January 24, 2009

$20 million for Unified in stimulus proposal?

The latest estimates from Washington now show that Wisconsin could receive more than $3.2 billion from the latest stimulus proposal under discussion -- the American Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Almost $20 million of that would come to Racine Unified School District.

The figures, given to Wispolitics.com by LaCrosse Rep. Ron Kind, D-WI, 3rd District, come from the House Appropriations and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Among the largest blocks of money, the state would receive:
$1.1 billion for the state fiscal stabilization fund
$563 million for highways and bridges
$317 million for education, modernization, renovation and repair
$231 million for Individuals with Disabilities Act
$180 million for Title 1 (Education)
The full breakdown of projected state funding is here:

Details of Wisconsin's educational allocation are listed as "estimated grants only." Accepting that caveat, "provided solely to assist in making comparisons of the relative impact of alternative formulas as part of the legislative process" ... here's what's listed for Racine:

2009
Title 1-A increase: $2,715,300
Construction: $7,495,100
IDEA increase: $3,004,400
  • TOTAL: $13,214,700
2010
Title 1-A increase: $2,715,300
IDEA increase: $3,455,500
  • TOTAL: $6,170,700
How much would other states receive? Here's the state-by-state comparison.

Car fire reveals body

The Racine County Sheriff's Department tonight reported finding "human remains" in a car that had been on fire in Raymond this morning.

At 5:51 a.m. this morning, the Raymond Fire Department responded to a 911 call reporting a vehicle on fire on 43rd Road, south of 8 Mile Road. After extinguishing the fire, human remains were discovered inside the vehicle.

The Sheriff is currently investigating

Ben Johnston Krase to be installed as pastor of First Presbyterian Church

Ben Johnston Krase will be installed as Pastor-Head of Staff on Feb. 8, 2009 at First Presbyterian Church, 716 College Ave during the 9:30am worship.

Rev. Gregg Neel, Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Milwaukee, will serve as guest preacher that day and officiate the Installation Service.

A reception honoring Ben’s Installation will be hosted by the Pastor Nominating Committee following worship.

Pastor Ben, as he is affectionately known by the congregation, joined the staff of the church in October, 2008 as the called Pastor. Prior to coming to Racine, he served as Associate Pastor for Campus Ministry at University Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.

Johnston Krase is a graduate of the McCormick Seminary, where he met his wife Karla, who earned her MDiv Degree at McCormick. They are the proud parents of five-year-old Sylvia.

Ben brings a spirit of fresh energy and excitement about new and “renewed” ministries to the church. In his words, "envisions a Church where all of God’s children are welcomed, nourished and commissioned to serve and his ministry is shaped by that call from Christ."

January 23, 2009

UW-Madison scholarships for county students

The Wisconsin Alumni Association – Racine Chapter is accepting scholarship applications. Applicants must be Racine County graduating high school students who will be attending UW-Madison as freshmen in the fall of 2009.

Application forms are available from high school guidance offices and at the WAA-Racine Chapter website. The application deadline is Friday, April 10.

Tavern League tops $15,000 for Thoughts for Food


The Racine City Tavern League, which has sponsored the “Thoughts for Food” musical fund-raiser for the 12th consecutive year, this year contributed $900. That will be matched by the Tavern League of Wisconsin Foundation, bringing the total donations to the Racine County Food Bank from these two organizations over $15,000.

This year's Thoughts for Food, the 17th, takes place on Saturday, March 7, at eight local venues hosting more than 30 different acts, in the River North neighborhood. Stages are located at Chartroom Charlies, The Eagles Club, Redline Tavern, George’s Tavern, Coasters Pub, Michigan’s Pub, The Racine Yacht Club and The Rhino Bar.

Tavern League members provide their establishments as venues for the event, supply many of the volunteers and and act as collection points for food drive. Proceeds since Thoughts for Food's inception total $287,000.00 and over 70,000 pounds of food.

The Racine County Food Bank, a United Way Partner Provider, in its past fiscal year, delivered over 800,000 pounds of food, free of charge, to food pantries, emergency shelters, community meal sites and social service agencies throughout Racine County.

Here's our report and photos from last September's Thoughts for Food2 event on the south side of the Root. Pictures from last March's Thoughts for Food event north of the Root are HERE.

NYSE throws Lee a lifeline

The New York Stock Exchange today threw out a lifeline to the drowning Lee Enterprises, parent company of the Journal Times, whose stock is under threat of de-listing.

NYSE trading rules require that a company's stock must be selling for more than $1, and the company must have a capitalization over $25 million. Lee hasn't met either of those requirements since December.

But today the NYSE relaxed listing requirements, reducing the minimum capitalization companies must maintain to $15 million. The reprieve, according to Bloomberg, will last through April 22. Lee is just one of 19 companies on the NYSE whose stock market value is less than $25 million.

Unfortunately, the NYSE's move may not be enough: As I write this, Lee stock is selling for 31 cents per share, giving it a market cap of $13.9 million... whoops!

Lee announced last week that it will propose a reverse stock split at its March 10 annual meeting, turning anywhere from five to ten shares into one, thus raising the price of each share over the NYSE's minimum.

Kohl wants gifts to doctors publicly reported

Sen. Herb Kohl is fighting the good fight on requiring drug and medical device companies to report gifts of more than $100 to doctors. Kohl is working with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley on the legislation, dubbed "The Physician Payments Sunshine Act of 2009."

The proposal, introduced in the Senate this week, would create an online database of gifts doctors receive from corporations trying to win their support - and their patients. Corporations routinely pay doctors to prescribe their products over competitors. Now, the gifts do not have to be exposed (meaning your doctor could be giving you drugs to benefit her or his checking account, not your health).

Kohl and Grassley tried to pass the bill two years ago, but it was never considered by Congress. There will be immense pressure from drug companies and doctors to keep these payments (bribes?) hidden from public view.

Here's a nice rundown of the 2007 proposal, which also had bipartisan support in the House. Drug-makers said they supported the bill, as long as it overturned local and state requirements on reporting payments to doctors. That generally means the industry is trying to get rid of more stringent measures.

Drug-maker Eli Lilly announced last year it would create a limited database of gifts to doctors.

Here's the full language of the Physician Payments Sunshine Act of 2009.

January 22, 2009

Becker minutiae

Here's a few loose ends on the end of the Gary Becker era at City Hall. City officials (mainly City Administrator Ben Hughes) are taking away the mayor's keys, credit card and parking passes, among other items.

It must be a weird spot for Hughes, who was hired by Becker and worked closely with the mayor. Now, he's taking the final steps of erasing Becker from the city's employ. Here's the email from Hughes (written Wednesday to City Attorney Rob Weber, another Becker hire) laying out the final steps:
Rob,

I am seeking your advice and assistance regarding a few potential unresolved issues with Gary Becker. If you agree, I suggest that you communicate with attorney Pat Cafferty to seek his help in resolving the issues:

1. It is my understanding that Gary Becker still is in possession of a key to the exterior of City Hall doors and a key to the Office of the Mayor. These should be returned to us as soon as possible.

2. As Mayor, Gary Becker was issued an official City purchasing card. I asked the Finance Department to cancel this card last week and this was accomplished. However, Gary is still in possession of the actual card and I recommend that it be returned to us as soon as possible.

3. It is my understanding that as Mayor, Gary Becker was in possession of a device that allowed him to park (without a charge or fee) in all public parking garages within Racine. I will defer to Rick Jones to confirm if this is accurate. If so, this should be returned to us as soon as possible.

4. I also believe that Gary Becker was given an official city parking sign for placement in his rearview mirror while conducting city business. While this is not critically important, I do believe that this should be returned to us.

5. I will defer to Paul Ancona to determine if any electronic devices (laptops, cameras, etc.) owned by the City are still in the possession of Gary Becker. While I understand that many of the electronic devices have already been seized, I do want Paul's verification that everything is accounted for.

Please let me know your thoughts. Also, please let me know if I have missed any items on my list.

Ben

Council votes for June 2 mayoral election


The Racine City Council voted tonight to hold a special mayoral election on June 2, with a primary, if needed, on May 5. The election will determine who is mayor until April 2011, when Gary Becker's term would have ended.

Ignoring the extra cost, the Council voted to give candidates more time to get the word out, and citizens more time to get to know the candidates than would have been possible if the primary had been set at the earliest possible date, concurrent with the April 7 spring election, followed by a general mayoral election four weeks later. Each city election, primary or general, costs about $36,000.

Meeting as a Committee of the Whole, council members also decided to meet next Thursday, Jan. 29, at 6 p.m. to devise a process to fill the vacant Mayor's chair until the election can be held. They did this after an abortive attempt by 1st District Alderman Jeff Coe to have 5th District Alderman David Maack, council president, named as Acting Mayor (or interim mayor, or just plain mayor until the election).

But all action taken is provisional: Nothing is "decided" until the Council meets at its regular meeting date on Feb. 3 to finalize -- or perhaps undo totally -- the action it recommended to itself while meeting as a committee.

Last night's 90-minute meeting showed clearly why cities need a single, decisive mayor, as the discussion ranged back and forth between two points of view: the need for a quick election vs. voters' need for time to get to know the candidates.

The meeting began with a quick motion by District 11 Alderman Greg Helding, right, -- an already announced candidate for mayor -- that the city hold its mayoral primary with the April 7 election, and then the general election four weeks later, as the law requires, on May 5. District 10 Alderman Thomas Friedel demurred, saying "That's too short a time for us to really examine the candidates' qualifications."

Some aldermen spoke in favor of a quick election:
"The city has been wounded. We need to move forward." -- District 9 Alderman Terrence McCarthy.

District 14 Alderman Ronald Hart said his constituents want to move on "as soon as possible."

"I see it as a healing, a positive movement toward establishing order." --District 4 Alderman Jim Kaplan.
Others spoke in favor of delaying an extra few weeks:
"I feel we'd be rushing this." -- District 15's Robert Mozol.

"Haste makes for poor legislation." -- District 8's Q.A. Shakoor II.
Friedel then made a motion to amend Helding's motion by resetting the election to June 2 and the primary to May 5. "The extra expense is well worth being paid," he said. "I don't think it's in our best interests to rush this."

The discussion continued as it had before the amendment was offered:
Maack: "Everyone I've talked to has asked for a special election as soon as possible. If we leave it (as originally proposed in April), we'll have higher turnout and less cost."

Coe: "$70,000 is a small amount of money for the people to get to know the candidates."

Kaplan, noting that April 5 is Cinco de Mayo, said: "The further we push it back, the more the enormity of of the matter goes away.

Shakoor: "Whether we have it in May or June, the city will function." Later gives "more time to let Democracy work. There's no need to rush."
Raymond DeHahn, District 7, opposed Friedel's amendment, over concerns the city might lose "potential money coming down from Washington. Without a mayor we might miss the money coming down for KRM," he said. City Administrator Ben Hughes was asked his view of that, and he -- "without endorsing any timeline" -- said "I am confident that with our 13 department heads we can continue to monitor all grant opportunities."

McCarthy, referring to Hughes' mention of the need to participate in state budget discussions, said, "I would rather have that done by someone elected by the citizens."

One of the strongest proponents of a quick election was District 3 Alderman Michael Shields, who said, "We've been hit with a major disaster. Our forefathers gave us a timeline. We should clean this mess up as fast as we can."

Hart, also speaking against the amendment, noted, "After Memorial Day, it's kind of an inconvenience to the voter."

Friedel, right, expecting defeat, called the question, pointing out, "Keep an open mind. We will have to vote on this again as a Council." Surprisingly, the vote to change the date in Helding's motion to June 2 was 8-6 in favor (Kaplan, Hart, DeHahn, Helding, McCarthy and Shields voting no.), and then Helding's motion calling for the election itself was passed 10-4 (Kaplan, Hart, DeHahn and Shields voting no.) .

Then the council set about determining how to fill the empty mayor's seat until the election. District 12 Alderman Aron Wisneski said, "We need to have someone able to sit in the chair as a full-time mayor." Other mayors, he said, "will be fighting tooth and nail" for funds from Washington and Madison. "Leaving it to staff is not putting our best foot forward."

That brought a rejoinder from Shields, who said, "It seems he's contradicting himself, given he voted for the later election. If we wanted a full-time mayor, we should have gone along with the (earlier) election."

And so it went, until Coe said, "I think we have a person now that is very capable...he works for the county...I think Dave (Maack) as acting mayor has done a good job." And then he made a motion to appoint him as Acting Mayor -- a motion that seemed to catch others by surprise. DeHahn quickly asked whether Maack would be on leave from his job as Racine County Emergency Management Coordinator.

City Attorney Rob Weber, left, next to David Maack, Council President

Maack indicated that he could "fill in, take vacation, make this work." But the pushback came quickly. District 6 Alderman Sandy Weidner said, "I thought this discussion would take place after the election date is decided by the council." And Helding pointed out, "We can't make this up as we go along." In any case, he noted, Maack "would have to resign as alderman. If we appoint a mayor, we appoint a mayor."

City Attorney Rob Weber agreed: "The offices of Alderman and Mayor are incompatible," he said. "You can't be both at the same time." That changed everything. Maack said he was "flattered," but wouldn't want to give up his aldermanic seat. "We have a lot of exciting things going on in the city," he said, asking Coe to withdraw his motion, which Coe did.

The discussion went on, but it finally led only to a decision to hold next week's Committee of the Whole meeting for further discussion of the process the Council would employ to fill the mayor's chair until it is filled by an election. McCarthy noted that the statute says "we shall appoint a mayor in a reasonable time period," but no one could give a firm definition of how long "reasonable" is. Weber noted, "As a former municipal judge, I have no idea," although he did say "shall means sooner rather than later." But he noted, with some humor, "Even if there's litigation on this, we'd have a mayor before it came to court."

Council members were urged to come up with their proposals before next week's meeting, and present them to Weber for vetting. "We need to act," said Wisneski. "We're going to shoot ourselves in the foot if we wait," said DeHahn.

Maack reminded all, "I want everyone to understand the city is not leaderless. We are not a ship without a captain." Maack said that anyone can submit a name of a potential mayor to the Council, but McCarthy replied, "I would strongly urge you not to submit names. The process needs to be transparent."

In fact, anyone eligible to vote in Racine, legally "an elector," can be chosen as Acting Mayor. All it takes is a 3/4 vote of the Council. Keep in mind, the Council can also decide to leave things as they are, with Maack as Council President filling in, without ever appointing a Mayor for the interim until the election. (And, for the record, there is no such thing as Acting or Interim Mayor; there's just Mayor.)

Ryan opposes release of TARP billions

Congress is still trying to make right the stimulus package it passed under President Bush, even as it grapples with President Obama's proposals.

Earlier today, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, voted to prohibit release of the second half of funds allocated for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). Keep in mind, Ryan voted for that stimulus program in October.

But the House today passed a "disapproval resolution," (H.J. Res. 3), on the heels of yesterday’s passage of H.R. 384, which a statement from Ryan's office says shifted TARP’s original purpose from addressing the systemic risk in the financial system to picking the winners and losers in the marketplace. H.R. 384 expands the Treasury Department’s authority to distribute TARP funds, while adding new provisions unrelated to financial stabilization efforts. By altering the original intent of the financial rescue package, today’s disapproval resolution was all the more important.

House Joint Resolution 3, the "disapproval vote," passed by 270 to 155, with only four Republicans but 151 Democrats voting nay.

Despite today’s House vote to prohibit the release of the additional funds, failure to do the same in the U.S. Senate will allow the final $350 billion to be released to the Treasury Department.

Arguing that such action cannot be justified, Ryan said:
“My fear is that the second $350 billion in TARP funding will go far beyond the original mission of preserving overall financial market stability, and instead will be used to fund a heavy-handed, neo-industrial policy. Various industries have already marshaled their lobbyists for a claim on these public dollars. And now that the Federal Reserve has additional authority to address a financial crisis, this funding is no longer justified.”
Ryan's statement on the House floor is here.

Size matters ... but smaller is JT's word of the day

Size matters, or so they tell us.

At the Journal Times, smaller is the word that nobody dares speak out loud.

We never get the news officially. While other Lee Enterprise papers announce staff cuts publicly, the Journal Times keeps mum. For example: the Mason City, IA, Globe-Gazette today announced that it has laid off nine full-time employees and will leave six open full- and part-time positions unfilled. The LaCrosse Tribune and other papers in its regional group announced the layoff of eight Wednesday. The Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times in Madison announced Monday that it cut 12 positions, mostly from the two newsrooms. The Muscatine, IA, Journal announced it cut 3 1/2 positions last Thursday, 10% of its staff. The Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming's largest newspaper, laid off 15 last Wednesday... you get the picture.

Still, as news often leaks into newspapers, it also has a way of leaking out, especially since Lee Enterprises' CEO Mary Junck (annual pay: $3,791,280) announced Monday that additional staffing cuts are coming, on top of the 10 % workforce reduction made during Lee's first quarter, which ended Dec. 30.

What we've heard whispered from the Journal Times is that eight employees were let go in the last week or so. School reporter John Dobberstein is one; we haven't seen his byline since Jan. 5. And Operations Manager Michael Rehberg, a longtime Lee corporate employee and former publisher who came here as Circulation Manager about eight years ago, is also gone from the "Bishop," as the little box with the newspaper's contact numbers on Page 2 is called.

Equally significant, Lee is engaged in a companywide newsprint-saving binge, a process not limited to Lee in the U.S. A number of Lee newspapers already have reduced their page width from 12 inches to 11 inches -- the Glens Falls, NY, Post-Star did it Tuesday -- and word is that all will do so as soon as possible. Yes, that will make the small print in comics even harder to read, and will produce a de facto rate increase for advertisers, who are charged by the column-inch. It doesn't necessarily mean there will be less news in the paper -- but it probably will.

Just a few years ago, most broadsheet U.S. newspapers had a 13 1/2-inch wide page, although the Wall Street Journal stood out with a 15-inch page. The WSJ slimmed down to 12 inches in 2007, but it just can't seem to keep up...

Ron Thomas is NOT running for Mayor

Amid all the already-announced candidates for Mayor, the "seriously considering" candidates, the others quietly mulling ... well, here's a firm "no" from a former Alderman and mayoral candidate in 2003.

Ron Thomas is not running for mayor, he makes clear in this announcement:
Good morning,

While it is flattering to get phone calls asking me if I will consider being a candidate for Mayor of the City as I was in 2003, the reality is a firm no.

I have been contacted by a State Legislator, one of the candidates for Mayor, as well as a couple of City Council members and an elected official from Caledonia. Working for the United Way allows me to be very involved in the infrastructure of this community and I feel that is my strong suit. Working for the United Way of Racine County that is a non profit I would have to take a leave of absence without pay as I did in 2003. Being out of the system for six years is another incentive not to place consideration my involvement.

I am grateful for the calls and comments but my future is not as an elected official .

Sincerely,

Ron Thomas

Ryan balks at latest stimulus proposal

First he was for it, now he's against it?

No, we're not talking about Sen. John Kerry and the Iraq war, but rather about Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, and stimulus packages.

Ryan, you'll recall, voted for both the $750 billion bank bailout, which passed, and the $14 billion auto bailout, which failed.

Well, that was then, this is now. It's another day, a new President, and yet another stimulus package that's being discussed (the previous ones having accomplished... um, little?)

WCLO, a Janesville and Beloit radio station, reports today that Ryan is critical of the amount being returned to the American taxpayer.
"He tells WCLO's Stan Milam Show only 10% of the money goes out the door in 2009, and the centerpiece is a rebate amounting to only $10 a week for individuals, and $20 for couples.

"Ryan says it's not worthy the new president's signature."
The station quotes Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-WI, 2nd District, in favor of the stimulus, saying Congress needs to move quickly.

The measure is moving through the House of Representatives this week.

Air quality alert issued

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is issuing an Air Quality Advisory for Particle Pollution in Racine and six neighboring counties effective 11:37 a.m. this morning until 9 a.m. Friday.

The watch is being issued because of the forecast for elevated levels of fine particles in the air.

The Air Quality Index is forecast to reach the orange level, which is considered unhealthy for people with heart or lung disease, asthma, older adults and children.

Fortune finds two 'best places to work' in Racine

SC Johnson and Son and Johnson Financial Group have both made Fortune magazine's list of the Top 100 best companies to work for.

SCJ, however, slipped from 27th last year to 81st this year. Johnson Financial improved its position, rising from 37th to 25th.

What makes SCJ so great? The magazine writes: "In the midst of the financial crisis CEO Fisk Johnson sent a cheer-up card to every employee announcing a two-day extension of the annual holiday break." This is the seventh year in a row that SCJ has made the list.

Fortune also credited SCJ for competitive salaries, the lowest turnover and the JMBA Fitness Center. "What makes this recognition so special is that it's based on the opinions of the people who work here," said SC Johnson Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson. "We're committed to ensuring a culture of respect, fairness, integrity and trust, and when the people of SC Johnson say we're succeeding -- that is incredibly inspiring and gratifying."

As for Johnson Financial, Fortune wrote: "Employees at the 63 locations of this financial services company were assured their jobs were safe and kept in the loop about the industry upheaval via town halls and voicemails from the CEO."

January 21, 2009

Mikol takes helm of Racine Arts Council

After 10 years as executive director of the Racine Arts Council, Lorna Hennig has resigned. The new executive director is Jessika Mikol.

Ms. Mikol has been involved in the arts on both coasts of Canada, where she grew up, and in Illinois and Wisconsin. She has a Bachelor's degree from UW-Parkside and a Master's from UW-Milwaukee. She has worked at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design for the last three years and has been on the board of the Racine Arts Council for two years. She has worked with the Main Gallery's summer employment youth program for the past three summers and most recently coordinated the pilot fall after-school program. She has represented and curated exhibits for several local artists.

Hennig has been instrumental in many projects, including SandCastles, Musica Reservata, Quick Draw, art classes at the Racine Youthful Offenders facility and LINK to name a few.

Rep. Turner joins others considering run for Mayor

Another potential candidate for Mayor is cleaning off his campaign hat, although he has not yet tossed it into the ring. Others running, or thinking about it, listed here.

State Rep. Robert Turner, D-Racine, announced today "that he is seriously considering joining the mayoral race in the wake of Mayor Gary Becker's resignation."

Turner's statement said:
Turner, a 28-year veteran of the Racine City Council, points to his experience working with four Racine mayors (Olsen, Davies, Smith and Becker) since he was first elected to the Racine Common Council in 1976. Turner left the Council in 2004.
Representative Turner stated that his extensive knowledge of the workings of Racine city government, his 15-year tenure as Chairman of the Finance and Personnel Committee, and his genuine love of Racine as motivation for his decision.

Representative Turner has also represented the City of Racine in the State Assembly since 1991. “I believe I not only have the tools, but the honesty and integrity to restore credibility and fiscal responsibility to the Mayor’s office in Racine,” said Turner.

Gary Becker's wife files for divorce

Bad news comes in threes, the old saying goes.

For Gary Becker, who until yesterday at 5 p.m. was Mayor of Racine:
-- Arrested, Jan. 13
-- Resigned as Mayor, Jan. 20
-- Wife files for divorce, Jan. 20
At right is the first page of the divorce filing in which Becker's wife, Julie, has filed for dissolution of their 27-year marriage. (Click to enlarge.)

The "Petition for Divorce (with minor child)" says that Julie and Gary Becker were married in Racine on Feb. 14, 1981 (Valentine's Day, in case you didn't pick up on that) and have two daughters, aged 20 and 17. Wisconsin being a no-fault divorce state, no reasons for the divorce are spelled out -- there is no mention of Becker's arrest just one week ago on six charges including child pornography and attempting to solicit a minor for sex.

In fact, the only reason mentioned in the filing is this: "The marriage is irretrievably broken."

The case has been assigned to Judge Dennis Barry. Becker has 20 days to respond.

Anyone looking for reasons, can find plenty in the complaint against Becker. Here's a small piece from the long and quite graphic internet chat transcript filed last week with the criminal complaint against Becker by the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation. m reed, they say, is Becker; hope ulikeme14 is an investigator impersonating a 14-year-old girl.


Adding insult to injury: CNN's Lou Dobbs did a short segment tonight about two mayors in sexual hot water, Portland, OR, Mayor Sam Adams, who is openly gay and finally admitted he lied to cover up an affair with a teenager in 2005, and Becker, whose booking photo filled the screen for far too long.

Food Bank elects officers, board members

The Racine County Food Bank held its annual meeting on Jan. 15 and elected officers and new members to its board of directors.

Christopher Geary, an attorney from Hostak, Henzl & Bickler S.C. was elected Chairperson. Chris has served on the Board of Directors since February of 2002, most recently as the Vice-Chairperson.

Loren Skelton has been elected as Vice-Chairperson. Loren is the owner and operator of the Racine Child Care and Learning Center and has served on the Board since January of 2005. Loren is a graduate of the Leadership Racine Program.

Linda Hoover was re-elected as treasurer for the agency and has been a member of the RCFB Board since August of 2007. Linda works at Educators Credit Union and is also a graduate of the Leadership Racine Program.

Georgianna Gotthardt is a volunteer for the Racine Police Department’s Crime Prevention office located at Regency Mall and was re-elected Secretary. Georgianna has served the RCFB in various capacities since 1995.

In addition to the Officers listed above, the 2009 Board of Directors for the Racine County Food Bank includes the following members:

Mary Lofty of Lofty Learning. Mary has served the RCFB since April of 2002, most recently serving as Chairperson.

Robert Perry is a retired worker for the City of Racine first. He joined the RCFB in 2005. Robert also volunteers at the Wayman A.M.E. Church food pantry.

James Raab is the owner and operator of Dovetail Woodworking and member of the Board since October of 2003, he has also serves on the “Thoughts for Food” Planning Committee for many years.

Stephanie Sklba is Vice President of Community and Government Relations at Gateway Technical College and has been volunteering at the RCFB since 2005 and is also an alumni of the Leadership Racine Program.

Bart Thompson has recently retired from St. Vincent DePaul and has served the RCFB since April of 2004.

James Yorgan owns and operates Plumb Gold Ltd. in downtown Racine and joined RCFB in 2007.

January 20, 2009

Report from the swearing-in ceremony

It's been a long, exhausting day, so this is a short report. But here's a few things we saw:

1. The crowd was huge. Everywhere we went today was packed with people. The Metro stations, the streets, the National Mall ... everywhere. From what we're hearing, no president has ever turned out a crowd like this for an inauguration. That makes point No. 2 even more impressive ...


2. No one got hurt. No one got arrested. Police and ambulances were cruising everywhere, but there no serious incidents. Given the sense of chaos, particularly on the streets, that's an impressive accomplishment for Washington DC.

Jumbotron held their attention during the swearing-in

3. Tickets don't mean much. We had tickets to stand just behind the reflecting pool outside of the Capitol building, but that filled up long before we got there. There are some reports that people with tickets got in line at 6 a.m. and were turned away. We left at 7:45 a.m. and got standing room spots just north of the Washington Memorial with an obstructed view of a jumbotron. It was still worth being part of the moment, but a little disappointing that we ended up so far back. Then again, with a million people in town, it's not a big surprise plans went awry.

4. The whole ceremony was historic. The crowd was excited and happy, everyone hugged and cheered as Obama took his oath, and the speech landed with a gravitas that underscored the dire situation our nation faces. From my perspective, Obama was moving past the celebration of being the first African-American president, and focusing on being president. The truth is he's not going to profoundly change the US or the world in a few months, even years. Everyone is expecting a lot from him, so he's bracing people for the reality that he won't live up to expectations.

5. The crowd booed President George W. Bush and Sen. Joe Lieberman. They cheered everyone else. The biggest cheers, in descending order:

1. Barack Obama
2. Michelle Obama and the girls
3. Bill and Hillary Clinton
4. Joe Biden
5. Oprah

6. Aretha Franklin was cool, Yo Yo Ma boring. Pastor Rick Warren was bizarre, particuarly pronouncing Sasha and Malia's names.

Helding and Harding join mayoral race

Pete Karas was first to file a declaration of candidaacy for Mayor, but he won't be the last.

Already this afternoon, Jody Harding and Greg Helding made the trek to the City Clerk's office to join the race.

Jody Harding is a CPA, and a member of the Racine Taxpayers Association. She actually announced her candidacy on her blog on Aug. 22, although the full post appears to have been removed and the Continue Reading link goes nowhere. But the lede-in remains and it states:

After all the years of criticizing politicians, I suppose it was inevitable that I’d have to run for a government office one day. The forms have been filed, the announcement published… It’s official. I’m running for mayor.

I’m not sure if the butterflies in my stomach are excitement, or terror! For everyone who missed the press release, I’m posting it here. Continue Reading »

Greg Helding, 36, has been 11th District Alderman since 2005. He's a graduate of St. Catherine's High School and Marquette University, and works as a network engineer for Wisconsin Internet.

But stay tuned for more. Rep. Cory Mason said earlier this week he might run, and others who have expressed interest include Council President David Maack, 8th District Alderman Q.A. Shakoor, II and 13th District Alderman Jim Spangenberg. And I'm sure I'm missing half a dozen more...

Karas files to run for Mayor

Gary Becker is Racine Mayor for another three hours as I write this, his resignation not taking effect until 5 p.m. tonight, and the City Council doesn't meet until 6 p.m. Thursday to determine how to fill his job.

But Pete Karas has no indecision.

The former three-term City Council member filed papers with the City Clerk this afternoon to run for Mayor.

Karas said he had planned to run in 2011, when Becker's term expired, "but now it's moved up."

"I wanted to announce early because I encourage as many people to run as possible," he said.

An insurance agent, Karas resigned from the Council in 2007 when an obscure state law came to light, declaring that aldermen were prohibited from selling anything to anyone who holds a liquor license. That law has since been repealed.

"I want to run not only to bring some integrity back to city government, but because we need to focus on jobs, on the city's economic health." Karas also said he wanted to get more people participating in government.

When he was a Councilman, Karas recalled, "it's no secret my time on the Council was spent clashing with Becker." Karas likes Becker's renewable energy programs, but he takes them much further, advocating for Racine forming its own municipally owned electric utility. "These generally save the consumer between 20 and 40 percent," Karas said. He's a proponent of the Bright Public Power Initiative.

Another change Karas would bring is the elimination of the city administrator's position. "I've always advocated for a vice mayor position, directly accountable to the people, rather than a city administrator," he said. "A vice mayor would serve the same term as the mayor, be appointed by the mayor and provide much greater accountability."

Current City Administrator Ben Hughes and Karas worked together only briefly: Hughes was hired on Oct. 1, 2007, and Karas resigned that November.

BREAKING NEWS: Mayor Becker resigns

Updated

Mayor Gary Becker's attorney, Patrick Cafferty -- who told the AP that his client plans to plead not guilty -- delivered a letter containing the mayor's resignation to City Hall this morning.

The one-sentence letter says:
Dear Common Council:

In accordance with 17.01, Wis. Stats, I resign my position as the Mayor of the City of Racine effective at 5:00 p.m. today, January 20, 2009.

Gary Becker
By late morning, City Attorney Rob Weber, Deputy City Attorney Scott Letteney and City Administrator Ben Hughes were meeting -- and seemingly talking by telephone to every one of the 15 aldermen -- to determine the city's next steps.

The first decision they made is that tonight's 5:30 p.m. meeting of the Council's Executive Committee, will not be held. The meeting was called and publicly noticed, specifically to determine what to do in the absence of a resignation by the Mayor, and thus is moot. But a meeting of the Committee of the Whole - the entire City Council -- has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday to discuss the direction the Council prefers. That meeting will be open to the public as well.

The Council has three options involving the appointment of a temporary mayor:
-- Appoint someone to fill the remainder of Becker's term, which ends in 2011;
-- Appoint someone and schedule a special election to be held in two months;
-- Appoint someone and schedule an election in April 2010.
Earlier today: Police Chief Wahlen's letter asking his removal.

Council was to meet tonight to begin removal process
.

Chief Wahlen's letter asking Becker's removal

Below is the text of Police Chief Kurt Wahlen's letter to the Racine City Clerk -- but ultimately to the City Council -- asking for the removal of Mayor Gary Becker from office. Below that is a link to a PDF file of both the letter and the Chief's formal charges supporting his request. The Council meets tonight to act upon it.


Ms. Janice Johnson-Martin
City Clerk
730 Washington Avenue
Racine, WI 53403

Dear Ms. Johnson-Martin:

Re: Charges against Mayor Gary Becker

Recent revelations concerning activities of Mayor Gary Becker have prompted City officials to investigate the process by which Mayor Becker can properly be removed from office. They have determined that the process for his removal requires a formal complaint from a citizen within our community. I believe that I am best suited to draft and provide you with this complaint as I am a resident, property owner, and taxpayer within the City of Racine; and, as Chief of Police, I have personal knowledge of the criminal investigation that led to Mayor Becker's arrest.

The attached verified Charges contain a brief history of the criminal investigation pertaining to Mayor Becker's illicit activities which, in my opinion, readily constitute official misconduct sufficient to remove Mayor Becker from office. With the filing of these Charges, I request that the city Council immediately begin proceedings to remove Mayor Becker from office. Although the Council is not in a position to debate Mayor Becker's guilt or innocence on a number of felony criminal charges derived from his activities, the Council is in the position to determine if Mayor Gary Becker's behavior rises to the level of "official misconduct" based upon my charges.

Please note that the criminal charges as described in the Criminal Complaint against Mayor Becker are substantial. Therefore, the current focus of his attention, and the focus of his attention for many months ahead, will be on his legal defense and not on the duties and responsibilities associated with the Office of Mayor for the City of Racine. This community needs a full-time Mayor who is attentive to the demands of the office, rather than his personal legal defense.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the removal of Gary Becker from the office of Mayor will move the discussion within our community from the blight of this incident to one concerning who is in the best position to lead our community into the future. The sooner this takes place, the sooner our community can heal and move forward. Our community is experiencing difficult times; unemployment is high, crime is on the increase, and this incident has eroded public confidence in its leaders. I, therefore, request that the Council act with haste to remove Mayor Becker from office so that we can rebuilt public confidence and meet these trying times head on.

Sincerely,
Kurt S. Wahlen
Chief of Police

And here's the PDF file with the complete letter and three-page charge.

Inauguration Diary: The ghosts of U Street

Ben's Chili Bowl survived the riots

Gates open at 9 a.m. for the inauguration. We're leaving in a few minutes (it's 7:25) with hopes of beating some traffic and getting a decent view.

I woke up this morning thinking about the neighborhood we're staying in. Our friend rents an apartment on U Street, which is about 20 blocks north of the National Mall. Fifty years ago, the area was a middle class African-American neighborhood known for its white-owned jazz clubs and restaurants. Racial tensions between the residents and businesses boiled over in the 1960s, culminating after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Residents rioted around U Street and burned down several buildings. Middle class life in the area was over.

It was replaced by decades of povert, crime, drugs and prostitution. My friend's apartment was a brothel, next door was a heroin dealer and across the street was a cocaine dealer. This went on until 1995.

But as these things go, investors saw an opportunity in U Street. People began moving back to the city, and developers remodeled the row houses into nice apartments. Condos started going up, restaurants and clubs returned, and the area came back to life. It's now considered the "hip" area for young professionals to live in.

On election night, the ghosts of U Streets past came back - completely transformed. When Obama was declared the winner, thousands of people sponteneously rushed into the streets, not to riot, but celebrate. A diverse crowd celebrated into the early morning, culminating in a march to the White House. It was joyous, according to my friend.

Walking around U Street, it's the hope of life in an urban city. People of all races and income levels - the area is still located near middle class and poor housing - living together in a steady stream of commerce, entertainment and comraderie. It's a remarkable turn for an area once, literally, burning with racial tension.

Obama's presidency is certainly a bookend to that chapter in DC's history, and possibly American history. Beginning today, we'll join the new story that's unfolding.

Monday's Inauguration Diary: Obamamania!

January 19, 2009

Artists, sponsors sought for summer art project

Artist design proposal packets are available for Downtown’s 2009 public art event which will feature a variety of Adirondack chairs. The artfully decorated Adirondack chairs will adorn the streets of Downtown Racine throughout the summer.

The chairs will be displayed Downtown starting in early June, and auctioned off in September.

Sponsors are also being sought.

All artist design proposals must be submitted to the Downtown Racine Corporation by Friday, Feb. 27. A panel of judges will review all of the designs that have been submitted. Artists selected will be notified and told where and when they can pick up their wooden Adirondack chair.

Artists will be awarded a $100 stipend to cover some of their costs, and the “Best of Show” winner will receive $2,000; second place $1,000; and third $500. The winners will be announced and awards presented in the fall at the Public Art Auction.

Artist design proposal packets are available at the Downtown Racine Corporation office, 425 Main St., or can be downloaded. For more information, call the DRC at 262-634-6002.

Businesses and individuals are invited to sponsor these chairs, for $375. Sponsorships are tax-deductible and the sponsor’s name will be displayed on the chair they sponsor.

Sponsorship forms are available at the DRC or online.

Police find body when stolen pickup recovered

UPDATE, Jan. 23: Racine police arrested Oswaldo Estrada, 30, on immigration charges today, and plan to charge him Monday with the 1st Degree Intentional Homicide of Jose Martinez.

UPDATE, Jan. 21:
The homicide victim has been identified as Jose Martinez, 48, of Racine. He is believed to be homeless and police are looking for assistance in tracking his activities and whereabouts from Sunday evening into Monday morning prior to his death. According to the autopsy, the victim suffered several stab wounds that may have contributed to his death.

Original post:

Racine appears to have another homicide on its hands, the first of 2009.

Police say they were called to the 1800 block of Green Street shortly before noon to recover a stolen pickup truck -- and found a body. They said the victim -- whom they identified only as a male under age 50 -- was on the passenger side floor area, partially covered.

A police statement said: The vehicle was initially stolen from the area of Cliffs at 1348 State St. at approximately 12:49 a.m. and recovered by the custodian of the vehicle who had been driving around after daylight today in efforts to locate the vehicle. When he found the vehicle, he contacted police who then initiated the recovery process. Because of weather conditions, the vehicle was towed to the Racine Police Department Service garage where the vehicle and contents (including the victim) could be properly processed. The victim was transported to Waukesha for an autopsy scheduled for tomorrow.

Inauguration Diary: Monday afternoon


We got our first taste of Obamamania Monday afternoon at the Greenbelt Metro station. Marie and I parked the car at Baltimore's airport and rode a bus to the Metro station to head into D.C. It was chaos. At least 1,000 people were packed around the card machines you need to get a pass to ride the train. Everyone was waiting in line to get a Metro card with Obama's picture printed on it.

Click here to see inauguration photos from Monday in DC

After waiting in line for a half hour, Marie spotted a machine with no one in line. We asked about it and found out it would give us a card to jump a train, but the card wouldn't have Obama's picture on it. No-brainer, we skipped the line, got the standard Smartcard and headed to the city.

Once there, we quickly learned we would not be lacking for Obama souveniors/kitsch/propaganda. Vendors are everywhere selling T-shirts, hats, scarves, signs, buttons, puppets, bobbleheads, watches, paintings, and on and on. You name it, you can get an Obama on it. (Even an Obama muppet, left.)

After dropping our bags, we headed to the Capitol to scope out the scene. Conor Sweeney, Rep. Paul Ryan's press secretary, had sent an email offering to hand deliver our tickets once we got in line outside of the House office building. He ran out as soon as we got there and saved us an hour-plus long wait in line. It was a generous offer, much appreciated.

That gave us plenty of time to walk along the Mall and take in the scene. Folks, it's remarkable. Tens of thousands of people walking around, celebrating and generally enjoying the moment. We met one guy from the Bahamas who stood in front of the capitol waving his national flag and bragging he represented the 350,000 members of his island nation.

Huge monitors line the National Mall in preparation for tomorrow's ceremony. On Monday, the monitors replayed Sunday afternoon's concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Out of all the performers, Garth Brooks stole the show with a rousing rendition of "Shout." Even Monday, thousands of people threw their hands in the air when Brooks' performance was replayed.

Barrel Drummers provided entertainment

To get out of the cold (it's in the 20s), we went to the National Archives. It's an amazing thing to see the hand-written Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that laid down the rules for our nation. While we were there, a middle school teacher from California ushered his class around urging them to take in the historical importance of these pieces of paper. The kids ate it up, pulling out their cell phones and trying to capture pictures for their class projects.

In all, the foundation is set for a remarkable occasion. We'll be out early tomorrow morning to claim our standing-room spots behind the reflecting pool outside the Capitol. Hundreds of thousands, if not over 1 million, people are expected for tomorrow's ceremony. We wondered aloud what it will be like for Obama, staring out over that mass of people. There's so much hope on this one man. Let's hope he can meet even a fraction of the expectations placed on him.

Earlier Inauguration Diary entry here.

Chief Wahlen's formal complaint to City Council
sets Becker removal process into action

A day of furious activity relating to Mayor Gary Becker culminated at 4:30 p.m. when Police Chief Kurt Wahlen -- kinda, sorta acting merely as a resident of Racine rather than as Police Chief -- formally asked the City Council to remove Becker from office.

Wahlen's letter, handed to City Clerk Janice Johnson-Martin, will go to the Council's Executive Committee, which meets Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. to decide the city's next step, in the absence of Becker's resignation following his arrest last week on child porn and child sexual enticement charges.


The Executive Committee, comprised of five council members -- Sandy Weidner, QA Shakoor II, Tom Friedel, Greg Helding and Council President and Acting Mayor David Maack, as well as the Mayor (who isn't expected to attend) -- will then recommend action to the full council.

Tomorrow's meetings of the Executive Committee and the City Council, promise to draw a crowd from the media. City Administrator Ben Hughes said he expects "a significant number of citizens and individuals attending both," and has arranged extra seating and both an audio and video feed in the City Hall conference area in Room 209 to accommodate the public.

Monday began with Maack noting that no formal complaint against the Mayor had been received over the weekend, something necessary to start the removal process. Later, the city received a legal opinion from Deputy City Attorney Scott Letteney, clarifying that the complaint had to be from a city resident and taxpayer who had "personal knowledge" of the charges against the Mayor relating to his performance in office.

Bingo! Who better than the Police Chief -- who was appointed to the post by Becker himself in 2006, jumping some more senior officers -- who had taken custody earlier this month of the CD made from Becker's computer by an IT technician in August 2007 and of the Mayor's office computer last week.

The City issued the following notice late today:
At approximately 4:30 P.M. today, Police Chief Kurt Wahlen (acting in his capacity as a private citizen) delivered formal charges to the Racine City Clerk requesting that the Racine City Council initiate the removal from office proceedings for Mayor Gary Becker. These documents shall be received and discussed at the Executive Committee meeting scheduled to occur on Tuesday, January 20 at 5:30 p.m.
Has it really been less than a week since this nightmare began? Yes.

Molly MaGruder adding 'high-end' consignment

You've worn that pretty dress once too often -- all your friends have seen you in it -- so what do you do?

Until last summer, you could consign good, clean clothing to Act II, Racine's premier women's clothing resale shop, and pass it on to someone else -- perhaps earning enough in the process to go shopping again. But after 33 years, Act II owner Rose Kaprelian shuttered her doors, blaming the recession (and upcoming street renovations).

Well, that same "recession" has only gotten worse -- and another retailer is picking up the slack. The owners of Molly MaGruder, 330 Main St., are adding a consignment department to their contemporary clothing boutique.

Dorothy Ward and Laurie Pettit say they have heard from many of their customers how much they miss having a high-end, stylish consignment store in Racine, so they are adding this service to their existing business as a way to expand and enhance Molly MaGruder.

"We will take high-end ladies contemporary clothing and accessories on consignment," Ward said.

The store and the client will split the selling price of the item 50 / 50. Ward said, "How much store space we will devote to consignment will depend on how much stock we have. We will still carry our new items. We will start as soon as we have inventory (very soon I hope). I believe at present, there really isn't any competition since Act II closed."

Molly MaGruder will start accepting Spring and Summer items immediately, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of each week. Anyone who has items to bring in should call 262-898-9080 or email for guidelines for consigning.

It's still possible for minors to buy tobacco in Racine

Depending on how you do the math, either one-third or one-quarter of the 103 businesses checked by the Racine Police this year sold tobacco to minors.

Police reported making 220 compliance checks at 103 businesses during 2008. Sixty-six businesses were in compliance with laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to minors; 37 were not. (Eight stopped selling tobacco products, two went out of business and two were not checked "due to safety concerns forthe minor volunteer.")

During the eleven separate rounds of compliance checks, 49 establishments were issued citations for $550 for each of the violations, whether they sold an entire pack of cigarettes or, in the case of one store, sold a single cigarette.

Most of the businesses cited for selling tobacco to a minor had just one violation, but there were some multiple offenders. Worst was Raytown Pantry, at 2731 Durand Ave., with four citations; caught three times were Nick's Supermarket, 1407 Superior St., and Metro Petro, 4301 Washington ave.; five other businesses were cited twice.

Ryan: We are all Americans on Inauguration Day

By Paul Ryan
R-WI, 1st Congressional District


The day after we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Americans will proudly celebrate the inauguration of Barack Obama. Tuesday, Jan. 20, is not a day for politics – it is a day of national pride as our nation’s first African-American president takes the oath of office.

I am eager to join hundreds of those I serve from Wisconsin’s First Congressional District – and millions from across the nation – in attending the historic Inauguration Ceremony. It will mark an important step closer to Dr. Martin Luther King’s hopeful vision he spoke of in Montgomery, Alabama, on March 25, 1965. “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience,” King remarked. “And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.” We must not tire in our vigilance against injustice, and we must not dismiss the painful acrimony of division. Without letting up in this effort, we must cherish this moment of moving closer toward the realization of King’s dream.

I am hopeful that President Obama will bring a new tone to Washington – a new tone to politics and a new tone in celebrating what separates us. Diversity – in race, in religion, in beliefs, in philosophies – enriches our democracy. Partisan rancor need not accompany legitimate policy debates in the years ahead. I am eager to work with the incoming Obama Administration and the Democratic Leadership in Congress in addressing our economic crisis and keeping America safe. Regardless of political party, all Americans have a stake in a successful Obama administration. If President Obama succeeds, the United States succeeds. Our vigorous debates must never lose sight of this fact: that we are all Americans, striving together to build a more perfect union.

For over 200 years, passionate presidential campaigns are followed by peaceful inaugural ceremonies. It is a tribute to strength of our constitutional republic and a tribute to the American people. With the inauguration of our first African-American president, we have additional cause for celebration this week. Let us appreciate this historic achievement together.

Modine cuts 170 jobs here, 25% of Racine workforce

Modine announced today it is cutting its Racine headquarters workforce by 170 employees and contractors, shedding approximately 25% of its staff here, crossing "all levels of the organization."

In Europe, the company says it is "significantly" reducing the workforce in its Bonlanden, Germany-based European Headquarters and TechCenter. The actions are part of Modine’s restructuring program focused on reducing selling, general and administrative costs and other steps to restore profitability to its global operations, which, it says, "have been severely impacted by the current worldwide economic crisis."

“The decision to further reduce our workforce was extremely difficult, but it is one that is essential in these unprecedented times,” said Thomas A. Burke, President and Chief Executive Officer, in a prepared statement. “We are extremely grateful to these employees for their service to Modine and completely committed to provide resources and support to help them transition to other opportunities.”

The company says it will discuss the workforce reduction and additional restructuring activities when it announces results for the third quarter of fiscal 2009 on or about Feb. 9, 2009.

Inauguration

First impression: Lines of people and porta-potties everywhere

PITTSBURGH, Pa. 6:08 EST - We're already behind schedule this morning, but with 10 hours on the road yesterday and another four ahead, we don't mind sleeping in a bit.

Marie and I are driving east to attend Barack Obama's inauguration. We decided to drive out in December after:

1. Rep. Paul Ryan's office said they had two tickets available.
2. Travelocity said plane tickets were $440 apiece.

We hopped in the car about noon Sunday (CST) heading for Baltimore, where we hope to park the car and catch a bus to the Metro line that leads to a friend's house where we'll be staying for the next few days. I have no idea what to expect. We're told to anticipate huge crowds, long lines and general chaos. But I don't have any sort of picture of what the next few days will look like.

Tickets to the inauguration basically mean we have access to a front area where we may actually get to see (though from pretty far away) Obama become the next president. But it'll be standing room only, and we have to get there about four hours early to clear security and claim a spot.

An estimated 1.5 million people are expected for the ceremony and following parade. No doubt it will be emotional for many people. My wife worked on Obama's campaign in Racine, and is excited to be part of this historic moment. I suggested we may be able to sell our tickets for a couple hundred dollars, but she'll have nothing of it.

It really is a historic time. Parties aside, the United States is about to become the first nation in the modern world to elect a minority president. (OK, there are exceptions, but Obama is the first member of a minority race that was enslaved and oppressed in recent history.)

So this is a major accomplishment for all. No matter what people say about the division of US politics, the country somehow came together to support what had been unthinkable even a few years ago.

Of course, Obama comes into office at a difficult time. But for this one day, partison politics can be set aside for reflection on a nation that's shedding its divisionist past in favor of an open airing of beliefs and backgrounds. That alone is worth celebrating, and, hopefully, being a part of.

But we've got to get there first and we're already running late. I'll be posting updates from the inauguration as often as possible. Next post probably tonight.

January 18, 2009

Child porn arrests: Questions, and answers

Happier times: Gary Becker at Obama rally in February

This weekend should have been one of Gary Becker's best.

The mayor of Racine campaigned long and hard for the election of Barack Obama, then the very junior senator from Illinois, who was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. In February, Becker sat in the front row of VIPs when Obama spoke to a packed Memorial Hall. And he led the cheering at Buckets Pub when Racine County Democrats celebrated his winning the nomination.

But now, as Washington is overrun with millions of people invited to Obama's historic inauguration Tuesday as the 44th President of the United States, Becker is nowhere to be seen; presumably under virtual house arrest after his actual arrest Tuesday night on sordid charges involving attempted sexual assault of a child, and child pornography.

Many questions remain unanswered. For example: How can someone be charged with attempted sexual assault of a child when no child was involved -- merely a cop pretending to be a child? How can authorities know that the pictures on Becker's computer are of children? What about that copy of Becker's first hard drive, kept by an IT technician since August 2007 -- surely, there's something wrong there? How prevalent are these sexual predator stings in Wisconsin? And what's the usual result?

We spoke to Bill Cosh, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation, and Mike Nieskes, Racine County District Attorney, to get some answers. Neither would speak directly about the ongoing investigation, but here's what we learned.

Q. How can someone be charged with attempting to have sex with a child under age 16, when there was no such child involved at all?

A. "That doesn't bar you at all: impossibility is not a defense. It's a long-standing issue in Wisconsin law. If you look at the theory behind it, the fact that an individual is willing to take steps (to commit such a crime), there's a public policy that it's in the state's interest to prevent them from taking those steps. Appellate courts have had no problem with this approach," said Nieskes.

Q. Without knowing when a picture was taken, or of whom, how can authorities be certain the subject was under-age?

A. "Basically, they work with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) where they have identified actual children. One of the things our analyst does is go into the hard drive and analyze the pictures. If they find a new picture, they pass that on to the national center. (For example,) maybe last year in California they figured out that this picture is someone in California sent to Wisconsin," said Cosh.

Nieskes said the NCMEC database in Alexandria, VA, has more than one million images in which the child has been identified. "In June 2007, we had a case of suspected child porn at the Racine Library, with images downloaded on on his phone. We sent the images to NCMEC and they were able to identify them." Identification is done via computers that read the pixels, according to Nieskes. "They're able to identify these photos fairly rapidly."

In addition, sometimes law enforcement learns the identity of picture subjects during an investigation: "A 13-year-old says her boyfriend took images, and they recover them." A third method is through forensic examination of the photos: "By measuring the heights and the physical development," Nieskes said. "There have been studies and there are people in the field of forensic anthropology."

Q. What about that copy of Becker's 2007 hard drive kept by an IT technician for 17 months? Shouldn't what he found have been turned over to police immediately?

A. "I haven't thought of that issue. I haven't reviewed it in that context," said Nieskes.

Q. Have we had other sex sting cases here?

A. "Not for a while," said Nieskes. "When they (the state) started, there was a number that came through Racine, 35 to 38 of them, financed through government funds through the Department of Criminal Investigation. The way that developed, when they started they were looking for a county willing to do the prosecutions. We indicated we were willing to prosecute. And then there came a time when those funds stopped. We've had a number of arrests, some in the last few years; most came when parents found their own child chatting online and brought in law enforcement," Nieskes said.

Nieskes also recalled "Operation Falcon," where a child porn ring in the Soviet Union was broken, and the credit card numbers of U.S. porn purchasers were recovered.

Q. How many case of child pornography and crimes against children has the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigations handled?

"We have done many of these cases for over a decade and arrested many travelers (men who drive somewhere to have sex with under-age children). Most of the online cases we do are through tips received from other ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) task forces, referrals from local law enforcement, parents or the Cyber Tip Line referrals. Very few of the cases we do now are self-generated due to the volume of cases we are working," said Cosh.

The national network of ICAC task forces was begun in 1998. According to a 2007 report by
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, the state is aware of over 15,445 individual Wisconsin IP addresses willing to share known child pornography. The report also said that one in seven kids online are asked by an adult "to engage in sexual activities, or sexual talk or give personal sexual information," and in 31% of these instances attempts are made for off-lline contact with the kids.

The Wisconsin ICAC Task Force had a slow start: no more than 38 arrests per year in its first six years of operation, from 1999 through 2004. But in 2005 it had 120 arrests, 109 in 2006 and 108 in 2007. Incomplete 2008 DCI figures show 93 arrests from 332 documented complaints; 233 involved child pornography and the rest were traveler, enticement, obscenity directed at minors and child prostitution cases. A detailed database of prosecutions shows no acquittals, and sentences after trial or plea ranging from probation for child porn possession to 20 years and more.

Budget for the Wisconsin ICAC effort is $1,137,312 in FY 2009. The unit has 14 employees: seven agents, six forensic scientists and one forensic analyst. Twenty-four county and city police departments are listed as "affiliates" of the state ICAC unit; none are from Racine County.

In other news ...

Aside from the small matter of the mayor getting arrested, a lot of news broke in Racine in the past week. I feel many of those stories got buried in the avalanche of Becker's Hard Drive, so let's review all things non-child enticement in the last seven days: