March 7, 2009

Making every girl the Belle of the Ball

Volunteer Bethany Berning kept the gowns organized

Story and photos
By Linda Peterson

Prom is still a few months away and teenage girls dream about it and plan every detail well in advance. Friday night, the 4th annual Belle of the Ball Boutique began helping many young women select that perfect dress, accessories, makeup and hairstyle to transform them into visions of loveliness. The full-service boutique provides a personal shopper, consultants, and alterations, and every volunteer hopes that every shopper leaves holding a free dress and wearing a big smile.

Hundreds of sparkling dresses, sorted by size, and glistening with elegance lined the racks as the first shoppers entered the Racine Room at St. Luke's Health Pavilion and were treated like royalty. Dance music set the mood and "fairy godmothers" (personal shoppers) bustled around tending to their clients' every need. As they emerged from the dressing rooms, the Cinderellas gazed at their gowns in one of two large looking glasses propped against a wall.

Once the gown was selected, it was time to choose accessories, from shoes and purses to jewelry and hair adornments. Consultants on the other side of the room advised clients on makeup colors and application, and choosing an elegant hairdo.

A diligent crew of seamstresses worked feverishly to make alterations/repairs and steam out wrinkles, while the shoppers completed their Belle of the Ball experience.

Belle of the Ball Boutique is a program run independently by community members and sponsored by the YWCA. The website is

Brittany Garard-Posnanski and Heather Fiore glowed with excitement
in their dazzling floor-length gowns

Heather Fiore regards her dreamy dress in the mirror

Volunteer consultant Brenda Abbott and Samantha Neubauer
look over purse and shoes

Volunteer Kathleen Baker shows Robin Garard how to style Heather Fiore's hair
while daughter Brittany watches

Sisters Samantha and Nicole Neubauer explore makeup options
with volunteer consultant Pamela Koonz

Seamstress Pat Sautner skillfully stitches a black gown.
"I consider my talent a gift from God and I like to use it to help people."

Empty Bowls brings in $16,000 to fight hunger

This year's Empty Bowls fund-raiser -- all proceeds benefit the HALO homeless shelter and the Racine County Food Bank -- was success.

Committee chair Dan White reports that 900 meals were served, and proceeds raised totalled $16,000 -- 23% more than last year.

Dan has created a slideshow of wonderful photos -- from the making of the bowls, to the making of the soup, to the serving and the enjoying. It's almost like being there again (but without the wonderful soup.)

March 6, 2009

Property Transfers: Peace Lutheran Church sells for $1.045 million

Click here for the Racine County Property Transfers from Feb. 23-27.

The big sale of the week was Peace Lutheran Church at 1619 Newman Road. The 11.6-acre property sold Feb. 10 for $1.045 million.

In last week's transfers, Leipold Enterprises - owned by Craig Leipold - sold their building in the Stephen F. Olsen Industrial Park for $2.5 million. The property, at 3600 S. Memorial Drive, was assessed at $2.8 million.

And in an update from Property Transfers on Jan. 31, we got an update on South Hills Country Club in Caledonia. Hintz Real Estate Developers bought the 148-acre property, located along I-94, for $5.9 million.

Kelly Jensen, manager of of South Hills Country Club in Caledonia, said this week the golf course was preparing to sign a two-year lease on the land. The course is preparing to open for golf next weekend. The club hired a new caterer, Sophisticatering, of Kenosha, Jensen said.

That answers the question about the short-term future of the property that may become prime development land once the I-94 expansion is completed. Jensen, who runs the course with her sister and father, said they hope to keep the course running beyond the new two-year lease.

Home equity? 18% in Racine are underwater

Home equity? Don't kid yourself.

If you've got a mortgage in Racine, chances are 1 in 5, maybe even 1 in 4, that you actually owe more than it's worth. You're underwater. So much for that down payment you ponied up, those years of making mortgage payments, that myth of appreciating home value.

That's the sad news from First American CoreLogic, a national firm that analyzes real estate, foreclosure and mortgage statistics.

In Racine, 5,440 homes -- 18.2 percent of all properties with a mortgage -- are in negative equity, the firm says. An additional 2,153 mortgages, another or 7.2 percent, are near negative equity. The grim overall figure: 25.4 percent of all outstanding mortgages in negative equity and near negative equity for Racine.

In all of Wisconsin, the company says 69,000 homes are underwater, and another 94,000 are near negative equity -- out of 428,000 home mortgages.

The national report issued by First American CoreLogic says:
More than 8.3 million U.S. mortgages, or 20 percent of all properties with a mortgage, were in a negative equity position as of Dec. 31, according to newly released data. This compares with 7.6 million, or 18 percent, of all mortgages in negative equity as of Sept. 30. Approximately 700,000 additional borrowers slid into a negative equity position in the last quarter. Negative equity, often referred to as "underwater" or "upside down," means a borrower owes more on their mortgage than the home is worth. In addition, the data shows there are 2.2 million mortgages nationwide that are approaching negative equity. These are defined as mortgages within 5 percent of being in a negative equity position. Together, negative equity and near negative equity mortgages account for 25 percent of all residential properties with a mortgage nationwide.

During the fourth quarter of 2008, a monthly average of nearly 230,000 borrowers became "upside down." California led the way with a monthly average of 43,000 newly negative equity borrowers, followed by Texas (16,000), Nevada (15,000), Florida (14,000) and Virginia (14,000).

Nationwide, the distribution of negative equity is heavily skewed to a small number of states. Nevada has by far the highest percentage of negative equity – more than half of mortgage borrowers in that state are now upside down. The average loan to value (LTV) ratio for properties with a mortgage in Nevada was 97 percent, or less than $8,000 in equity leaving the typical mortgaged homeowner with virtually no cushion for the rapidly declining home values. Michigan was ranked second in the nation with a negative equity share of 40 percent, which is double the national negative equity share. Following these two states are Arizona at 32 percent, Florida at 30 percent, and California at 30 percent rounding out the top five states with the highest negative equity. The average negative equity for the top five states was 31.9 percent. If the top five ranked states are excluded, the negative equity share for the remaining states was 13.9 percent.

In terms of the number of borrowers "underwater," California ranked first with more than 1.9 million borrowers in negative equity, followed by Florida (1.3 million) and Texas (498,000).

More than 2.2 million, or 5.3 percent, of all mortgaged properties are in a severe negative equity position with LTVs of 125 percent or more. More than 70 percent of these mortgages are in five states: California (723,000), Florida (432,000), Nevada (170,000), Michigan (128,000), and Arizona (122,000).

"The accelerating share of negative equity, combined with deteriorating economic conditions, means that mortgage risk will continue to increase until home prices and the economy begin to stabilize. Going forward, the worrisome issue is not just the severity of negative equity in the 'sand' states, but the geographic broadening of negative equity that is expected to occur throughout the year," said Mark Fleming, chief economist for First American CoreLogic.

March 5, 2009

Police: Man found in river died from drowning

Racine police said Thursday the man found this week in the Root River likely died from drowning. OK, that sounds obvious. But there were legitimate questions about the circumstances of Thurman Golden's death, and some that have yet to be answered.

The big question is how Golden ended up in the river. A construction worker discovered Golden's car in the Root River today and police found skid marks near the river. It all suggests the victim drove into the river. What's unknown is if Golden died in the car or drowned in the river current after escaping the car.

Here's the full Racine police press release:
UPDATE: Death of Missing Adult Believed to be Drowning

The preliminary results of the medical examination completed on Thurman Golden indicate that the cause of death was most likely drowning. A toxicology panel is being completed, but the results of that could be weeks away. The details as to whether Mr. Golden had died while in the vehicle in the river or had pulled himself out of the vehicle and was overwhelmed by the rivers’ current is not known at this time.

At 7:33AM this morning, construction workers on a lift station project at Spring & Luedtke observed a vehicle partially submerged in the Root River nearby. Police and Fire personnel responded and with the use of Fire Department divers and Floyds Towing, the vehicle had been removed from the Root River. The vehicle was taken to the Racine Police Department garage where investigators and criminalists will examine it for indicators that may lead to a conclusion as to what happened.

There were tiremarks in Lincoln Park on a curve that indicate a vehicle had been driving east through the park from the direction of Jefferson St. Those tiremarks are indicative of a vehicle that had failed to negotiate a curve in the roadway, leaving the roadway and possibly entering the river west of the footbridge that leads to Spring St from the park. The vehicle was located approximately ¼ mile east of the area of the tiremarks.

On Wednesday, a fisherman reported spotting a body near the intersection of Rupert Bl and Kinzie Av in the Root River. Officers that responded to the scene did confirm the presence of a body of a male in his 50’s. The victim was removed from the water and a wallet found on the victim provided a tentative identification of the victim as Thurman Golden (01-04-52) of Racine.

Police officials have confirmed the identity of the victim as Thurman Golden. He was reported missing by family members on Saturday (02-28-09). The last time Mr Golden had been seen was at 1:45AM on Friday morning after he had dropped off a pair of fellow bar patrons from the American Legion located at1234 Douglas Av. Investigators had been assigned to look in to the disappearance of Mr Golden and his vehicle.
The victim had been transported to the Waukesha County Medical Examiners Office pending an autopsy scheduled for 03-05-09. At that point, it was not possible to determine the circumstances leading to his death, nor the date or time of death.

If anyone has any information that could aid investigators, they are asked to forward tips through the Crimestoppers, Inc website, phone (262-636-9330), or by texting to CRIMES (274637) and referring to Tipsoft I.D.# TIP417 with your text message.

Johnson Bank declines $100 million of T.A.R.P funds

"You can’t place a value on values."
--CEO Richard Hansen

Johnson Bank, part of Johnson Financial Group, the $5.7 billion financial services holding company, has decided to decline participation in the U.S. Treasury’s T.A.R.P Program after being notified that they were accepted to receive as much as $100 million last week.

“While in the short-term those dollars are attractive to a growing company like ours, in the long-term they would compromise the things we hold most dear- including the unique culture of our company,” said Richard Hansen, President and CEO of Johnson Financial Group. “You can’t place a value on values.”

A growing number of healthy banks are rejecting funds from the Treasury Department's $700 billion T.A.R.P. program citing concerns over their ability to run their business as well as the government’s restrictions on institutions that participate. The banks that qualified for aid have rejected the Treasury's funds; say government officials, bank executives and the Government Accountability Office, who cite the prospect of new strings as a factor.

“We believe accepting funds would stand in the way of our mission, vision and values - the very things that have allowed our company to grow the last few decades,” said Hansen in a statement from the bank today. “Plus, we’re able to sustain growth without the funds.”

The privately owned financial services company is owned by members of the Samuel C. Johnson Family. Helen Johnson Leipold serves as chairman of Johnson Financial Group.

“One of the benefits of being a fifth-generation, family-owned company are the values that have guided and kept us strong through good times and bad. It’s what our clients, associates have come to expect and simply can’t be measured in dollars and cents.” Hansen said.

Johnson Financial Group, which was recently recognized as #25 on FORTUNE magazine’s 100 Best Places to Work in the country, and Hansen added they will continue to do business “as we always have, by doing right by our associates, so they in turn are better able to serve our clients and will continue to enjoy the freedom to contribute to a variety of community events and programs without government oversight.”

March 4, 2009

City Council Review: Aldermen approve dance hall on Sixth Street

The City Council approved a dance club at the former Historic Century Market at 522 Sixth Street. The club would operate downstairs from La Terazza restaurant from 7 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Friday to Sunday. The council also approved a banquet facility in the space from 4-8 p.m. seven days a week.

Park High School is seeking permission for a community garden near the school. Blue School Principal Dan Bieser is heading up the proposal. It's headed to the Board of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.

Alderman David Maack is requesting the City Council hold a planning meeting in mid-May to discuss the city's 2010 budget priorities. The meeting would come shortly after the new mayor is elected. The proposal was sent to Mayor Tom Friedel's office.

The city agreed to consider building a sidewalk in front of Dr. Jones Elementary School on Chicory Road in 2010. Resident Robbin Church had requested the walkway to improve safety around the school. Read Church's full letter.

Maack requests review of mayor's reimbursement and travel policies

The City Council agreed Tuesday night to review procedures for reimbursing the mayor for certain expenses. The request came from Alderman David Maack, who also suggested the City Council president sign off on the reimbursements.

The proposal was referred to the Personnel and Finance Committee.

Here's Maack's letter:
February 16, 2009

To: The Honorable Tom Friedel & Members of the Common Council

From: David L. Maack, 5th District Alderman

Memo Re: Reimbursement Policies

I am requesting that the appropriate committee review reimbursement and travel policies as they relate to the Mayor. In addition, I would like to propose that in the future, the City Council President should also sign off on the Mayor’s reimbursement requests.

Thank you for your consideration.

Is this a good idea?

Mayor Tom Friedel is planning to start searching for a new city administrator. It's an interesting decision when mayoral candidates are questioning whether the city needs an administrator.

Hughes goes public

The JT has an interview with former City Administrator Ben Hughes. To summarize an article that doesn't say much, Hughes says in not so many words that Mayor Gary Becker threw him under the bus.

One important takeaway (reading between the lines): Hughes and Becker were not friendly when the mayor was arrested for trying to have sex with a 14-year-old girl.

And an observation: Hughes left office facing two lawsuits for, basically, doing nothing. Sandra Tingle didn't respect his position and openly attacked him, while doing a lousy job at a her job. Janelle Grammer didn't show up for work for extended periods of time and filed a family leave complaint after receiving family leave time and keeping her job.

Somewhere along the way Hughes became a target. He probably made some mistakes along the way, but the biggest seems to be working for a mayor who alienated nearly all of his political friends in recent years. And that's according to the very friends who were alienated.

Missing man's body found in Root River

The body of a man missing since Friday was found today by a fisherman, in the Root River, near the intersection of Rupert Boulevard and Kinzie Avenue.

Thurman Golden, 57, of Racine was reported missing by family members; he had last been seen at 1:45 a.m. Friday morning after dropping off some fellow patrons from the American Legion bar at 1234 Douglas Ave. Police confirmed that the body was Mr. Golden, and are awaiting results of an autopsy to be conducted by the Waukesha County Medical Examiner on Thursday. Police are looking for his car, a green four-door 1993 Saturn SL2, with license plates 763-NJB.

Anyone with information is asked to contact the Racine Police Department at 262-635-7700, or to forward tips through the Crimestoppers website, phone (262-636-9330), or by texting to CRIMES (274637) and referring to Tipsoft I.D.# TIP417 with your text message.

Helding turns in official papers; first candidate to collect needed signatures

Alderman Greg Helding won the race to be the first to enter the race. Helding officially filed his papers to run in the April 7 mayoral primary. The official papers require between 200 and 400 signatures.

Helding also announced his official website. Here's his full press release:
Alderman Greg Helding Monday became the first candidate to file official papers to declare as a candidate for Mayor of Racine. Helding, who led all candidates in recent WRJN online polls, is running on a platform of reform after the forced resignation of Racine’s former mayor.

"Out of every terrible situation, we all have an opportunity to use this as a chance to make dramatic improvements," said Helding. “We must make changes right now to make this city a better place. This appalling incident should be all the motivation we need to take some bold steps forward as a city. I believe the citizens of Racine agree and I think that is why I have had such overwhelming support in the polls."

Helding filed more than the legally required number of signatures, and has more coming in the next few days.

"People want to see a change right now," said Helding. "That is why I found it so easy to collect these signatures. They are responding to my plans to deal forcefully with gangs and drug dealers that are ruining our quality of life. We cannot tolerate it any longer. Teachers, parents and businesspeople have told me that our schools are not getting the support that they need. They want a Mayor to lead on education, not blame others. Our city and our schools must improve together."

"Sadly, child sexual predators are still menace to our city," said Helding. "My previous attempts to deal with this problem were blocked. We have not taken the simple steps other cities have taken to protect ourselves. People want me to take action and I will."

Helding also announced the launch of his website,, where voters can read about his plans for Racine and keep in touch with the campaign.

"This is the end of something terrible and can be the beginning of something tremendous. That is what my campaign for Mayor is all about," said Helding.

Hungry to operate your own restaurant?

Want to own a restaurant? How about one at the busy intersection of I-94 and Route 20?

An ad on Craigslist caught our eye. It says there's a restaurant available: a fully-equipped turnkey operation that can be rented for just $2,000 -$2,500 a month. Although the ad doesn't specify, someone who works nearby tells us it's currently operated as Hunterz, next to the Grandview Inn. ("Not much lunch business, but I hear it's fairly busy after 5," says our source.)

Here's the ad and contact information, and here are the pictures. Bigger versions at the ad. Let us know if you're gonna change the menu!

March 3, 2009

Racine-area police get $408,829 in federal funds

Gov. Jim Doyle announced Tuesday that the state will receive more than $30 million in recovery act funding "to protect local police jobs, create hundreds of criminal justice jobs and increase public safety and reduce justice system costs." $11 million of that goes directly to municipalities.

Our share? $408,829.

The Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program allocates that much to us collectively, or suggests dividing it this way:
  • Racine: $365,206
  • Racine County, $10,906
  • Village of Caledonia, $11,970
  • Village of Mount Pleasant, $20,747.
“Public safety is my highest priority and one of the most critical components to economic recovery in Wisconsin,” said Doyle. “These funds will help local communities avoid deep cuts to police service and will protect public safety through investments in rehabilitation, supervision and community reentry programs.”

Doyle also announced $529 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for transportation improvement projects, which he said will create and save about 13,000 jobs. No details about where it would be spent were released.

Venus visible in Racine's night sky ... but not for long

Photo by James Jordan / Used with permission

We came across this lovely photo of the Racine Lighthouse seeming to shine its light toward Venus on the EarthSky website, which offers daily podcasts about ... well, the earth and sky, weritten by scientists.

Although the photo was taken in 2007, it illustrates a view of Venus now visible on clear nights -- a view that EarthSky tells us will disappear later this month, not to return until 2010:
Venus – the 3rd brightest celestial body after the sun and the moon – is the brightest star-like object in all the heavens. Venus has been blazing low in the west at dusk and early evening since last August. As seen from the vantage point of outer space, Venus has been catching up to Earth in its smaller, faster orbit around the sun.

Now Venus is poised to pass between the Earth and sun, and afterward reappear in the eastern sky before dawn. But you’ll still see Venus in the evening for a few more weeks. As seen from both the northern and southern hemispheres, Venus will disappear from the evening sky by the end of March.
Download the full podcast, or read the post online.

The photo, as we note above, was taken by James Jordan of Elgin, IL, who says he often visits Racine. More of his photography can be found on his website; also be sure to check out his photo blog and his photostream on flickr. He has a small series of ten Racine photos, including some "blended" with the magic of Photoshop, unlike the picture above which he assures us was taken the old-fashioned way, on something called "film."

County plans 'Amnesty Week' for anyone with late tickets, child support

Anyone with an arrest warrant for unpaid tickets or child support can have the warrant erased the first week of April as part of an 'Amnesty Week' organized by county agencies.

Clerk of Courts Rose Lee is organizing the event along with the DA's office, Racine County child support, Racine police and the Sheriff's Department. It's scheduled for April 6-9 from 10 a.m. to noon in a hearing room at the Law Enforcement Center.

"We want people to come in and work with us," Lee said.

The program is designed to help people with tickets work out a payment plan on tickets or child support in exchange for law enforcement agencies dropping their arrest warrant. Payments can be small - Lee said even $5 a week could be OK - and if someone can't pay, officials will be there to help people look for a job or offer other help to get their life in order, Lee said.

People won't be arrested if they show up for amnesty week, she said.

The county has an economic interest in this, Lee said. It's expensive to throw people in jail, and while they're in jail, they're not paying the fines they owe.

But it may also help people, she said.

"If someone is pulled over for a traffic stop and they go straight to jail, that doesn't help anyone," Lee said.

While the county will promote amnesty week, it's actually not a special occasion, Lee added. Anyone who owes money on a ticket can visit the agency now and work out a payment plan without getting arrested, she said.

Another option is to pay fines through the state's Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (CCAP) website. Racine County is running a pilot program to allow people to pay fines through the site. In one month, Racine County received $9,000 in fine payments through the site, Lee said.

Bob Turner holds 'Meet the Candidate' on March 5

State representative and mayoral hopeful Bob Turner is holding a "Meet the Candidate" event on March 5. Here's the details:
All citizens of Racine are invited to meet State Representative Robert Turner (D) of the 61st Assembly District now a candidate for Mayor. This meet the candidate session will be held at Infusino’s 3201 Rapids Drive on Thursday March 5, 2009 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Candidate Turner will be available to answer any at all questions concerning his Mayoral bid.

For more information please call (262) 635-1377 or (262) 456-1241. Equally, citizens are encouraged to contact us at our website You may also submit questions to Any questions contact Pastor Elliott Cohen, Campaign Spokesperson at the above numbers.

Positively Racine: More trees than people ...

By Bill Griffiths

It’s easy to pass by trees day after day, week after week, and while appreciating them, giving no thought whatsoever to the many purposes they serve or the complex effort involved in caring for them.

There are obviously a lot more trees in town than simply the ones owned by the City of Racine. The City has about 30,000 street trees, plus at least twice that many in the parks, cared for by the City Forester, Chuck Klimek, and his five full-time arborists.

While the trees provide beauty and shade much of the year, they also play a major role in controlling water runoff during storms. Trees' root systems absorb water over a large area. Additionally, the canopy of a tree slows the fall of rainwater so that the ground is capable of absorbing larger amounts than it otherwise would.

Trees are always growing, always aging and changing, and require structural pruning early in their lives to make them more storm resistant and help extend their life.
Years ago cities found that insects or disease could totally change the nature of an entire street or community with a major infestation or two. In the years immediately after Dutch Elm disease struck Racine a lot of fast growing Maples were planted.

Arborists today work to diversify the trees in any area, and Racine’s Forester has introduced a wide range of varieties into the mix, including: Linden, Hackberry, Kentucky Coffee, Bald Cypress, Gingko, Honey Locust, Ironwood, Serviceberry, Flowering Pear, Flowering Crab and others. The City buys trees from nurseries within 60 miles of here, in the same “hardiness” zone, so they can withstand the climate changes Racine experiences.

Periodically, the Forester takes an inventory of a particular type of tree to understand the risks and prevention efforts in the event something like the Emerald Ash Borer, which has had such a devastating effect in Michigan, should make its way here. (Here in SE Wisconsin, “EABs” have been found in Washington and Ozaukee Counties. See or A recent inventory of Racine’s ash trees yielded a count of about 2,100.

Insects and diseases in firewood moved here from other counties present a hazard to Racine’s trees, and while it is discouraged, movement is ultimately is state regulated.

The Forester and his team do tree removal year around (when splits, decay, disease or insect damage are found or reported, removing storm damaged trees and limbs, trees blocking the public right-of-way, etc.). Pruning is done in the summers as needed. Tree planting is done in the Spring and Fall. In the late Summer and early Fall, the arborists do a hazard tree survey looking at all the street AND park trees, looking for diseases, insects and structural defects.

Now all that is easy to write from the comfort of my desk, but if you take a good look at the paragraph you just read, this is VERY physical work. It can’t be done at a desk. It involves being in the field, being up in trees, safely handling tree trimming equipment and the resulting limbs or trunks … all in a wide variety of weather.

The Forester reports to the Parks Department here, and when Spring or Summer storms cause damage to 10 or 400 locations they get a lot of assistance from the Department of Public Works (which has the equipment and additional hands required to clear trees and limbs from streets).
The focus here is Racine’s multitude of City-owned trees and the care they get…that we who appreciate them easily overlook. As with any profession, the Forester and his team could easily fill a book with stories about storms and their effects; people encountered over the years; animals, birds, nests, concrete and steel found in caring for the trees; malicious vandalism; and mower and weed trimmer damage they’ve seen over the years.

So please, look after YOUR trees AND the trees in your parkways. Water them, make sure they have 3 inches of mulch (available free at three sites, from April through November, from the Department of Public Works. See “Green Racine” at If you have questions or spot a City tree that presents a hazard call the Park department at (262) 636-9131.

March 2, 2009

Dorothy Sack moves massage therapy office

After ten years, Dorothy Sack has moved her therapeutic massage office to a new location. She is now located at 6021 Durand Ave., Suite 300, next to the parking lot of Wells Fargo Bank.

Dorothy is a certified massage therapist, registered with the State of Wisconsin for 17 years, a member of the American Massage Therapy Association, and attends work-shops, conferences and continuing education courses. Dorothy says she has passion for her work as a massage therapist and at all times upholds the true meaning of the profession. She wants to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

She is a 2003 graduate of "Leadership Racine" and serves on various boards and committees. To make an appointment, call 262-554-5419 or check her website.

Justice tied in knots as conflicting rights collide

Judge Charles Constantine wrestles with the conflicting rights
"The law is a ass -- a idiot," said Mr. Bumble.

-- Charles Dickens, in Oliver Twist

To make a long story short, the occasion of my recalling Mr. Bumble was a hearing in Judge Charles Constantine's courtroom this afternoon, on motions brought by Atty. Mark Richards on behalf of his client who is accused of having sex with a 12-year-old girl. In all honesty, it was more complicated than it first appeared, with the conflicting rights of all three principals tying justice in knots.

The case began more than a year ago, when the girl came home "smelling of sex," according to her mother, and traces of semen were found in her underpants. The girl named Richards' client, Michael Sparr, 31, and said the deed took place in the backseat of his car.

An open-and-shut case it would appear except for a couple of pesky facts: The state's DNA tests confirmed last June that the semen did not come from Sparr. And although the backseat of his car was removed, prodded and CSI'd, it produced no evidence of sexual activity.

Ah, but there's another player: a former Kenosha County Sheriff's Deputy named Anthony Lia, 32, who admitted a phone sex relationship with the girl: telephoning, meeting, exchanging photos. Lia was "allowed" to resign when all this came out, but no charges were brought against him after a Kenosha investigation found no evidence of a crime involving him. And Racine County doesn't believe he was involved in any crime in this county -- although there are those telephone calls...

Lia is not a suspect, in fact, to anyone except Atty. Richards and his client. Richards is not sure how this can be, but his main motion would settle the matter once and for all: He asked Judge Constantine to order collection of Lia's DNA in hopes of obtaining "exculpatory evidence" that would clear Sparr by proving who the actual perpetrator was.

And that's when Mr. Bumble starting rolling over in his grave.

Defense Atty. Mark Richards and defendant Michael Sparr

Here's some of the back and forth, from my admittedly incomplete notes Judge Constantine's reluctance was made clear immediately.
Constantine: "Lia hasn't been charged with anything."
Richards: "He was having an ongoing telephonic relationship...and there is unexplained semen in her underwear..."
Constantine: "I understand the relationship."
Richards: "We can sit here and go 'this, that and the other,' but the state is playing ostrich."
Constantine: "Why do you have to put a name to that semen? What difference does it make if it's Mr. Lia or 'Mr. Smith' ?"
Richards: "It would go that much further in explaining... Without a name, my client is left to go 'huh?'
Constantine: "Do I have the authority to do this? There's no basis for it. It becomes a slippery slope. Will we go through her cellphone and ..."
Richards: "The state says no crime, but this individual at a minimum had contact. Both (the girl and Lia) lied about their contacts together."
At this point, Lia (left) -- who was sitting the courtroom -- was brought into the conversation. But he had no attorney present, and made clear repeatedly that he didn't want to get one. This "nebulous concept of due process" weighed on Judge Constantine, who said to Lia:
Constantine: "I'll let Mr. Richards rail on this at a later date... By inference he is suggesting that the semen came from you. If the sample came back and matched, it would give the state little choice but to charge you with sexual assault. You are the target of this motion."
Lia: "I don't plan on talking to an attorney. I just want this to get over as quickly as possible."
Constantine: "Well, what does that mean? Nobody's stopping you from going to Mr. Richards and giving him a sample. I'm not going to order it. I don't think I can unilaterally order it. I don't think I have the authority to do so."
Richards: "I've told him I don't want to talk to him without him having a lawyer."
Constantine: "He's been admonished to talk to an attorney."
At this point, presumably in hopes that Lia gets an attorney or gives up a DNA sample, another hearing on the motion was set. But the hearing wasn't over.

Richards wondered, "Why isn't the state asking the girl?" about discrepancies in her statements -- since the DNA has been proven to belong to someone other than the person she, and the state with its prosecution of Sparr, is accusing.

Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Tanck-Adams (left) pointed out that the "Rape Shield Act" is a limiting factor. "We're not able to ask how many sexual partners she's had."

Constantine then role-played with Richards how the conversation might go; he answered as the girl might -- "She says, 'I don't remember,' " to which Richards asked, "I'm trying to refresh your memory," but they both were smarter than a fifth grader and didn't get anywhere.

Tanck-Adams pointed out that the girl is old enough to have had "sex education class" and familiarity with "the media" so her knowledge of sex could have come from there, as opposed to ... "Well, that's for the jury to decide," Richards said.
Richards: "This reminds me of the blind men looking at the elephant. For some reason, the state hasn't asked her."
Tanck-Adams: "She's not on trial. That's what Rape Shield is all about."
Richards: "I'll issue a subpoena" to be heard in closed court. "The gist of our whole defense is that she's accusing him (Sparr) to cover up with someone else. None of his semen was in her pants, or in the back seat of his car."
Constantine: "Where does it end?"
Richards: "We're not asking for 15 other people, we're just asking for Mr. Lia -- and for her -- to tell the truth."
Constantine: "My inclination is to allow some inquiry in that regard, to obtain the alternative source of the semen."
The hearing concluded with Constantine "giving Mr. Lia another kick in the can to consult with an attorney."

The next episode will take place March 30 at 2 p.m. The Journal Times' Janine Anderson offers her solid report of the hearing here.

Joey LeGath is Grand Marshal of St. Pat's Parade

The Downtown Racine Corporation has named Joey LeGath Grand Marshal of the city's 2009 St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Joining him as he leads this year’s parade will be an entourage of family members, friends and customers clad in green attire.

A long-time member of the Downtown Racine Corporation and supporter of Downtown Racine, LeGath owns a number of local taverns including Joey’s on 6th; Joey’s on Lathrop; Joey’s on Taylor and Joey’s on Douglas.

“I was quite surprised – but very honored to be selected to lead the parade,” said LeGath, who credits his mother for his Irish blood and roots.

In addition to leading the parade on Saturday, March 14, LeGath will be the Master of Ceremonies for the activities that will be held at Monument Square following the parade.

Empty Bowls brought out the pols, too

Greg Helding, Jim Spangenberg and John Dickert serve up the soup

Racine's 10th Empty Bowls fundraiser certainly brought out Racine's mayoral candidates -- not to mention hundreds of people happily contributing to help fight hunger in the community.

My apologies to anyone I missed during the time I spent there this morning, taking pictures and then taking my turn serving Navy Bean, Pasta Fazool and Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese soups. You practically could have held the primary during the 11-12 a.m. serving, as Mayor Tom Friedel anchored one end of the big serving line, and County Exec. Bill McReynolds the other -- bookending Jim Spangenberg, John Dickert, Greg Helding and Jim Kaplan. Kim Plache showed up to eat (her serving time would come later); even former City Administrator Ben Hughes went through the line.

Next to me during the noon shift was Bob Turner (who got stuck with vegetarian offerings; not a good omen). Jeff Coe also worked that shift, along with Donnie Snow. David Maack went through the serving line, his time behind the counter scheduled tonight.

Serving at the Masonic Center, 1011 Main St., will continue from 4 to 7 p.m. tonight.

Our earlier story is here.

Bill McReynolds fills Kim Plache's bowl

Mayor Tom Friedel ladles out lunch

Hundreds of hand-made bowls awaited diners

Contractor loses $480,000 job because of paperwork

Here's an article I wrote for The Daily Reporter construction newspaper about a Racine contractor losing a job because he failed to fill out the appropriate paperwork. The contractor had the low bid, but the Racine Water Utility had to reject their offer because it did not strictly follow the rules. Another Racine contractor, AW Oakes and Son, won the contract instead.


March 1, 2009

Racine costumes earn spotlight at opera, Broadway

Kitty Schweitzer with an elaborate dress and leather armor

Something from Racine will be center stage when the curtain goes up tonight -- opening night! -- as Chicago's Lyric Opera presents Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio.

Just as there's a part of Racine onstage during performances of Broadway's new hit, Shrek, the Musical.

And in a bunch of movies like The Untouchables.

It all comes from one barely noticeable storefront on Main Street, the home of Seams Unlimited, a costume maker run by Kitty Schweitzer and her six stitchers. Together they dress actors, singers and dancers who perform at some of the best "houses" in the country.

Schweitzer was contentedly making costume patterns Sunday afternoon, still excited by the "field trip" she and her staff -- which included two "opera virgins" -- took Friday to watch the final dress rehearsal of Seraglio. "It was just beautiful," she said -- describing the set, the performers, the music. "I'm not just saying that because we did the costumes." Seams Unlimited produced costumes for 41 Janissaries, 12 harem girls, six guards and three Turkish women.

For Shrek the Musical, which opened on Broadway in December, they had to make 30 sets of clothes in just eight days, thanks to a delay in the arrival of fabric from the show's designer and a last-minute change in the date of the show's first fitting. "I swear, I lost 15 pounds that week," Kitty says, noting that all jobs are not that stressful. For regional opera and theatre, the expectations are lower, "and it's fun again." Unlike the Met and the Lyric and Broadway...

Costume-making has been part of Kitty Schweitzer's life since she was very young. She remembers the nuns in Catholic school thinking she was daydreaming. Actually, she was realizing that she could look at someone's clothes -- the nuns' habits in this case -- and figure out how to make a pattern to recreate any outfit. She made patterns before sewing clothes for her dolls.

She became a professional costumer by accident. "While at Carthage College studying to be a primary school teacher, I was given a tour of the theater," she recalls, "and I let slip that I could make patterns. The designer said, 'Do you want tuition aid?' I thought that was a trick question, and I've been a cutter ever since."

It turns out, being able to make patterns is an unusual skill -- and a necessary one. "You can't go to the fabric store and find pattens for any of these; there are no computer programs," Kitty says, pointing to costume renderings and finished costumes. She has pattern-making journals from the 16th Century; "It's done today the same way it was done then."

Stitchers Jean Golwitzer and Emily Moser with Tale of Two Cities
costumes; alas, the Broadway show lasted only 93 performances.

Costumes also have to be incredibly versatile: able to fit a wide range of sizes, up or down. "We give it a tailored look, but with 4" to 6" seams, allowing costumes to be easily altered. The costume may be made for a guy who's a size 44, 6'2", who is then replaced by someone who's a size 36, built like a boy." Costumes must be "ultra-adjustable and ultra-durable," she says, noting that Broadway plays are performed nine times a week and many run for a year -- and hopefully longer.

There's another aspect to the job of costumer that makes everything interesting: Kitty rarely meets the actors the costumes are made for. "I cut for people I've never met and never will," she says, noting that big stars' contracts specify how much pay they get per fitting. "You get just an hour of their time. Literally, they just put it on and it fits. That's when you say, 'Damn, I'm good!' " she says with a laugh. Furthermore, "We're known for being able to do multiples," she says -- for example, dressing every member of the Lyric's harem.

Making costumes takes a host of careful measurements; height, waist and chest size don't begin to tell the story. She starts with pages of detailed measurements taken from each of the performers, all carefully entered side-by-side on a hand-written charts. "I always laugh when somebody sends back that she's a size 8," she says. After making a pattern for the "master" costume of a multiple, she then refers to each of the performers' measurements in turn, to add an inch here, subtract an inch there -- eyeballing as she goes -- as she cuts each subsequent pattern piece, which she then carefully labels with the relevant measurements.

"The system I primarily use is drafting -- math. You can do that blind." And that's the chief difference between the two philosophies of costume-making: Drafting vs. Draping. "You don't need the person in front of you until the final fitting."

Which is a good thing, because many of the costumes made for one set of performers then move on to yet another opera house. It costs several hundred thousand dollars to prepare sets and costumes for a major opera, Kitty says, and the goal is, "Make it affordable, otherwise you'd never be able to do grand opera." Her Seraglio costumes will travel from Chicago to San Francisco... and who knows where after that. "Opera houses engage in smart shopping; they're very frugal," she says.

For the Met's Damnation of Faust, for example, Kitty and her crew made 112 sets of clothes -- all in basic black. "So many operas were written in the same time period, a lot in the 16th Century." Her costumes, in other words, may have a life of their own in still other operas. That's a good thing, considering the cost -- up to $3,500 for a lightly beaded evening dress. "Costumes made for an opera star in New York -- $15,000," she says. "People in New York and Chicago think my prices are insanely reasonable," Kitty says. "But if the Racine Theatre Guild called, they'd pass out!"

Dress dummies have names, but no personality

Tremendous variety comes from Seams Unlimited's 401 Main St. storefront. For the Met's Faust, they dressed eight devils, and 24 members of the chorus. A wonderful set of deer-antler hats, among other costumes, was made for Cincinnati's Elmer Gantry. They dressed all the children and the opening number of Shrek the Musical, all the bad guys in Pirate Queen, and some of the actors in Gypsy with Patti LuPone. The chorus in Grease is outfitted in material that Kitty's stitchers put together from 4,000 yards of ribbon and 30 yards of fabric supplied by the show's designer "who got into a crunch" when he couldn't find exactly what he wanted.

She hasn't worked on movies for a while, because filming is a 24/7 operation. "Films suck all the life out of you; you're at the beck and call of the production company night and day," she said. "After I had kids, I couldn't live that way." But while she did it, she made costumes for many movies filmed in Chicago. The Untouchables, Midnight Run, Uncle Buck and Flatliners are a few of the names she rattles off. Her son, she notes, used to tell playmates, "My mom was pregnant with me when she worked on The Untouchables." An an infant, he had a quilt she made from shirt cuffs discarded when the production wrapped.

Kitty worked at the Lyric Opera for 15 years, as a cutter and a stitcher. "They do their own alterations," she says, "and they have a lot of 'emergencies.' I have stories, but I'm not telling tales out of school." In 1995, she went off on her own by establishing Seams Unlimited in the Third Ward in Milwaukee. She moved from Wausau to Racine five years ago, drawn both by the lake and the high quality of Racine Unified's orchestra program for her daughter Rose, 10, who plays the viola, and her son Alex, 21, "who's in love with the cello," and is studying music at Columbia College in Chicago.

"My track record was built very slowly," she says. "The Lyric knew me, but there were designers very reluctant to try me. I got my foot in the door in New York, but there are no second chances in this business. If you don't have costumes on the stage at the first dress rehearsal, you get sued. Blow one deadline and it's over."

Most of the major costume makers are in New York, or other big cities, but show designers are learning about Seams Unlimited, which has done costumes for more than 80 different shows. "My clients tease me about Racine," Kitty says. "They all know where Racine is now. I had a client who called saying she had to be in Oklahoma, wondering 'if that's anywhere close...' "