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The Blues Factory referendums PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 12 April 2017 22:45

Voters of Port Washington made their choices yesterday, and as a result our Common Council will have new members. We will miss our departing colleagues, who have served their city with dedication and diligence, but we respect the will of the people and look forward to working with the new aldermen in the best interests of our community. We congratulate them on their election to the council.

That is what was not said at the council meeting on the night after last week’s election. 

Instead of an appropriate and gracious acknowledgement of their election victories, the two newly elected aldermen who defeated incumbents were subjected to an insulting, demeaning lecture by Ald. Dave Larson.

“I think this was a situation where you took advantage of a low-turnout election,” Larson said, addressing John Sigwart and Mike Gasper from the council dais. He went on, admonishing them that it was “important to understand” that they do not represent only those who voted and attributing their election success to a “vocal minority.” 

“This was a vocal minority that took advantage of a low-turnout election,” Larson said. “I think that the silent majority is going to become very vocal soon.”

He told the new aldermen: “You’re not one of us.”

It was a low, embarrassing moment for Port Washington’s elected city government.

Elections, as grade-school pupils know from their introduction to civics, are determined by the majority of voters. In Sigwart’s case, the majority was overwhelming—260 votes for him, 98 for the incumbent Dan Becker. 

More than just a landslide, the victory by a 73% to 27% margin was a repudiation of the council’s unrelenting campaign to sell public land overlooking the harbor as a site for the Blues Factory music attraction in spite of broad public opposition.

The impact of the lopsided vote was heightened by the fact that the incumbent, Becker, was not only the president of the council, but was a respected and capable aldermen who had served on the council since 2009 with evident public support until he alienated voters with his push for harbor land sale. 

The council ignored petitions to hold a referendum on the issue, so the voters gave it not one but two referendums of their own on the land sale—in the 3rd District, where the incumbent and outspoken Blues Factory supporter Bill Driscoll was eliminated in the primary election and will be replaced by Gasper, and in the 7th-District Sigwart-Becker race. The dominant issue in both races was the Blues Factory land sale. The challengers opposed it.

The referendum results: rejection of the Blues Factory.

As for the Blues Factory itself, it slipped closer to full fiasco status last week when the council approved the latest of numerous extensions of the deadline for purchase of the land by the developer. 

The stated reason was to give the city time to repair underground tiebacks supporting the harbor wall in preparation for constructing the two-story brick Blues Factory building on the north slip parking lot. 

The delay also serves to keep the Blues Factory proposal on life support by giving the hesitant developer more time—until February—to find the will and the financing to buy the land.

Larson’s bitter response to the election, which suggests that he and perhaps other aldermen will continue to push the land sale regardless of the unmistakable messages from voters, can be taken as a measure of the corrosive effect the issue has had on the community. There was a time when it would have been unthinkable for a city official to use the privileged perch of his office to publicly belittle city election winners and the citizens who voted for them.

Citizens have expressed their opposition to using public lakefront land for the Blues Factory in every way available to them, including the ballot box. But they do not have the power to stop it. 

That power resides with the Common Council.

Dissolving the agreement to sell the harbor land would go a long way toward restoring respect between the citizens of Port Washington and their elected officials.

Government service as a worthy calling PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 05 April 2017 21:38

News media are devoting a lot of space and time these days to reporting on people who applauded Donald Trump’s attacks on government and voted to make him president but are now realizing with remorse that he plans to shrink or eliminate government programs that benefit them. 

Antipathy for government is an easily acquired over-the-counter palliative for what ails voters economically or socially. Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” infested by government insiders, his right-hand man Steve Bannon’s pledge to “deconstruct the administrative state” and their use of the term “bureaucrat” as a pejorative dripping with contempt were dependable applause lines.

Yet when the cheering dies down, the reality that society can’t function without government remains—along with the reality that government can’t function without professionals to do the work of government.

This is true at the federal and state levels, but some of the most affirming examples of it can be found in local government, which brings us to Tom Meaux, who retired last week as the Ozaukee County administrator.

An undiscerning government critic judging Meaux from his resume might have called him a denizen of the swamp. He was, after all, a card-carrying member of the government class, a man who spent almost his entire working life in government, much of it as a paid government employee—a bureaucrat. 

That misjudgment is the kind of mistake that can be made when people carelessly accept cliches of bureaucratic dysfunction.

Meaux’s career of service and accountability to the public, marked by exceptional competence, is a perfect counter to those perceptions.

In his 17 years of work for Ozaukee County,  Meaux oversaw the honing of county government into an efficiently functioning institution that improved services while maintaining the lowest county tax rate in Wisconsin.

By the time he was hired by Ozaukee County, Meaux had served as a state legislator, a Milwaukee County Board member and the Milwaukee County treasurer. In his new job in the courthouse in Port Washington, he stepped into a county government that reflected an occasionally unruly grass-roots democracy in which policy was made by elected representatives serving constituencies as diverse as Mequon gentry and northern Ozaukee farmers and carried out by an overworked county clerk.

As expected, the new administrator streamlined administrative operations, but he also streamlined the workings of the County Board by building relationships and fostering compromise among members and then effectively executing their decisions.

Much was accomplished on Meaux’s watch, but perhaps his signature achievement was the salvation of Lasata, the county-owned nursing home in Cedarburg. In the face of intense pressure to abandon a publicly owned institution that was losing money, Meaux and County Board leaders crafted a bold plan that saved the nursing home by adding assisted-living units to the Lasata campus and using their profits to subsidize the nursing home services valued so dearly by county residents at no expense to taxpayers.

Some of his most valuable efforts on behalf of the people of Ozaukee County were not of the brick and mortar variety, but may be more lasting. These include his guidance of the restoration of the historic courthouse and the splendid public art in its boardroom and his part in the county’s participation in environmental-preservation partnerships, including the creation of the Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve in the Town of Grafton.

Meaux’s success also serves as a lesson that ideological differences need not inhibit the efficient process of government, as is so often the case at the state and national levels. He was a big-city Democrat working with the conservative Republicans who dominated the County Board. Some of the latter sung Meaux’s praises in an article in last week’s Ozaukee Press.

Meaux told the author of the article, Press editor Bill Schanen IV, that he chose his career because he was “fascinated by government and the challenge of making it more effective and responsible to the people it served.”

He met that challenge and in the process demonstrated that government service is a worthy calling.

Do the right thing for the county’s harbor PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 29 March 2017 21:06

Nature has smiled on Ozaukee County by giving it 25 miles of Lake Michigan coastline. The gift provides natural beauty, recreation, high land values and the economic vigor that results from its appeal to tourists, new residents and businesses. An unfortunate vote by the Ozaukee County Board on March 15 suggests that some of its members are taking this gift for granted.

The vote denied the City of Port Washington’s request for a $150,000 contribution by the county toward a breakwater improvement project that will cost $8 million.

A majority of the board—16 members—voted in favor of the contribution. But because a two-thirds vote was required, the no votes of merely seven supervisors scuttled a funding measure that was in the best interests of county residents.

The rationale of the naysayers seemed to be that the county should not contribute because the project benefits only the City of Port Washington. This pinched and shortsighted view misses the obvious: The harbor that needs the breakwater improvements is as much Ozaukee County’s harbor as it is Port Washington’s. 

It is the only harbor on the county shore, and it benefits the thousands of residents of Ozaukee County who use it to launch or moor boats, go fishing on charter boats or from docks and breakwaters or visit it to enjoy the beauty of Lake Michigan, an enjoyment that will be enhanced by the improvements that will make the breakwater safer and easier to use by those who want to walk over the water on its half-mile length to the lighthouse.

The economic impact derived from the spending the harbor stimulates flows to the entire county, generating county sales tax revenue and supporting businesses and the taxes and jobs they produce.

The breakwater project is going to get done with or without county money, but the rejection of the city request for modest cost-sharing puts unnecessary pressure on the taxpayers of Port Washington to fund infrastructure in the which the county has a significant stake.

This should have been an easy decision for the County Board, an opportunity to support Port Washington in providing a turn-key benefit for county residents. 

The city government has done all of the heavy lifting for the project, persuading a reluctant federal government to rebuild the failing breakwater structure, winning grants for necessary safety and accessibility upgrades and appropriating roughly $1.5 million in city funds for the work. 

Refusing to make a contribution that amounts to less than 2% of the cost of the project was an unfriendly response, insensitive to the contributions to the county by the City of Port Washington and its taxpayers and unsupported by any evidence that it would have been irresponsible spending.

It also amounts to a rejection by the no-voters of county government policy toward the harbor at Port Washington. Ozaukee County has demonstrated it values its stake in the harbor by contributing $1 million to the building of the small-boat harbor in which the marina is located and funding the rescue boat that is an essential marina service.

This episode in the annals of the relationship between the county and its county-seat city deserves a happier ending, one that reflects the will of the County Board majority. That can be accomplished by reconsideration and the change of just two of the dissenting votes. The satisfaction of doing the right thing should be an adequate incentive to do that.

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