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The fight to know PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 13 January 2016 16:13

Even after an open-government win, there is no reason to believe politicians won’t try again to steal the public’s right to know

In a democracy, it is assumed that government functions in full view of the public—no secret meetings, no hidden documents. 

But in the Wisconsin state government’s version of democracy, open government cannot be assumed.

In a democracy, citizens should not have to fight for their right to know everything about the government that spends their tax money and makes decisions that affect their lives.

But in the Wisconsin state government’s version of democracy, citizens do have to fight to protect that right—because government officials are trying to destroy it.

In Wisconsin, the right to know is a fight to know.

The latest evidence of that is the decision by the state Public Records Board to allow emails, text messages, Facebook posts and other electronic communications of government officials to be kept secret.

The decision itself was made virtually in secret in a meeting of the board last August that violated the state open meetings by being held without the required public notice.

The public didn’t know electronic government communications could suddenly be hidden, but the Walker administration certainly did. The very next day it announced that it could not provide text messages sought by a Madison newspaper under the open records law because, in keeping with the Public Record Board’s decision, they had not been saved.

That was convenient, to say the least. The messages were about a Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. loan that is an embarrassment to the Walker administration. The owner of the company that got the taxpayer-funded loan, a donor to Walker campaigns, defaulted and was found to have given the state false information.

Yes, Wisconsin citizens do have to fight for the information that belongs them, and they are. They sent nearly 2,000 emails last week demanding that the Public Records Board revoke its action. And under this withering public condemnation, the board did just that on Monday.

This is a win for open government and citizen activism that is worth celebrating, yet the fact that this battle had to be fought is a sad reminder of the ethical void that seems to exist in this state concerning democracy’s imperative to be open.

It was less than seven months ago that citizens had to go through the same exercise to defend access to government records. Then it was the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee  using a budget amendment to put severe limits on open records. That attempt to hide government communications was also withdrawn in the face of furious public criticism.

The mystery here is what constituency the politicians who attempt these thefts of the public’s right to know think they are serving. The outcry against them has crossed political lines, voiced by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Voters may be polarized on many issues, but not on the issue of open government. 

Elected officials of both parties have also criticized the moves to hide records, including Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel. Among Ozaukee County’s representatives in the Legislature, however, silence has prevailed.

Where exactly do State Senators Duey Stroebel and Alberta Darling and Reps. Rob Brooks, Dan Knodl and Jim Ott stand on the repeated attempts to deny citizens information about their government? 

Those citizens need an answer. They’re involved in an ongoing battle to protect their right to open government, and they need to know who their allies, and their enemies, in that fight are.

The uphill battle for manufacturing jobs PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 06 January 2016 21:42

An impediment to Port Washington in replacing lost jobs is that it is located in Wisconsin, which is mired in the bottom third of the states in job creation

Ouch! That hurts. The City of Port Washington got a kick in its economy around Christmas time that it didn’t see coming. A letter arrived among the tax payments and other city hall mail informing the city that Manitowoc Cranes will shut down its Port Washington plant this year with a loss of 80 jobs. 

When the city’s economic development committee visited Manitowoc’s Port Washington operation several months ago, everything was upbeat and there wasn’t a hint that anything was amiss. 

It’s not that the lack of notice matters much. The city couldn’t have done anything to save the jobs. The Port Washington plant is a tiny outpost in Manitowoc Cranes’ manufacturing empire that includes plants in Manitowoc, Wis., Pennsylvania, Indiana, Arkansas, Mexico and South America and generates billions in annual revenue. Eighty jobs don’t mean much to the company, but they certainly do to Port Washington. 

These are manufacturing jobs with good pay and benefits held by employees represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union. They are the kind of jobs that for many years were the backbone of Port Washington’s economy and contributed a strong blue-collar-worker component to its diverse society.

Hundreds of such jobs have been lost in the last 20 years, of which the still mostly empty plants of Bolens, Simplicity and other departed companies are sobering reminders.

By rights, Port Washington, well located for transportation of materials and products and offering first-rate municipal services, should be attractive to manufacturing companies. The community’s good schools and a still reasonably-priced real estate market help employers attract workers.

Unfortunately, one of the main impediments to restoring a strong manufacturing base is beyond the city’s control. The impediment is that Port Washington is located in Wisconsin, which is mired in the bottom third of the states in job creation. In the last five years, while private jobs increased by 11.2% in the country,  they grew by only 7.6% in Wisconsin. That was less than in the neighboring states of Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa, as well as Ohio.

We were promised so much more. The Walker administration, frequently repeating the slogan “Wisconsin is open for business,” touted its successful campaigns to curtail the influence of public and private worker unions, weaken business regulations, reduce business taxes, soften environmental restrictions on business and spend taxpayer dollars on loans to businesses through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) as surefire job builders. 

The jobs data confirm they weren’t, and it has been suggested that the consequences of the Walker agenda—including a bitterly polarized state population, education at all levels strained by reduced funding, highway maintenance and construction deferred owing to the failure to raise revenue for infrastructure—have created an environment that is a turn-off for investment in Wisconsin.

WEDC offers a telling measure of the state’s job-creation cluelessness. The corporation, created to replace the state Department of Commerce, has been plagued by mismanagement and accurately accused of throwing away taxpayer money in low-interest loans to failing businesses and to existing businesses that had ample resources for commercial credit, all with little, if anything, to show in new jobs.

None of that helps Port Washington replace its lost jobs, of course, but the city does have a good story to tell prospective employers as a progressive community that would be a fine home for their operations and for their workers—and the city’s economic development advocates should keep telling it.

They can also mention that there will soon be an enormous building available in the industrial park that would be ideal for manufacturing very large construction cranes.

The church on the hill PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 30 December 2015 20:07

Fundraising support is warranted for work on the historic building that is the most dominant landmark in Ozaukee County

St. Mary’s Church, the soaring Gothic edifice on the hill in the heart of Port Washington, will soon get a new owner. In a legal sense, that is. By other measures, the church will remain in the possession of those who have “owned” it for more than a century, the people of Port Washington and the surrounding communities, regardless of their religious affiliation. More than a place of worship, it is the dominant landmark in Ozaukee County and perhaps the only manmade object in this area that truly inspires awe.

The official owner of the church will be the new Catholic parish to be created by the amalgamation of the two current Port Washington parishes and the Saukville parish. The move, which would have been considered radical a few years ago but is now common among Catholic communities, is necessitated by the inability of the church, constrained by gender and celibacy restrictions, to provide enough priests to serve all of its parishes.

One of the first challenges the new parish will face is the deferred maintenance of its marquee property; the church on the hill needs a new roof, and it’s likely to cost north of half a million dollars.

The parish doesn’t have that kind of money, so it will take a fundraising campaign to do what needs to be done to preserve the structural integrity of the building. That effort deserves broad support, for St. Mary’s Church represents a remarkable chapter in the county’s history.

The church has been listed on the National Register of Historic places since 1977. It deserves that distinction for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a single small-town congregation found the courage and, somehow, the financial wherewithal to build what at the time might have been the most costly construction project ever attempted in the county. The fact that 134 years later the new three-parish organization is hard-pressed to find the funds to replace the roof puts that in telling context.

In 1882, the community contributed more than the funds needed to construct the building. It contributed manpower as well. Many local families can tell stories of ancestor-farmers who volunteered their wagons and horse teams to haul cut stone to the building site.

The church was built by professionals, of course, masons and carpenters mainly from Milwaukee, following plans drawn by Henry Messmer, a noted Milwaukee architect who was born in Switzerland.

The scale of the building was audacious, with a steeple that made the church the equivalent of 16 stories high. Viewed from Franklin Street beneath St. Mary’s Hill, the church was in effect a skyscraper.

There are older, larger and more elaborate churches in the world that were built before the invention of mechanized construction equipment, but still it is humbling to contemplate what those 19th-century workers accomplished on a hill in Port Washington without engine-driven cranes and electric elevators, raising and placing hundreds of tons of stone in walls reaching more than 100 feet from the ground.

What the church represents as a feat of human enterprise is part of its 21st-century appeal. Catholics have a special affinity for the church, but people of all religions, as well as those of no religious belief, can admire the building as a work of man that celebrates the faith of a community and the gift of nature that is the great hill overlooking Lake Michigan.

Now it’s time for some more human enterprise. A new roof made of steel could be installed for about $300,000. A roof made of slate like the one that has lasted more than a century would cost about $525,000. It would be, pardon the expression, a sin not to do it right and give this majestic structure the roof it was meant to have—a roof made of slate.

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