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Assault on democracy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 July 2015 19:24

Outraged citizens made legislators bent on secrecy back down, but the display of contempt for open government remains a vile portent

Our cheers are muted, our relief tentative.

    We, the people of Wisconsin, won a great victory over the Independence Day weekend, but our celebration is diminished by the grim reality that the legislators who voted to destroy a crucial element of our democracy have contempt for open government and will likely not stop trying to stamp it out.

     Public outrage forced leaders of the Joint Finance Committee on Saturday to say they will withdraw a motion to dismantle the state’s open records law. But two days earlier, the 12 Republican members of the committee were unanimous in their approval of provisions inserted into the state budget to keep records created by the Legislature and the Walker administration secret.

    Those records—containing information essential for citizens to have in order to know what the government they elected is doing—have been kept available to the public by the open records law.

    The intent of the measure to change that was secrecy and it was carried out as secretively as the committee majority could manage, slipped into the budget at the end of the day on the eve of the holiday weekend when almost no one was looking and with no identification of the legislators who did it.

    The press was looking, though, and reports of the attempt to blindfold the public provoked a furious response.

    Attorney General Brad Schimel, the elected official responsible for enforcing the open records law, a Republican, condemned it. “Transparency is the cornerstone of democracy and the provisions in the budget bill limiting access to public records moves Wisconsin in the wrong direction,” he said.

    Another Republican, Sen. Robert Cowles of Green Bay, accurately described it as “an assault on democracy.”

    The chorus of criticism was joined by conservative and liberal organizations, newspaper editorial writers and Democrats in the Legislature, but it was the citizens of Wisconsin who with a fusillade of emails and telephone calls shamed, or frightened, Republican leaders of the Joint Finance Committee (Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren) and of both houses of the Legislature (Sen. Scott Fitzgerald and Rep. Robin Vos) and Gov. Scott Walker into issuing a statement Saturday promising the open records changes would be removed from the budget.

    Their statement added a dubious claim: “We are steadfastly committed to open and accountable government.”

    Really? No one committed to open government would have supported a budget provision that denies the public access to government records.

    The budget process in Wisconsin has a long tradition of being perverted by whichever political party is in power to make policy changes in a bill meant to deal only with fiscal matters, but it was dragged to a new low by the current Joint Finance Committee.

    Proposals to end licensing requirements for public school teachers, sneaked into the budget at 1 a.m., and to abolish the Legislative Audit Bureau, an essential nonpartisan watchdog on government, along with the move against open records, lead the list of important changes to state government that were inserted into the budget, rather than being introduced in separate bills, to avoid debate and public scrutiny.

    Wisconsin for many years was admired as one of the nation’s most progressive, open and democratic state governments. No more.

    A good start at restoring that reputation would be to reform the budgeting process so that legislators can’t go thorough the back door to make bad laws, or as in the case of the attack on open government, destroy good laws.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. But do keep watching.

    In face of a potential voter rebellion, the perpetrators of the attempt to deny the public access to government records joined in a statement saying the measure would be withdrawn.

    But their votes in the Joint Finance Committee made a stronger statement.

    What it said was—when it comes to open government, these legislators can’t be trusted.    

Impacts of a merchandising extravaganza PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 01 July 2015 18:36

With Meijer, Grafton has added the most dazzling jewel yet to its crown of big-name outlets, but will local food stores survive competition from a retail giant?

The acreage covered by the new Meijer store and parking lot would have amounted to a large part of a typical farm back in the days when farms actually existed in the Grafton area.

    The store building, or “supercenter” in megastore parlance, alone measures 192,000 square feet, and its 680-vehicle parking lot covers many times that area with a vast expanse of tarmac.

    It is one of the largest stores in Wisconsin, and by far the largest in Ozaukee County. By comparison, the nearby Costco warehouse store, immense by most standards, measures a mere 151,000 square feet.

    The Meijer supercenter, which opened last week, adds lustre to the merchandising extravaganza in the east Grafton annex that augments its status as one of the most remarkable commercial developments in Wisconsin.

    It wasn’t that long ago that the area of the Village of Grafton now occupied by the likes of Meijer and Costco and a plethora of national chain stores was Town of Grafton farmland and the only nearby commercial activity was the Schmit’s Pavilion hall and a string of tiny cottages for travelers at the intersection of Port Washington Road and Highway 60.

    The good fortune of its place beside I-43 a short drive from the metropolis is largely responsible for this commercial explosion, but the village government, its planners and the Community Development Authority deserve credit for making the most of the advantages of location.

     Small municipalities can be overwhelmed when corporate giants come to town with grand promises and grander demands, but Grafton officials have been anything but pushovers and have pretty much gotten the development they wanted.

    Still, it can’t be said that the east Grafton phenomenon is an unmixed blessing. At opening ceremonies for the Meijer store, Grafton Village President Jim Brunquell noted that the development was “designed to make Grafton a destination.”

    That has certainly been achieved, yet the Grafton to which throngs of shoppers from southeastern Wisconsin are attracted is in effect a sprawling shopping mall. No doubt many people drawn to this destination don’t know that the real Grafton is a pretty village on a lazy river a mile to the west. It follows that the downtown that is the heart of that version of Grafton is struggling more than those of other Ozaukee County communities.

    It also stands to reason that the Meijer supercenter could be a threat to food stores around the area, though Village Administrator Darrell Hofland said that would be mitigated by the fact that Meijer “will create a bigger pie so that everyone can have a larger piece.”

    That’s a nice thought, but it probably should be filed under “wishful thinking.” The pie will grow by the numbers of shoppers attracted by the first Meijer store in Wisconsin, but they are not candidates to be customers of food stores in downtown Grafton or in Port Washington, Saukville and Cedarburg.     

    Meijer is an admirable company, a family-owned business that is well known for supporting the communities in which it operates. (The company got off on the right foot at its opening by giving the village a $25,000 check for the riverwalk.)         

    Consumers will benefit from its huge selection and competitive prices that are expected to hold food costs down in the area. Yet that benefit will be illusory for Ozaukee County families if this powerful competition drives the nearby local grocery stores and food specialty shops on which they’ve depended for years out of business.

    The hope is that Ozaukee County consumers, while not denying themselves some of the offerings of Meijer and other stores in the Grafton complex, will value convenience and personal service close to home enough to stay loyal to their small-town stores.

    A factor in favor of the local stores is that many shoppers looking for grocery staples might just prefer to shop in a store that is not so enormous that it needs some 30 check-out lanes.

    That’s the count at Meijer—one reason it’s called a supercenter.

A tall ship, an icon of Port’s heritage PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 24 June 2015 21:29

Ahoy, seafaring buffs: Board the Denis Sullivan in the Port Washington harbor and get a taste of Lake Michigan’s great age of sail

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, there could well have been more boats in the north slip of the Port Washington harbor than there are today.

    That section of the harbor, just a stone’s throw from the main business street, is now a part of the marina. During the boating season these days, it’s a busy place, with the comings and going of the charter fishing fleet, transient yachts moored dockside and in slips and on some weekends dozens of racing sailboats rafted together.

    Yet in the second half of the 19th century, that water was at times covered with sailing ships tied gunwale to gunwale. Photographs made in the era show a forest of masts towering above the husky hulls of freight-carrying sailing vessels in the harbor, most of them schooner rigged with two or three masts.

    This was the golden epoch of commerce under sail, a time when Lake Michigan was a liquid highway for materials and goods, and Port Washington was an important commercial port of call.

    How fitting it is, then, given that rich seafaring heritage, that the masts of a 19th century schooner will once more stand tall over the Port Washington harbor when the Denis Sullivan makes a number of extended visits this summer.

    The Sullivan doesn’t really date to the 1800s, of course. Launched in 2000, the vessel is a re-creation, authentic in as many ways as possible, based on several famous schooners that sailed these waters circa 1870s. Owned by Discovery World of Milwaukee, it has been designated Wisconsin’s flagship, and the well-traveled green-hulled three-master has become one of America’s favorite tall ships.

The Sullivan’s stays in Port Washington—for four days starting this Thursday, followed by the weekends of July 4-5 and August 21-23 and probably a weekend in September—are the result of a new partnership between the City of Port Washington and Discovery World. While in Port, the schooner will be open to the public for deck tours and sailing excursions.

    The cancellation of this year’s Maritime Heritage Festival leaves a void that the Denis Sullivan will help fill. Appreciation of the community’s seafaring history has been demonstrated for years in strong attendance and backing for the festival and is already evident in financial support for the Sullivan’s visits, including contributions from the city, Tourism Council, Business Improvement District and several corporate donors.

    All of which suggests the Sullivan could have a future in Port Washington. Mayor Tom Mlada, who is leading the initiative to bring the tall ship to Port, thinks so, and surely this historic harbor, said to be America’s first manmade harbor, would be an appropriate home-port-away-from-home for the tall ship, perhaps its winter berth.

    Rising lake levels even hint at the possibility that the ship could be berthed for extended periods in the north slip. Picture the schooner, with her soaring bowsprit, clipper bow and three towering masts moored virtually in the heart of the downtown.

    That may be the future. For now, it’s time to go sailing, and the Denis Sullivan will be ready to go Thursday. With luck, one of Lake Michigan’s typically robust sea breezes will kick in, and the great schooner, with as many as eight sails set, sheets straining, blocks creaking, will heel to the insistent wind and with its bow wave curling (sailors of yore called it “a bone in her teeth”) will give the fortunate folks on board a taste of life in the great age of sail.

On a previous visit, the Denis Sullivan sailed past the Port Washington lighthouse in a fresh breeze.

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