Afghanistan and North Korea. FMSC meals have gone to more than 80 countries, where the nutrition-packed food has helped save the lives of countless children at risk of starvation. 

The Ozaukee Feed My Starving Children effort needs more financial contributions and more people to sign up for packing the meals. To help, contact: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Pitching in for this cause does more than feed children. It says who we are.

Burdock in the bouquet PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 02 March 2016 18:28

They came, they saw and they fled. Or something like that.

A Michigan-based organization called the Geek Group discovered in its reconnaissance of federal documents that the Port Washington lighthouse was vulnerable and laid plans to capture it for unspecified research purposes.

Forces under the command of Port Washington Mayor Tom Mlada mounted a defense so formidable that the would-be lighthouse snatchers left the battlefield without launching so much as a paper missile.

That is one scenario to explain the surprising and welcome fact that the City of Port Washington has become the only applicant to take ownership of the lighthouse the National Park Service is in the process of divesting.

Whatever the explanation, the way has been cleared for the lighthouse to be transferred to its rightful owner, and on Sunday the mayor received word that the transfer has been tentatively approved.

In retrospect, the city’s massive lighthouse campaign, involving reams of supporting letters, backing from numerous organizations and work by a task force of dozens of residents and community leaders organized by the mayor, may look like overkill, but it served its purpose in more ways than one. It not only showed that Port was willing to fight for its lighthouse, but marshaled enthusiasm in the community for the coming challenge of maintaining the structure.

Meeting that challenge will require private fundraising. There is every reason to believe that will be successful. The community has made it clear it values, perhaps more than anything else about the city, its place on the edge of Lake Michigan and everything that contributes to lake access.

The soon-to-start breakwater project, which will make the pier safer and more inviting for people to walk the half mile from shore to the lighthouse, and last summer’s handsome and effective improvements in the walkway to the north beach, are of a piece with the lighthouse initiative—all successful city government efforts to enhance access to the water the public loves.

In that context, the implacable mindset of the mayor, aldermen and other city officials in their determination to sell public lakefront land for commercial development stands out like a burdock in a bouquet of spring flowers.

Large numbers of the citizens of Port Washington, including many of the same people who applaud the city’s lakefront improvements, have made it clear in various ways that they oppose the plan to build the Blues Factory on what is now a public parking lot at the north marina slip, yet city officials persist in their divisive quest.

No amount of repetitive rhetoric in praise of economic development in the talking points disseminated from city hall changes the truth that filling the open space overlooking the marina with a monolithic construct of brick and mortar intended to look like a factory would be a setback for public lake access.

The refusal of officials to be moved by serious, well reasoned and well intentioned objections to the development plan has engendered a level of skepticism and, in some cases, outright hostility toward city leadership that has been rare in the community.

Beyond that, it has compromised long overdue comprehensive planning for the marina district. The recently released parking and traffic plan for the lakefront cannot be considered seriously before the fate of the north slip parking lot is known. Official assurances to the contrary, it does not effectively take into account the loss of the north slip parking places and the addition of new parking needs for hundreds of vehicles if the Blues Factory is built.

It is time for an elected official to break with the party line and lead the city out of this profoundly disagreeable situation. That could start by honoring the esteem with which the people of Port Washington hold their beautiful lakefront. 

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