January 17, 2009

Waldenbooks at Regency Mall closing

Another long-time retail stalwart at Regency Mall is closing.

Waldenbooks sent an email notice to customers Saturday night saying the store will close on Jan. 24. The store is offering 40% off the list price of everything in the store (except magazines and electronics).

Waldenbooks, which is owned by Borders Group Inc., closed about half its stores in 2007. There are approximately 420 Waldenbooks stores in the U.S.; reports say all the "under-performing" ones will close this month.

The most recent closure at Regency was Steve and Barry's, which ended its final clearance sale a week ago. Prior to that, Regency lost Linens and Things to a corporate bankruptcy this summer. Business analysts have been predicting a wave of retail store closures in 2009 -- thousands of stores are believed in jeopardy of closing, perhaps as many as 40,000 across the U.S.

Becker's defense

Can Gary Becker get out of the charges filed against him?


Similar cases in Wisconsin and around the country have resulted in different outcomes. Some charged have ended up with lengthy prison sentences, others with lengthy court cases ending with relatively short sentences. Here's a review of cases I found online:

A Wisconsin Rapids man got a conviction overturned by an appeals court after he engaged in a sexually explicit chat, including video, with a state agent posing as a 13-year-old girl

Two appeals court rulings in Indiana suggest police need a "real victim" to convict suspects of serious crimes.

The use of undercover investigators as bait in Internet chats has become routine in Central Indiana. But the attraction for law enforcement -- the lack of an actual victim -- also became the basis for the reversal of two convictions against a Shelbyville man Wednesday by the Indiana Court of Appeals. That leaves in place a third related conviction.
That doesn't jibe with a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling in 2002 (see Robbins vs State) that found the suspect's intent was all that was needed for a conviction in an Internet sex sting case. (And here's a story I wrote for the JT in 2002 on the issue.)

* Criminal defense attorneys seem to think they have a case in Internet sex stings.

Here's a lawyer in Madison who thinks police overstep their bounds in Internet sex sting cases:
According to media reports, the undercover agent is a seasoned male police officer. The tone of the conversation is nothing short of "enticing erotica."
Here's a Milwaukee attorney making a similar argument:
Police increasingly use Internet chat room sting operations to ensnare unsuspecting individuals. Some are unfairly targeted persons who would not otherwise have become involved in child pornography or attempted child sexual contact. Such persons may have a defense if they satisfy the legal requirements of “entrapment”. Others may be guilty of some wrongdoing, but perhaps not the specific and more serious charge they face.
* But others caught in Internet sex stings have been convicted and sentenced to prison. This is worth more research, but the sentences seem to vary. Here's a case involving a Chicago priest from 2000 that resulted in a Racine County judge sentencing him to one year in prison for second degree sexual assault of a child.

It's safe to say odds are against Becker. But a Racine County court observer noted Becker's lawyer, Patrick Cafferty is very good. "If I was in trouble, he'd be the person I call," they said.

January 16, 2009

The making of an unperson quickly begins

The rewriting of city history has already begun -- but not quite as effectively as Russian leaders made unpersons of their vanquished rivals in the Stalinist era.

City Council President David Maack took action Thursday to remove Gary Becker's presence from the city's website. That's just one day after Becker was arrested at Brookfield Square Mall on child sex solicitation charges -- much faster than the city government usually moves on anything.

The Journal Times reported tonight that Maack, who as Council President has taken over as acting mayor, "asked city staff on Thursday to remove Becker's picture and welcome message from the city's website. “With everything going on I felt it was not appropriate for his picture and his welcome to remain on the Web site,” Maack told the JT.

Wrote the Journal Times: "He might still be the mayor of Racine, but Gary Becker’s face is no longer a part of the main page of the city’s Web site."

Yeah? Well, maybe not the "main" page, but he's still there on the website. We just grabbed this screenshot from the city's web page. And the mayor's budget address and state of the city address are also still there too -- as they should be. Becker is, after all, still mayor. (HA! Joke's on me: Sometime between 8 p.m. Friday, when I first posted this, and 11:30 p.m. when I just checked the link, all mayoral pages have disappeared. Somewhere, Stalin is smiling.)

Two aldermen want to limit interim mayor candidates
only to aldermen who agree not to run for the office

Two aldermen are confronting the issue of a mayoral vacancy with an eye toward making sure that no interim mayor get a leg up on potential election opponents.

Robert Mozol, 15th District, and Aron Wisneski, 12th District, are circulating an email that suggests that any candidates for interim mayor must first agree not to run in the expected election, whether that election comes in April 2010 at the end of Mayor Gary Becker's term, or sometime in 2009 when set by the City Council. The timing, of course, is related to Becker's arrest this week on child sexual solicitation charges, and will depend, in part, on whether Becker resigns quickly, or is removed by the council. The five council members on the Executive Council will meet Tuesday to discuss Becker's removal.

The two aldermen note that some council members have already expressed interest in becoming mayor -- QA Shakoor II, Greg Helding and David Maack -- and they write, "If we decide, either by action or inaction, to allow one of these members to serve as acting Mayor for a great length of time, we essentially give that person incumbency, and the moniker of 'most experienced' going into an election. Offering this kind of leg-up on the competition would put us in the position of being King Makers, imposing our own judgment of fitness to serve over that of the electorate."

Therefore, they say, "the best option... is that the Council should consider a list of appointees who have no interest in running for Mayor (now or in the future) to serve until an election."

Here's the complete memo they sent Friday night to all council members:
We believe that it is incumbent upon us to confront the reality that a vacancy of the Mayor's office is likely in the near future. Our reading of applicable statutes and consultation with the City Attorney leads us to believe that one of two scenarios must play out:

1. Mayor's office is vacated. A new election for remainder of the term occurs in April 2010. City Council may appoint an interim mayor until that election.

2. Mayor's office is vacated. City Council sets a date in 2009 for a special election for the remainder of the term. City Council may appoint an interim mayor until that election.

Although the current Council President is statutorily mandated to serve as acting Mayor, the ability of the City Council to appoint a replacement suggests that the President need not hold that seat for the entirety of the time before the next election.

Given the nature of the current Mayor's exit from office, we believe that integrity and transparency are paramount considerations during this process. It is common knowledge that some members of the current City Council would be interested in running for the open office. If we decide, either by action or inaction, to allow one of these members to serve as acting Mayor for a great length of time, we essentially give that person incumbency, and the moniker of 'most experienced' going into an election. Offering this kind of leg-up on the competition would put us in the position of being King Makers, imposing our own judgment of fitness to serve over that of the electorate.

We believe that the best option, assuming the above two scenarios, is that the Council should consider a list of appointees who have no interest in running for Mayor (now or in the future) to serve until an election. Such a person should want to serve in this capacity, have some amount of executive or leadership background, and possibly some history of government service. The reasons for these qualifications are continuity, quality, and stability. Although we could not put an appointee under contractual obligation to not run in the future, their public promise to step aside after the election would serve to ensure fidelity to that vow.

We all know that any action the Council takes will be justifiably scrutinized and held to the highest ethical standards of democratic process. Our concern for the stability of City government should take into account our potential to influence the election process. Elimination of interested office seekers from consideration for interim Mayor keeps their credentials from unintended taint and helps to maintain competency in the City's executive office. In the end, only election by popular vote offers a Mayor the stamp of democratic legitimacy.

Robert Mozol
15th District Alderman
City of Racine, Wisconsin

Aron Wisneski
12th District Alderman
City of Racine, Wisconsin

Circuit City closing hits 40 employees

Circuit City store manager Joe Johnson

Inside Circuit City late this morning, two walls of big flat-screen TVs were switching among channels in unison. Customers -- not very many on this bitterly cold day, it must be admitted -- were wandering the aisles picking at this and that: TVs, computers, cameras, CDs.

But the sales reps were mostly huddled together, talking quietly about the news they'd just been given by Store Manager Joe Johnson: Circuit City is about to close forever.

The bad news had just arrived: the chain with almost 600 electronics stores in the U.S., and close to 800 in Canada -- with a total of 30,000 employees -- is going to liquidate and shut down. It's stock, worth $41 a share eight years ago dropped to 4 cents this morning.

The Green Bay Road store -- located about 40 feet south of arch-rival Best Buy -- opened in 2002 and has 40 employees. Johnson, who has run it for three years and been with the company for nine, said he's been told an outside liquidation company would come here in a day or so, and prepare merchandise for sale. He expects it to be a "reverse auction," where merchandise is priced at its regular price, and then the price is reduced perhaps 10% each week, until everything is sold.

Customers who have purchased extended warranties for electronic goods will not be affected, he said. Those warranties are handled through a third-party company, GE Assurion, and will remain valid and are fully funded. Normal warranties are provided by the manufacturers. Circuit City will no longer be offering extended warranties.

Johnson was clearly disappointed this morning. "I've got good, good people here," he said. "This store has been one of the top 20 performers in the company, and the Wisconsin District has been the leading district in the U.S.

"We're like a family. If anyone is looking for good employees, they should contact me." Under state law, Circuit City employees will receive 60 days' notice before pay and benefits halt.

'He is the mayor'

Here's a sticky question: What's to stop Gary Becker from being mayor of Racine?

Answer: Nothing.

That's according to Deputy City Attorney Scott Letteney, who sent this response when asked if Becker could start acting as mayor again:
He is the Mayor. He has not resigned or been removed.
In other words, city government is a mess right now. Alderman David Maack is acting like the interim mayor, but there's really no basis for him to hold the position. Becker can walk into City Hall at any time and resume his duties as the city's chief executive.

The City Council's Executive Committee is meeting Tuesday to discuss the process for removing Becker from office, but they're a ways out from the formal vote to toss the mayor out (anyone know if a Racine mayor has ever been removed from office?).

We could be looking at a few weeks of a confusing mess at 730 Washington Ave.

One side note: If Becker did return to City Hall, he's not allowed to use a computer in any form. No email, no calendars, nothing. It's a condition of his bond.

Becker's Hard Drive

Alright, it's Friday afternoon and I'm fried after a tough week for us all.

Amidst all this gloom and doom, how about a moment of fun? I've started calling the stories involving the mayor's fall, "Becker's Hard Drive." It evokes computers, late-night instant messaging and the mayor's fateful trip to Brookfield Square Mall.

But maybe it's a little lurid, and there must be a dozen ways we could go to tie a name on this scandal. So let's here your suggestions. We're looking for catchy titles that really wrap this whole sad saga together. The winner (or winners) get a free coffee on me.

City committee meeting Tuesday to begin removing Becker from office

The City Council's executive committee will meet Tuesday to review procedures for possibly removing Mayor Gary Becker from office.

Executive Committee members include: Sandy Weidner, QA Shakoor II, Tom Friedel, Greg Helding and David Maack. Becker is also a member.

Three of the five members of the Executive Committee are interested in replacing Becker as mayor. Maack is acting mayor, and Helding and Shakoor are interested in running in an election to replace Becker.

Here's the J-S story on the upcoming hearing.

Bargaining chip?

Becker doesn't have many cards to play, but one he does have is resignation.

Despite the charges, he's still the mayor and there's really nothing compelling him to leave office - it certainly can't get any worse. Resigning would be what's best for the city, but when you're looking at a lengthy prison sentence on child sex charges it's safe to say personal interest comes first.

It's unlikely Becker wants to drag this out. He's not going to win at trial, and it's almost certain he's going to prison. Now, it's about negotiating how long that prison sentence will be. His best bet may be to trade a resignation for pleading guilty to reduced charges. That would allow the city to move forward and probably lessen his prison time.

That said, the City Council could just wait him out, remove him from office and move one without a resignation. But that could get messy, and embarrassing, for Racine.

In talking about this case, a number of people had said something along the lines of: "Racine doesn't need this." They're right. Swinging one last deal with Becker before he heads off to prison may be the best way to make this disappear sooner, rather than later.

Police explanation of 2007 hard drive

Lt James Dobbs of the Racine Police Department, a real straight-shooter on police issues, sent over an explanation of how Mayor Becker's 2007 hard drive came to light.

Here's the explanation from Dobbs:
The first allegations of inappropriate activity involving computers owned by Mayor Becker were presented to D.C. Tom Christensen and Chief Wahlen on or about December 23, 2008. During these initial meetings between the Chief and Mike Ferderer, Ferderer had mentioned that Paul Burdick may have also seen some inappropriate materials in one Mayor Becker's computers some time ago when Burdick worked on Becker's computer.

Chief Wahlen saw Burdick off duty on Sunday, 1-11-09. Chief Wahlen started a conversation asking about computer repairs performed in the past. Burdick eventually offered up that he had performed work on Mayor Becker's personal computer in 2007. Burdick went on to say that he observed some inappropriate sexual material at that time. Burdick stated that when he gave the repaired computer back to Becker, he advised Becker that he should remove that type of material from his computer. Burdick also stated that he gave Becker a bill for services rendered. Burdick then advised Chief Wahlen that he had made a copy of the material on Becker's hard drive. Chief Wahlen then obtained that copy and forwarded it to DCI.

So that clears up any question of when police found out about the 2007 hard drive, which contained the picture of the naked 10-year-old. It doesn't explain why Burdick had a copy of the contents of Becker's personal computer (is there a way to prove the contents on the CD came from Becker's computer?), and why he didn't turn it over to police sooner. Then again, if you're a city employee and you come across potentially damaging information on the mayor, maybe the best thing to do is cover your tracks and keep your mouth shut.

One last note: This seems to clear Wahlen of any sort of cover up. Becker may have appointed him police chief, but it looks like Wahlen personally took the lead on investigating the allegations and found strong evidence that, eventually, led to the mayor's arrest.

One last, last note: It's interesting that Burdick told Becker to remove the pornography from his computer. That's a slick way of letting the mayor know that he knows about the kiddie porn. It also means that Becker has known since 2007 that a city employee had the whamee on him - and could play it at any time.


If you look closely at this case, its origins are pretty weak.

A city computer tech finds a handful of pictures of naked women on the mayor's computer, decides the women look young and turns it over to police. The department (which Becker outsourced) also happens to know that Paul Burdick - a former employee - has a CD with the personal contents of Becker's computer saved on it from 2007. It's this CD that has one picture of a naked 10-year-old girl that resulted in the child pornography charge. It also led state officials to lure Becker into the meeting at Brookfield Square Mall.

Before I continue, let's be clear: Becker got caught red-handed. According to the complaint, he planned to a meet a 14-year-old girl at a mall, take her to a hotel room and have sex. If proven true, this is a disgusting act and the behavior of a dangerous man.

But that still leaves questions: Why did Burdick have the disk? Why did he, or others with MIS, wait to turn it over to police? Was the MIS department holding the disk over Becker's head?

And one more thing: Even without the sex stuff, city officials shouldn't be asking city employees to fix their computers (or do any personal work for them). That alone would be worth a sanction, if not resignation, for abuse of power.

With vacancy looming, Maack makes bid for interim mayor appointment

The posturing has begun.

City Council President David Maack sent out an email to the City Council Thursday asking for their support if they have to appoint an interim mayor for the city.

It's a significant move because the city has three options to replace Mayor Gary Becker if (when) he resigns or is removed from office. The options are:

1. Hold a special election. This could be any day, but would requires a certain amount of time for candidates to file and campaign.

2. The City Council could appoint an interim mayor to fill out the rest of Becker's term, which runs through 2011.

3. An election could be held next April.

In Maack's letter, he says he will not run for election as mayor, but asks for their support to be interim mayor. What's interesting about that move is Maack fell into this position. The City Council president is elected every year and typically rotated among council members. Maack really has no more claim to the interim mayor position than anyone else on council, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

That said, Maack would make a fine interim mayor. He's a good man, solid on city business and certainly wired into the community (his day job is emergency management coordinator for Racine County). But it will be interesting to see if there is more posturing on the council for the position. For example, someone like Tom Friedl may be a good fit because he knows city government inside and out.

Here's Maack's email to the council, sent Jan. 15:

Over the past 24 hours, I have had many people ask me to run for mayor.

Like all of you, I was shocked and stunned by the news that we received. Although there has not been an official vacancy, there has been much speculation over who will be running for that position.

While I am humbled by the calls of support that I have received, I will not be running for mayor at this time, but instead, I will be focusing my attention towards working with both the City Council and City Hall staff
to lead the City of Racine through this difficult time. Our city needs
strong, stable leadership and that is more important to me at this point than running for mayor.

If it becomes necessary to appoint an interim mayor, I would request your support for my appointment to that position. You have my assurance that I will not run for election to complete the current mayoral term.

If you have any questions, you may contact me at any time.

David L. Maack, CEM, CPM
City Council President
5th District Alderman, City of Racine, WI

Racine Republicans call on Becker to resign

The Racine County Republican Party called on Mayor Gary Becker to resign today. Here's the statement from party chairman Bill Folk:
Racine mayor should resign.

We awoke Wednesday to find that our community has been changed by the actions of the mayor of the city of Racine.

On that morning we were informed that Mayor Gary Becker was arrested on multiple felony counts associated with solicitation of a minor. The other charges are just as heinous and do not cast Mayor Becker in a good light. We need to remember, though, that in this country we are all innocent until proven guilty and the Mayor has that right as well.

“I feel deeply sorry for the Becker family and hope that they will find their way through this awful ordeal,” stated Bill Folk, Chairman of the Racine GOP. “I have read a number of horrible things said about the Mayor on-line and I ask people to hold their opinions of Mr. Becker until he has had his day in court; he deserves that.”

Since the District Attorney has decided to file criminal charges the Racine County Republican Party calls on the Mayor to resign and allow the city the right to move forward while he defends himself in this criminal case.

“While the community may be bigger than one person, the actions of the mayor reflect on the city of Racine. Mayor Becker should resign so that Racine’s reputation is not further tarnished.”

January 15, 2009

Just when was Becker porn first discovered?

UPDATED: See below...

Elsewhere, we've posted the full complaint presented Thursday at Mayor Gary Becker's first court appearance. It consisted of:
  • two pages listing the six criminal counts charged by District Attorney Mike Nieskes;
  • six pages of narrative detailing how the mayor asked an IT employee on Dec. 23, 2008, to fix his personal computer ... a request that led directly to investigators finding allegedly pornographic images of underage girls on Becker's computer, as well as 1,800 archived sexual chat conversations on a hard drive;
  • and 21 pages of chats that will turn your stomach.
Take our word for it: Don't read the chats; they're disgusting.

But the most interesting point to us was two short paragraphs within the investigative narrative. Here they are:
Agent Szatkowski further reports that on or about January 14, 2009, he met with Racine city Police chief Wahlen; Wahlen states that an individual named Paul Burdick was a former information and technology employee/contractor with the City of Racine. Burdick reported that in August of 2007 he received a personal computer from Mayor Gary Becker to make repairs. Burdick reported that this computer was not City of Racine property, but was, upon information and belief, personal property of Mayor Becker. Burdick turned over a CD marked "Gary files from Becker PC family," which contained the contents of files removed from hard drive of Mayor Gary Becker's personal computer.

Agent Szatkowski states that he viewed the contents of the disk created by Burdick. Agent Szatkowski reports that he observed several images similar in nature to those observed previously from the hard drive of Mayor Becker's other personal computer. The photos include one titled "10 YO undressed from cell phone in class." The image is believed to be a minor female, displaying full frontal nudity, exposing her breasts and pubic region of her body. Based upon training and experience in investigating child pornography complaints, he believed the image to be child pornography in nature.
We're not sure -- because the writing isn't crystal clear -- but those two paragraphs say that pornography was discovered on a Becker personal computer 17 months before the one brought in for repairs on Dec. 23, 2008, that led to all that's transpired in the past couple of days. Seventeen months! But what action was taken?

What we don't know is when Burdick made Police Chief Wahlen aware of what he found on that Becker hard drive, and when he turned over that CD marked ""Gary files from Becker PC family," and to whom they were turned over. And what did that person do with them?

We asked William Cosh, spokesman for the Department of Criminal Investigation, about the discrepancy this afternoon. He wouldn't clear it up, conceding only that the questions we raised were valid, and telling us that we were the second reporter to ask him about it.

We're also unsure where the most damning evidence against Becker was found: the 1,800 online chat conversations. Another statement in the six-page narrative portion of the complaint says:
Agent Szatkowski further states that based upon observation of the contents of the aforementioned hard drives, over 1,800 online chats were discovered...
Hard drives, plural. Was it in the computer needing repair in August 2007, or the one brought in on Dec. 23, 2008? We don't know. And it's late now, and there's no way to reach the people we need to ask those questions. Something to ponder on another day...

UPDATE, Jan. 16: The Journal Times is reporting today that Michael Ferderer, the technician who repaired the Mayor's computer on Dec. 23, 2008, told authorities about the technician, Paul Burdick, who had repaired another of Becker's personal computers in August 2007. Thus, investigators -- including the Racine Police -- did not know of the 2007 discovery until recently.

One question still remains, however: why didn't Burdick report what he found in 2007... and didn't he have a legal responsibility to do so?

AND here's the official Racine Police Department response.

Mayor Becker was trying to meet 14-year-old girl, according to prosecutors

Mayor Gary Becker and his defense attorney, Patrick Cafferty,
at table left; DA Micheal Nieskes, right;
presiding is Court Commissioner Alice Rudebusch

A contracted city employee Mayor Gary Becker outsourced to save money turned over the evidence to police that led to Becker's arrest, according to a criminal complaint filed Thursday.

Read the criminal complaint against Gary Becker here.

The employee turned over Becker's personal computer to police after finding pictures of naked women on the hard drive. The employee had been asked to perform maintenance on Becker's home computer, which in itself is a crime, according to the criminal complaint.

If only this was a case of a mayor abusing his power to get free computer work done. In reality, it's much worse for Becker, who appeared in court Thursday to face charges of child enticement, attempted sexual assault of a girl under 16 and possession of child pornography. If convicted, he'll serve a minimum of three years ins prison.

City officials turned the computer over to state agents, who discovered a picture of a naked 10-year-old girl on Becker's computer. They also found over 1,800 online chats he'd conducted; many chats involved juveniles and sexually explicit language.

Agents then created a fake account and posed as a 14-year-old eighth-grader who agreed to meet Becker at Brookfield Square Mall on Tuesday night. Becker said he'd be there to take the teen/agent to Victoria's Secret and then to a hotel for sex.

District Attorney Mike Nieskes answers reporters' questions

Instead, he was greeted by Department of Criminal Investigations Agent Eric Szatkowski. Becker, 51, initially told the agent he was at the mall shopping for his wife at Victoria's Secret. He said he traveled all the way to Brookfield because too many people knew him in Racine, according to the complaint. When the agent confronted him about the Internet chat, he admitted that he had chatted with the girl.

Becker outsourced the city's computer work to a private company in his 2008 budget. He estimated the move would save the city $100,000 a year, but it wasn't warmly received by the employees themselves. Regardless, the charges against Becker are far more severe than any sort of City Hall squabble, and no contract employee drove the mayor to Brookfield to meet with an underage girl.

Appearing in court Thursday, Becker looked fine. He was well-dressed and shaved, attentive to the hearing and did nothing out of the ordinary. His only faux-pas may have been knocking over his chair will standing up to leave the hearing. He didn't glance at the small crowd - mostly media - that had gathered in the hearing room in the basement of the county's Law Enforcement Center.

Court Commissioner Alice Rudebusch presided over the hearing. District Attorney Mike Nieskes represented the prosecution. Defense attorney Patrick Cafferty represented Becker.

During the hearing. Rudebusch lowered Becker's bond to $10,000 cash at Cafferty's request; Becker had borrowed the $165,000 from a relative to get out of the Kenosha County Jail on Wednesday.

Nieskes requested restrictions on Becker's bail, including: no computer use, no drinking, no leaving Racine County without court permission, and no contact with underage children, except for his daughter. Rudebusch agreed.

Becker is next scheduled in court on Feb. 10 to enter his plea.

Following the hearing, Nieskes said it was too early to say if the trial would be moved to a new jurisdiction.

He added that he knew about the investigation about a week before the arrest was made. He also said that even without the arrest there was enough evidence to charge Becker with crimes.

When asked if the case would be different because it involved the mayor, Nieskes said it was his responsibilty to enforce laws and protect the public.

"Persons who engage in this types of activities are dangerous," he said.

Becker chatted on Yahoo Instant Messenger as WISC_GARY and m reed. The agent's name in the chat was Hope_Ulikeme14.

The conversation that led to the meeting at Brookfield Square Mall was explicit, with several references to sex. In the chat, Becker pleaded with the girl to send him a picture and to engage in phone sex with him.

He also gave the girl his cell phone number, which a DCI analyst called to confirm the meeting. During that call, Becker said: "We better chat more, this is too dangerous." Then, he asked the analyst if she was a "cop," and said he had to be careful and only buy her a soda.

When he arrived at the mall, the authorities were waiting.

All Saints lays off 43 employees

All Saints told its employees Wednesday that it's eliminated 43 positions because of the declining economy.

The cuts to Racine's leading medical provider falls in line with layoffs occurring throughout the Wheaton-Franciscan Healthcare system.

Along with the layoffs, All Saints cut some employees' hours and moved managers into direct-patient care. It also ended the contract with its concierge service, Best Upon Request.

Here's the letter sent out to employees:

Date: January 14, 2009
To: WFH-All Saints Associates,
WFMG South Market Physicians and Midlevels
From: Ken Buser, President and CEO, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare – All Saints
Loren Meyer, MD, President and CEO, Wheaton Franciscan Medical Group
Re: Expense Control and Reduction of Workforce

As we have seen in the news and may be experiencing in our own homes, we are in the midst of an economic downturn most of us have never seen before. Unfortunately, the recession is also taking its toll on the health care industry. While we have been engaged in an Operational Excellence initiative for several years, the current environment requires us to respond by pursuing new and more efficient ways of providing care.

• Yesterday we eliminated the positions of 43 people within All Saints including four leaders. These changes affect both clinical and nonclinical areas and represent less than 2% of our workforce. The elimination of nursing staff was minimal. In all but a couple of cases, we were able to reassign nursing staff to open positions. Those associates leaving our organization will receive severance and support services consistent with their position and years of service.

• We've implemented additional changes to help bring us closer to our budget goals. One critical component to our financial performance is working to help departments meet their budget. To better match with patient volumes, some staff will experience a reduction of hours. Additionally, about 23 leaders will be shifting 50% of their time into direct patient care. Another 2% of our workforce is affected by these kinds of changes. And finally, we will continue to leave vacant positions open unless they are critical to patient care.

• Wheaton Franciscan Medical Group is changing care processes and adjusting staffing ratios consistent with current volumes. In the South Market, several WFMG positions are being eliminated in addition to a few reassignments to other areas with the Medical Group. WFMG is also reducing operational expenses and redesigning patient education programs.

• We also explored ways to redesign programs or services that were not financially sustainable, including the Comprehensive Pain Management program, Pulmonary Rehabilitation, Resolve Through Sharing, and Senior Advantage. We will continue to provide these important services to our patients through existing resources. More information about these changes will be shared with you over the coming days.

• We ended our contract with our associate concierge service, Best Upon Request, and services will end in 90 days.

All Saints and WFMG's South Market are not alone in this expense reduction work. Over the coming weeks, other Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare sites will be making additional changes as well.

Meet snappy dresser, Max

It's not often you can adopt a dog with its own wardrobe!

We're going to just assume that Max, the white Lhasa Apso pictured here, comes with the winter sweater he's wearing. Countryside Humane Society tells us that Max has been shaved -- but in a few months he will have a soft furry coat. Sure, but what about now, when the temperature is below miserable? That's where the stylish outfit comes in!

Max is a friendly six-year-old, and he's already house-trained. His family had to give him up due to allergies. Max would fit into a family with any age children or adults.

Come make his acquaintance at the Countryside Humane Society, 2706 Chicory Road, or call (262) 554-6699.

January 14, 2009

Becker posts bail, could be out of jail tonight

Mayor Gary Becker is out of jail this evening, according to Kenosha County Jail records.

The J-S is reporting that Jean Becker, a relative of Becker's, posted the $165,000 bond.

The paper also reported Racine Attorney Patrick Cafferty is representing the Racine mayor.

Becker is due in court Thursday at 1:30 p.m. for his initial appearance. Read the charges here.

It's not a big surprise Becker could afford the bond. Prior to being mayor, he ran a chain of successful drycleaning companies, which he sold.

Racine Zoo now charging county residents $1 admission on Mondays

It now costs $1 for Racine County residents to attend the Racine Zoo on Mondays.

The fee replaces "Free Mondays" that had been in effect since the zoo went to an admission fee in 2007. The decision was finalized Monday night when the Racine Zoo Board approved the organization's 2009 operating budget.

County residents and their guests will pay the reduced fee. Out-of-town visitors will pay the full rate of $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for children between 3 and 15 and free for children under 3 during the "peak rate" season of April to October 31.

Rates from Nov. 1 to March 31 will be $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, $2 for children between 3 and 15, and free for children under 3.

In order to help people who cannot afford the $1 admission price, the Zoo created the Safari Club Ticket Donation Program. Individual and corporate members who receive guest admission tickets as one of their membership benefits can donate their admission tickets back to the Zoo for distribution to those in need. The tickets can be requested through the Zoo’s administrative office.

Schools and education-based organizations (e.g. Scouts, camps, etc.) with non-profit status will enjoy a $2.00 per person rate for students and chaperones with free admission for one chaperone for every eight students. Group outings for non-education based organizations will receive $1.00 off admission from April 1 through October 31. In order to receive a discount, groups must register with the Zoo at least two weeks prior to their outing date.

The Zoo will host three free days for ALL guests including Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Years Day. It will also offer free admission to mothers on Mother’s Day, fathers on Father’s Day, grandparents on Grandparent’s Day and active duty military members and veterans on Veterans Day.

The Racine Zoo is open daily. Hours between Labor Day and May 22nd are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The admission price currently is $4.00 for adults, $2.00 for children 3-15, $3.00 for seniors and children under three and Zoo Members are free. The mission of the Racine Zoological Society is to foster an enlightening and affordable wildlife experience that improves the bond between people and nature. The Society will provide for the recreation and education of the people, the conservation of wildlife and wild places, and the advancement of science.

Police Dept. expands hours at service counter

The Racine Police Department is expanding the hours at its Public Service Counter effective Saturday, Jan. 17.

The new hours now include Saturday service from 8 a.m. to noon. The counter is also open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday – Friday (except holidays). Parking citation payments can now be handled at the Public Service Counter, in addition to payments for any City of Racine traffic or ordinance citation.

The Police Department also announced that all Police Department Records have been moved to the Public Service Counter on the first floor to make it unnecessary for the public to climb stairs to the old Record Bureau on the second floor. Ticket payments can be made via cash, checks, money orders, and credit cards. There is a service fee if you pay a parking ticket via credit card.

First hats in the ring to succeed Becker

That didn't take long!

Former West Racine alderman Pete Karas said today he is "strongly considering" running for mayor.

If the mayor resigns as a result of his arrest last night, state law requires the city to hold a special election within six weeks.

Karas was the 9th District member of the City Council for five years, before resigning in November 2007 when an obscure state law came to prominence. Karas sold commercial insurance to some customers who hold liquor licenses; under state statute 125.51 (1b) aldermen are prohibited from selling anything to those who hold liquor licenses.

The JT gets a few more people to admit they're thinking about running. They include: Acting Mayor David Maack, Alderman Greg Helding and Alderman Q.A. Shakoor.

Another name that could come up: Pastor Elliott Cohen.

And don't forget about Ron Thomas - he nearly won the mayor's office in 2003 - and Jim (and Joyce) Smith may see an opportunity in returning to City Hall.

Here's what Mayor Becker is charged with

The State Department of Criminal Investigation released the following information this afternoon, outlining the charges against Racine Mayor Gary Becker:
Last night, agents of the Department of Justice – Division of Criminal Investigation arrested Racine Mayor Gary Becker at Brookfield Square Mall in Brookfield. After his arrest, Mr. Becker was booked at the Kenosha County Jail on charges including child enticement, possession of child pornography, exposing a child to harmful materials, attempted second degree sexual assault of a child, use of a computer to facilitate a child sex crime and misconduct in public office. The Racine County Sheriff’s Department provided law enforcement assistance to the Division of Criminal Investigation Internet Crimes Against Children agents in this matter.

The matter has been referred to the Racine County District Attorney Michael Nieskes’ Office for evaluation and potential prosecution.

An arrest is an initial stage in a criminal proceeding. Mr. Becker is entitled to a presumption of innocence.

If charges are filed, Mr. Becker’s initial appearance is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Racine County Law Enforcement Center.

A tip to Racine police led to Mayor Becker's arrest

Somber press conference: Lt. Jim Dobbs, City Atty. Rob Weber
and City Administrator Ben Hughes

A tip to the Racine Police Department set off a state investigation that led to Mayor Gary Becker's arrest outside of Brookfield Square mall on Tuesday, Lt. Jim Dobbs said at a press conference Wednesday.

Dobbs said the tip came in "several weeks ago" and was known by only the top brass in the department. He declined to say where the tip came from or the nature of the tip, deferring questions about the investigation to the state's Department of Criminal Investigations.

Dobbs' comments came during a press conference led by City Administrator Ben Hughes. City Attorney Rob Weber also spoke.

It was clear from the press conference and comments afterwards that everyone in the city is bracing for Becker's prolonged absence (if not departure).

Under state statute, City Council President David Maack is now acting mayor of the city. He'll fill that role until Becker returns, resigns or the City Council removes him from office.

As acting mayor, Maack will sign official city documents, run City Council meetings and fulfill all of the ceremonial roles that come with being mayor.

Weber said it was too early to discuss the process for removing Becker, but did confirm the council could do so before a criminal conviction. Three-quarters of the council members would have to vote to remove Becker.

"At this point in time, Gary Becker is still the mayor," Weber said. "There is a presumption of innocence."

Hughes said city government would continue to operate without Becker in charge.

"City government will continue to function," he said. "Streets will be plowed, garbage will be picked up. Services will continue to be delivered."

If criminal charges are filed against Becker, he will be represented by his own attorney at his own expense, Weber said. The city will not pay his legal fees.

Weber said he spoke with Becker's family. "The family is shocked," he said.

City officials started hearing about Becker's arrest at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. Maack was notified first, and then called members of the City Council.

Hughes received a call from the Racine Police Department with the news around the same time.

Two aldermen attended a press conference on the arrest. Alderman Greg Helding said he met the news with "stunned silence" after getting the call from Maack.

The shock aside, Helding said he was preparing to move forward with city business. While the city needs a mayor in the long term, in the short term it will run smoothly, he said.

Alderman Aron Wisneski said he was stunned by the news. "It doesn't make sense," he said.

But he added this was an opportunity to show city government is about more than the mayor's office.

"Not all of city government is driven by one man's personality," Wisneski said. "It's a democratic, collaborative process."

Press conference attended mostly by media and city employees

Uglier and uglier ...

Lt. Jim Dobbs, City Atty. Rob Weber and City Administrator Ben Hughes

Mayor Becker was arrested by the state Division of Criminal Investigations. DCI runs the Internet Crimes against Children Task Force unit, which conducts Internet sex stings on computer users. Basically, they pretend to be underaged girls looking to have sex with older men. When the men respond, agents arrest them at a meeting point.

That may not be what happened here, but the fact that DCI is involved doesn't look good.

Update: The J-S confirms DCI's Internet sex sting unit was involved.

Mayor Becker arrested on child pornography charges

Mayor Gary Becker was arrested last night on child pornography charges. Unconfirmed reports say he is also charged with solicitation of a minor.

He's being held in the Kenosha County Jail at the request of the Racine County Sheriff's Department His bond is set at $165,000.

Becker was arrested by the state Department of Criminal Investigation some time late last night. He was transported to the Kenosha County Jail at 2 a.m.

City Council President David Maack told WRJN this morning that he received a call last night from Police Chief Kurt Wahlen telling him Becker had been arrested. Becker was arrested on child pornography charges as part of an ongoing investigation, Maack told WRJN.

Maack said he would meet with City Administrator Ben Hughes and City Attorney Rob Weber about ongoing operation of the city.

According to state election law, a special election is required six weeks after a mayor resigns.

A press conference is scheduled for 10 a.m. at City Hall.

It's a shocking turn for Racine's top official, who ran unopposed for re-election in 2007.

Becker was a national leader on Great Lakes issues and was actively involved in the US Conference of Mayors. Locally, he's promoted a number of business development programs and has been a booster of Downtown Racine.

Despite some early success, he's taken heat lately for trying to convert Uptown Racine into an artists district. Becker also ran into problems in 2007 with the minority community after he talked about closing or changing the community center.

This isn't Becker's first brush with high-profile controversy. In 2006, former Mayor Jim Smith called then Police Chief David Spenner's cell phone in an attempt to get Becker arrested for drunken driving. Becker was not arrested, but later found out about the call and went public with it.

Earlier this year, Becker had a kidney removed to contain a cancerous tumor. The surgery was successful and he was back at work soon after the operation.

January 13, 2009

Jefferson Lighthouse library renamed for a former student and teacher

Supporters of renaming the Jefferson Lighthouse's library in honor of Catherine Hagar, a fifth grade teacher at the school, attend the School Board meeting on Jan. 12. Hagar's sister, Mary Androff, and son, Matthew Hagar, are sitting next to each other in the front row.

Catherine Hagar attended Jefferson Lighthouse Elementary School as a student, and returned to teach fifth grade at the school for 21 years. Her mother, sister and three children also attended the school.

So it was appropriate, and touching, that the school's staff organized a proposal to rename Jefferson Lighthouse in honor of Hagar, who died recently.

The School Board voted unanimously Monday night to rename the library the Catherine A. Hagar Learning Center.

The first donations to the center came from Hagar herself. She asked that memorials at her funeral be made to Jefferson Lighthouse. Money donated in her honor will be used to upgrade the learning center's technology, add books to the library and buy a new sign with Hagar's name.

Stella Young

School Board candidate Stella Young was the only one of three non-incumbents to attend Monday night's special School Board meeting (It was "special" because board meetings are typically held on the first and third Mondays). Fellow challengers Kim Plache and John Leiber did not attend.

Incumbents Gretchen Warner and Don Nielsen were at the meeting. School Board President Tony Baumgardt, who is not seeking re-election, did not attend.

Jackson Parker

Unified will keep interim Superintendent Jackson Parker on the payroll for another six months. The board agreed with new Superintendent James Shaw's request to keep Parker around part time. Money is available in the budget to keep Parker because Unified did not fill another position in its Central Office.

TV Cable service interrupted

UPDATE: Ah, fixed, sorta... shortly after 10 p.m.

Original post:

Where's my cable TV?

No idea. All the Time-Warner phone lines were tied up Tuesday night, as cable went out in an unspecified area. When we finally got through it was only to a recorded message saying there are service interruptions in our area (Mount Pleasant), technicians are aware of it and working on it.

We first noticed the problem a little after 7 p.m. ... and it wasn't fixed by 10 p.m.

Thank Heaven for Netflix!

Foreclosures jumped by 295 in county in 2008

Racine County had 1,101 foreclosures in 2008, an increase of 295, or 37%, more than 2007. Percentagewise, the county's increase in foreclosures was almost double the state's average.

The numerical increase here was the third largest in Wisconsin, behind only Milwaukee County, up 785 to 6,468, a 14% increase, and Dane County, up 415 to 1,312, a jump of 46%.
Stories about two high-profile, Main Street, foreclosures:
The Christmas House
The Miller House
Overall, Wisconsin had 25,547 foreclosures, an increase of 4,496 over 2007, up 21%. See county-by-county chart here, compiled by the director of State Courts Office, and based on foreclosure actions filed in Wisconsin Circuit Courts.

Director of State Courts A. John Voelker and Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said court administrators are making an effort to prepare for the influx of cases, and to protect the rights of both creditors and borrowers. .

A statement they released today said:
The court system has provided educational programs on mortgage laws and regulations for judges and court staff, and some judges have developed procedures to help ensure litigants are communicating in an effort to settle their disputes.

Also, Abrahamson and Voelker said the court system is communicating with court systems across the country to examine which programs may best help the parties resolve the difficult issues fairly and facilitate settlement, if possible.

One program – an alternative dispute resolution program started in other states – is being piloted in Wisconsin by Chief Judge William D. Dyke, Iowa County Circuit court. Dyke initiated a local rule that requires lenders who file a foreclosure action as of Jan. 1, 2009, to notify defendants that foreclosure mediation is an option under the state’s alternative dispute resolution statute. Foreclosure filings in Iowa County jumped from 58 in 2006 to 92 in 2007 and 105 in 2008.

“We’re fostering a discussion between the parties, and that discussion can take into consideration the loss of a job, for example,” Dyke said.

The mortgage crisis is affecting the system, but it doesn’t have to be devastating to the courts or the parties involved, Dyke said. Judges, clerks of court and district court administrators report that in many foreclosure actions, the borrower is not represented in court. The increase in filings also will increase demand on the court system’s resources for self-represented litigants.

SC Johnson to preserve historic fire station

The former First Station No. 1 at 1412 Racine St.

We heard back today from SC Johnson about the historic Fire Station the company bought in December at 1412 Racine St. The company plans to preserve the building. Here's the email from spokeswoman Jennifer Taylor:
SC Johnson did purchase the fire house in July and leased it back to the previous owner. When the lease expires, we plan to preserve the building as we believe it's a community treasure. At this time, we are uncertain of how the building will be used in the future but we do understand its importance and value to the community.
That's great news for city history, and a nice gesture by SC Johnson. The building could fit well with the company's plans to rebuild Uptown in conjunction with the city's Artist Relocation program. Perhaps a gallery one day in the former fire house?

State agency down on Racine? One developer thinks so

When it comes to the proposed $7.2 million development in West Racine, Damon Dorsey has heard it all before.

Last year, the Milwaukee-based developer was building excitement in the community for a sparkling new project that would mix retail and residential in a neighborhood waiting for an economic spark. Dorsey was one approval away from building the $9 million Corinne Owens-Reid Square project on State Street. But that approval never came.

The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority passed on the project, saying the market in Racine was "too weak" for more affordable housing. Dorsey's project would have included 24 three-bedroom townhouses for low-income families, plus 4,500 square feet of commercial space. Without WHEDA's $5.6 million tax credit, which was backed by city and state officials, Dorsey had to delay the project.

He hopes to bring it back this year, but he's worried WHEDA is down on Racine. While Dorsey supports the $7.2 million West Racine project, which includes 55 low-income apartments, the state agency may maintain its view that there's not enough of a market for low-income housing in the city.

"WHEDA didn't turn down our project last year," Dorsey said, "they turned down the city of Racine."

WHEDA Spokesperson Kate Venne said she didn't have specifics on the two projects, and couldn't immediately comment.

Part of WHEDA's basis for the denial was a vacancy rate of 15 percent among low-income properties in the city, Dorsey said. But his market study showed a need for large, nice housing units for low-income families. WHEDA, which gives out tax credits to make low-income and senior housing projects possible, disagreed.

"WHEDA hit me upside with a baseball bat," Dorsey said. "They didn't tell us (the market was weak) until after the fact."

Dorsey added he wouldn't have submitted the project if a market study showed there wasn't a need for low-income housing. Now, he wonders if a 55-unit building stands a better chance in the market than his 24 units.

"Twenty-four units is nothing in the market," Dorsey said. "The market can easily absorb that amount."

He added that he wished the North Carolina-based developer well. But unless city officials get ahold of WHEDA and make a compelling case, the West Racine project won't get funded, either.

"The North Carolina developers said they're optimistic their project will go through," Dorsey said. "No one was more optimistic than us last year. We were hyper-optimistic."

Hopefully, the state comes through with funding for both projects this year.

January 12, 2009

Tough budget times ahead for Racine Unified,
but new superintendent stays positive

Superintendent James Shaw (right) and School Board member Dennis Wiser (left)

Racine Unified is looking at a $3.5 million budget deficit next year, and that may be the good news that came out of Monday night's School Board meeting.

The district is also losing students, drawing down (see below) its fund balance and trying to figure out how to raise student achievement while spending half the money per student then the average school system in Wisconsin.

Despite the tough news, district officials vowed changes from past years. They're not going to rush to referendum this spring to fill next year's budget shortfall. They're not going to scare employees into thinking their jobs may be cut. And they're not going to exchange a long-term focus for short-term gain.

But the numbers are troubling.

Based on the state revenue caps, the district's budget is expected to increase $7.4 million, or 3.7 percent, next year to $210.5 million, according to Dave Hazen (right), Unified's finance director.

All of that increase is already taken up by:

* $5.5 million in estimated health care costs increases
* $200,000 in estimated dental cost increases
* $500,000 increase in salary increases office workers union Local 152
* $700,000 increase for teachers moving up salary step system
* $1.7 million increase for teachers in salary negotiations
* $1.5 million in general cost increases (based on an average 3 percent increase)
* $800,000 in one-time expenses put off in this year's budget

And that's just next year. This year, the district expects to lose $400,000 on investments, Hazen said. The district budgeted 4.5 percent interest on money market funds last year and got burned when the rate came in at 2.5 percent. So the district budgeted 2.5 percent return this year, but the tanking market only returned 1.2 percent.

The district is also facing rising utility bills. Through November, the district has spent nearly $100,000 more on natural gas than in 2007-08, and $23,000 more on electricity.

The source of the excess utility spending: it's been a cold winter. The district has used 52,000 more therms this year compared to last year, and that's not including a frigid December and, so far, January.

The problem for Unified is its savings are tight. The district has a general fund balance of about $14.5 million, which it likely will have to draw on this year to balance its budget. The overall budget's fund balance is $19.5 million (actually, it's a little higher, but the district is planning to spend out of the fund at the end of the year).

The good news is district staff is working on solutions. Changing school start times next year could eliminate the need for 20 buses, which each cost $25,000 a year to run, Hazen said.

The district is also looking at redistricting to cut down on the distance special education students are bused every day. While cost savings are unknown, it will save money, Hazen said.

During the School Board meeting, Superintendent Jim Shaw tried to alleviate concerns the district will layoff employees. Shaw noted the district turns over 10-15 percent of its staff every year, which makes it possible, if needed, to reduce employees through attribution.

He also backed up Hazen's recommendation that the Board not consider a referendum this spring, while also noting that, eventually, the community will need to spend more on public education.

"Money does matter," Shaw said. "You do need resources to educate children."
While Shaw stayed positive, School Board members voiced concern. Julie McKenna wondered aloud how the district could cut its budget every year and still improve student performance. While a $3.5 million shortfall next year may not seem significant, she said, the district has little more to cut.

School Board member Don Nielsen edged toward frustration.

"We're spending half of the state average," said Nielsen, noting even three-quarters of the state average would be a windfall to Unified. "If we had half of that half, we wouldn't be in trouble."

School Board member Melvin Hargrove (right), a local pastor, tried to rally the board with a non-sermon sermon. He pointed out if you walk in the dark you take small steps to avoid tripping on unseen objects. The board's job is to shine the light so the district can take bigger steps.

"We're the Board of Education," Hargrove said. "We have to lead this thing."

Correction: Initially, this story suggested the district's fund balance was $1 million. The balance is actually $14.5 million for the general fund, and $19.5 million overall. The fund balance is basically the district's savings account; it exists for unexpected expenses and generally as a cushion for downturns.

The district is committed to adding $1 million a year to its fund balance to build up those reserves, but doesn't always meet those goals. Last year, an unexpected worker's comp case and loss of revenue from interest forced the board to skip that commitment. But a year earlier, the board added $4 million to the fund balance, so it's averaged out over time.

Hazen said the district would need between $40 million and $50 million in reserves to avoid borrowing money every year to deal with cash-flow issues. That would save money, but it's unlikely Unified is going to come up with $25 million in the near future to tuck away for a rainy day. It's already raining.

Watch out OPEC, here comes NOPEC!

OPEC is so last century. (Well, it was founded in 1960; you could look it up.)

But now the oil cartel may have met its match. Here comes NOPEC, a creation of Sen. Herb Kohl, D-WI, who hopes to get the U.S. Department of Justice to take on OPEC's "collusive practices" in setting the price of oil or limiting the amount of production, Never mind that those practices are exactly why OPEC was formed by those 12 oil-producing nations half a century ago.

Kohl today introduced his bipartisan legislation allowing the Department of Justice to bring actions against foreign countries to prevent future gasoline price increases.

NOPEC stands for No Oil Producing & Exporting Cartels.

"This legislation will authorize our government, for the first time, to take action against the illegal conduct of the OPEC oil cartel,” Kohl said. “The time is now for the U.S. government to fight back on efforts to fix the price of oil and hold OPEC accountable when it acts illegally.

"Our legislation will hold OPEC member nations to account under U.S. antitrust law when they agree to limit supply or fix price in violation of the most basic principles of free competition."

Kohl’s NOPEC legislation would make it clear that OPEC’s activities are not protected by sovereign immunity and that the federal courts should not decline to hear such a case based on the "act of state" doctrine. It clears away these judicially created roadblocks, he says, so the Department of Justice could bring an antitrust case against OPEC for price-fixing.

Kohl explains:
The Federal Trade Commission has estimated that 85 percent of the variability in the cost of gasoline is the result of changes in the cost of crude oil. Throughout 2007 and 2008, crude oil and gasoline prices marched steadily upwards, peaking last summer at over $140 per barrel for crude and well over $4 per gallon for gasoline. In recent months, these prices have plummeted as demand has dropped due to the serious global economic recession. However, despite declining prices, the global oil cartel remains intact and a major force conspiring to raise oil prices to the detriment of American consumers.

On Oct. 24, 2008, OPEC agreed to cut production by 1.5 million barrels a day, and on Dec. 17, OPEC agreed to a further 2.2 million barrels a day production cut. And the OPEC cartel makes no secret of its motivation for these production cuts. OPEC President Chakib Khelil put it very simply in an interview published Dec. 23, 2008, “Without these cuts, I don’t think we’d be seeing $ 43 [per barrel] today, we’d have seen in the $20s. . . . [H]opefully by the third quarter [of 2009] we will see prices rising.” In another interview in December, Khelil was quoted as saying “The stronger the decision [to cut production], the faster prices will pick up.”
Co-sponsors of the bill include Sens. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

In the last session of Congress, the legislation was passed overwhelmingly by the Senate as an amendment to the Energy Bill and by the House of Representatives as a stand-alone measure, in both instances with veto-proof majorities. But it was left out when the two versions of the Energy Bill were reconciled.

Lehman wants employees, not banks, the priority when businesses fold

State Rep. John Lehman, D-Racine, is hoping to move employees to the front of the payment line when their employer goes out of business.

Now, banks get first dibs on whatever money is leftover when a business folds. The banks passed employees in importance in the late-1990s. Lehman wants to change state law so employees are paid for their work before banks during bankruptcy proceedings.

In other words, Lehman wants to ensure employees get paid for their work, even if their bosses bankrupt the company.

Here's Lehman's press release on the "Wage Protection Act" he introduced in the Senate:

Making sure employees are paid the wages they’ve earned if their employer goes out of business or declares bankruptcy should be a top priority according to State Senator John Lehman (D-Racine). The Wage Protection Act he’s authored (Senate Bill 2) would help to make sure that happens by giving “super priority” to liens for unpaid, earned wages.

Lehman said, “The idea of this bill is simple, as an employee you ought to be able to count on getting a days pay for a days work. That’s not always the case under current state law and that’s why it needs to be changed.”

In the late 1990’s Wisconsin’s law was changed to put liens for bank loans ahead of those for worker’s earned wages in bankruptcy proceedings. In 2003 some fairness was brought back to the system by allowing the first $3,000 in earned but unpaid wages to be collected by workers before the liens of other creditors.

“We’re in tough economic times and all too many Wisconsinites are losing their jobs. These workers are already dealing with the challenge of finding a new job. They and their families shouldn’t also have to deal with the hardship of not getting wages they’ve already earned,” according to Lehman.

Eliminating the cap means workers will be able to collect the full amount of wages they are due. Many middle class families and employees paid on a monthly basis could be placed in situations where they would not be able to collect their earnings due to the current cap. The Wage Protection Act also closes a loophole created by a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that held Wisconsin wage lien laws would not apply in bankruptcy cases. Finally, the bill would allow a collective bargaining representative to file a wage claim on behalf of an employee.

Noting the recent legislative attention for ailing banks, investment firms and the auto industry Lehman said, “We need to make sure that we’re looking out for the interests of the working folks too.”

He concluded, “No one wants to see someone lose their job because their employer went out of business or declared bankruptcy, but if that happens we ought to make sure state law is on the employees side in helping them receive the wages they’re entitled to.”

January 11, 2009

More on proposed Fair Housing ordinance

A couple of commenters raised questions about the city's proposed Fair Housing ordinance. Here's a little more information on the proposal:

1. You can read through the ordinance here(it's toward the end of the file).

2. Basically, the new commission would have significant enforcement power. They'll lead investigations of alleged discrimination, interview witnesses and turn over cases to the City Attorney's office for prosecution. Hard to say what the costs to the city will be. The ordinance allows the complainant to recover legal fees.

In research, one of the most common complaints is landlords turning away parents with children. A case in Milwaukee was recently settled for $18,000.

I'm not sure how many cases involve race, but the ordinance also requires the commission to keep landlords' names confidential unless they're found in violation of the fair housing ordinance. So, it seems likely all complaints will be locked out of public view until a decision is made on the case (a lot like complaints filed with the Police and Fire Commission).

3. This will give the Affirmative Action commission A LOT more responsibility. The commission will have real investigative and enforcement power to check fair housing discrimination. It seems like that's going to take a great deal of training for the commissioners charged with investigating complaints.

4. If I'm reading the proposed ordinance correctly, it'll have some teeth. Violators could be fined up to $25,000 plus court costs for first-time offenses. Additional offenses could net $50,000 fines.

5. The ordinance is sitting right now with the Office of the General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The office is expected to make changes before sending it back for final approval.

6. The City Council held a public hearing on the proposal on July 15. Nobody appeared at the hearing.

SC Johnson adds historic fire station to buffer zone around corporate offices

SC Johnson bought the historic Fire Station No. 1 on Racine Street last month. If the past is an indication, the company will tear the building down.

Over at least the past 12 years, SC Johnson has created a buffer zone around its corporate headquarters in the middle of Racine. The company buys up properties around its campus and tears down the buildings to create a border of green space along its edges. The practice creates a boundary between the company and the surrounding neighborhood. (Right-top: SCJ's buffer zone along 16th Street. Right-middle: The buffer along 14th Street. Right-bottom: Grand Avenue, where SCJ owns few properies.)

The most obvious example is along 14th Street, where SC Johnson owns every property on the north side of the street from Racine Street to Villa Street. Continuing around the block, the company owns a few properties on the northeast corner of 14th Street and Grand Avenue, but little else along the street that includes St. Richard's Church.

SC Johnson owns almost every property along the south edge of 16th Street from Racine Street to Grand Avenue, and owns three-quarters of the west edge of Racine Street from 14th to 16th streets.

In all, SCJ owns 64 percent of the properties that abut its headquarters. In terms of square-footage, the number is closer to 80 percent. All of SCJ's properties adjacent to its campus are vacant lots.

The company's purchase of the old fire station at 1412 Racine St. breaks up a section of privately owned properties on the northwest corner of Racine and 14th streets. The company paid $200,000 for the property, which was assessed at $65,000 in 2008. The previous owner was Roger Olshanski, who now lives in Wausau. Olshanski had owned the property since at least 1996, and has a story all his own (another one here).

The Racine native turned a Martin Johnson Meade painting he bought for less than $20 into a windfall. Olshanski, who described himself as an "accumulator," sold the painting at auction in New York City for $1.35 million. He had no idea the painting, which had sat in the old fire house for years, was worth that kind of money until a friend recognized its significance. Olshanski took home $936,000 from the auction.

As for the firehouse, which resembles a castle, it was built in the early 1900s. This site says the tower was used to hang up hoses to dry them out after use.

It'll be interesting to see what SCJ does with the old firehouse. The city lost one its historic stations last year when The Journal Times tore it down to make a parking lot. We'll see if SC Johnson holds onto the building, or knocks it down like it has all of the other buildings surrounding its campus.

Historic Fire Station No. 1 at 1412 Racine St.