March 14, 2009

Huycke consulting lawyers over firing from SAFE Haven

Update: Per the comments, we corrected the reference to Huycke as founder of SAFE Haven. Thanks.

Original Post: Jim Huycke, founder executive director of the SAFE Haven shelter for homeless children, was fired by the nonprofit agency this week. Here's Huycke's initial response to the decision made by the organization's Board of Directors:
I have made contact to some extent with a total of four attorneys so far, and have arranged a consultation early next week with a firm outside of Racine County that specializes in these kinds of cases. To date, the consensus of these lawyers has been to not make any public statements despite my eagerness to do so. I do want to express my deepest gratitude to the dozens of people who have already expressed their support—it is truly a blessing to have so many people who care so much about me, the agency and the people served in our community.

Racine turns Irish: Cead mile failte!

For an hour or so Saturday, Racine turned Irish. under a bright blue sky and seasonably warm temperatures.

The city's St. Patrick's Day parade, bookended by motorcycles at the front and antique fire engines at the rear, wended from State Street down Main and Sixth, bringing great gobs of green: Green hats, green hair and faces, green beads, Irish flags.

There were red and green-bearded leprechauns, a Star Wars stormtrooper in a kilt. Irish dancers and music. Irish dogs in the best holiday finery. A row of shiny Pontiac Solstices. An oversize Adirondack chair advertising this summer's public art project: Sonny and Chair, the Summer '09 Tour.

The Downtown Racine Corporation ran out of green beer in Monument Square by the end of the parade, but that didn't dampen the festivities (regular beer was still available), as the DRC found the child with the reddest hair, the most freckles. And the best-dressed Irish pooch.

Faith and begorrah!

Color Guard leads the parade

Miss Racine has a smile for everyone

Sunny and Chair, the Summer Tour

Mayor Tom Friedel

Irish dancers from all over...

Men in kilts...

Stormtrooper in a kilt got no guff

This boy won the 'most freckles' contest

And here's a 'redhead' winner

'Best-dressed Irish dog'

Lots of smiles from the sidelines

A lot of hat variety...

Parades take a lot out of you!

March 13, 2009

Helding calls for demolition of Jacato Drive apartments

Alderman Greg Helding, one of 11 candidates for mayor in the April 7 primary, today called for the demolition of the "infamous" Jacato Drive apartment buildings.

Helding said in a press release:
“It is high time to solve this problem once and for all. The law allows the city to proceed against the buildings as a public nuisance.

“Buildings on Jacato Drive average more than two police calls a day. We have had three officers hurt in three days. This simply cannot continue. The state of these apartments has become a threat to public safety.

“Our neighborhoods need help. When police are forced to spend so much time in these trouble spots, there is less time for the rest of the city. We all suffer. It is time to eliminate these trouble spots.

“This is not only about crime – it is about taxes, too,” said Helding. “We spend more than half of our budget on public safety. The Jacato Drive apartment buildings are draining our city budget dry.”

Helding has released a campaign video on his website where he proposes innovative ideas and bold leadership in the fight on crime. “Our police work hard to fight crime – City Hall must work beside them.” said Helding.

March 12, 2009

Straw Poll

Update: Greg Helding "won" our first straw poll. "Won" is in quotes here because the poll really doesn't mean much. The poll has no scientific accuracy and shouldn't be taken too seriously. That said, if you're a candidate it's nice to have a decent showing in this kind of exercise. Rounding out the top four were John Dickert, Pete Karas and Jim Spangenberg. Our hope was to get a glimmer of insight into campaigns' abilities to mobilize online supporters and get them to vote. That said, you hardly need strong online support to win an election. It's the real votes that matter, and we won't know those for a few weeks.

Original: Tonight we launched an online poll for the mayor primary election.

These things aren't scientifically accurate and don't mean much. But over the next few weeks we'll run a series of "straw polls" to see which candidates can mobilize online support. The first straw poll started at 11:30 p.m. on Thursday and will run through 11:30 p.m. Friday night. Candidates are encouraged to use whatever means are necessary to tally the most votes. We'll report the results tomorrow night and setup a new poll.

Voters, the poll is located in the upper right corner of this page. Candidates, good luck!

The real primary election to whittle the field from 11 candidates to two is April 7. The general election is May 5.

Downturn affects Racine's billionaires, too...

Times are tough, even for the world's billionaires.

Forbes magazine reports that there are 300 fewer of them this year than a year ago -- only 793 remaining from what was a class of 1,125.

Losses have been startling for the wealthiest -- poor Bill Gates, for example, down a staggering $18 billion to a barely-able-to-get-by fortune of $40 billoion. Well, at least it's good for first place again.

Warren Buffett, last year's richest at $62 billion? His bank account is down $25 billion to "only" $37 billion. Maybe we'll run into him grabbing the earlybird special at Country Buffet.

All well and good, you say, but what about Racine's own billionaires, members of the S.C. Johnson family? Tough times for them, too -- but all is relative. Forbes puts the Johnsons -- siblings H. Fisk Johnson, S. Curtis Johnson, Helen Johnson-Leipold and Winnie Johnson-Marquart, and Sam's widow Gene Johnson, -- all tied at 376 on the list (along with 16 others). Their individual fortunes are estimated by Forbes to be down to $1.9 billion from $2.2 billion a year ago. That's a loss of $300 million. Each. In one year.

Nice work if you can get it.

Ballot position? Fuhgeddaboudit!

David Brown draws a name as Janice Johnson-Martin awaits

The luck of the draw?


Jaimie Charon and Jim Spangenberg were the only two of eleven candidates to attend City Clerk Janice Johnson-Martin's ballot-position party at 10 a.m. this morning, each hoping for the coveted top spot for the April 7 mayoral primary.

They shoulda stood in bed.

Johnson-Martin assembled a small group of city hall employees to witness the drawing of candidates' names from an open-top coffee can -- one decorated with All-America City stickers from a happier time, 2003. City Finance Director David Brown started the proceedings by rolling up his sleeve, to prove there was nothing but his elbow up there.

Then he drew the first name, winner of the top spot on the ballot. "Sarah Palin," he announced with a straight face.

And so it went. A light-hearted, friendly beginning to what all expect to become a knock-down, drag-out race among some of the city's most ambitious politicians and a handful of newcomers.

Once the drawing got serious, Brown quickly pulled one name out of the coffee can after another: Lesia Hill-Driver got the top spot, followed in order by Jody Harding, Q.A. Shakoor II, Greg Helding, Raymond Fay. As Brown handed the slips of paper to her, Johnson-Martin stuck them on her official "Certification of Drawing of Names for Placement on Ballot" sheet.

Jaimie Charon and Jim Spangenberg wishing each other luck in the draw

"Aren't you glad you came?" someone asked Charon and Spangenberg, who good-naturedly shook each other's hand for luck while wondering if their names would ever be called.

The drawing continued: Pete Karas, Robert Turner, John Dickert.

You couldn't have imagined a more suspenseful drawing. Just three positions left. Surely... And the ninth name drawn: Kim Plache.

Finally, with only two names left in the can: Jaimie Charon's was pulled, and drawing up the rear, Jim Spangenberg.

Someone tried to cheer them both up. "Bottom is good," she said. "At least you're not buried in the middle."

Charon and Spangenberg left City Hall together, wishing each other a good race. "We need more people in city government," Spangenberg said to Charon as they walked to their cars.

March 11, 2009

Tough choice for Ryan on Janesville earmark?

Wow! Here's a tough one for Rep. Paul "NO DAMN EARMARKS!" Ryan, R-WI, 1st District.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has a little story today about a $950,000 earmark included in the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Bill for Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville, to help former General Motors employees with job training.

The earmark was added to the legislation by Sen. Herb Kohl, D-WI, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who doesn't share Ryan's disapproval of federal funds sent back to local entities.

"There is an urgent need to help GM's former employees get back on their feet. Families are struggling and the whole community has been stung by its largest employer pulling up stakes. This desperately needed investment will ... help put more people back to work," Kohl said in a statement.

The federal funding will help support career and aptitude assessment testing; career and technical education instruction; basic skills or college readiness instruction; tuition, books, materials, and related fees for educational program enrollment; and job readiness/job placement services.

Ryan, of course, lives in Janesville, where some 2,400 GM workers -- and many more in the community -- lost their jobs earlier this year when the GM plant that built trucks and SUVs closed. And, as we said, he's death on earmarks.

We'd bet Ryan will vote against the earmark if given the chance (and the larger bill as well) ... but it will pass anyway. You can have it both ways.

He'll have support from Sen. Russ Feingold, D-WI, across the partisan aisle. Feingold said Tuesday, as he opposed the bill, “Congress failed to show the American people that it is committed to spending their money wisely. When Congress passed the economic recovery bill to create or save millions of American jobs, it did so without including a single earmark. Congress should have done the same thing with this omnibus spending bill and it should do so with all future bills. The president should veto the omnibus, send it back to Congress to be cleaned up and make it clear to Congress that pork-laden bills like this are no longer welcome.”

Rep. Mason to attend health care forum in Detroit

State Rep. Cory Mason, R-Racine, will attend the Midwest Regional White House Forum on Health Care Reform in Detroit on Thursday.

The forum is hosted by Gov. Jim Doyle and Michigan Gov Jennifer Granholm and includes doctors, patients, providers and policymakers.

"In spite of the gains we have made, some Wisconsinites still face barriers to affordable, comprehensive, and quality health care," Mason said. "I welcome this opportunity to hear more from health care professionals, community leaders and the public about the health care concerns they face.”

The Regional White House Forums are an opportunity for Americans to voice their concerns and ideas about reforming our health care system. “The time for reform is now and these regional forums are some of the key first steps toward breaking the stalemate we have been stuck in for far too long,” President Obama said in a statement.

Mayoral deadline today

Janice Johnson-Martin with mayoral filing papers

5:37 Update: Well, it's official. There will be 11 mayoral candidates on the April 7 ballot. Here's the early analysis: That's a lot of candidates.

Before we get into the field, though, here's some background on the election itself. The clerk's office will select the ballot order tomorrow at 10 a.m. Once the order is set, she'll send the names to the County Clerk, who is responsible for ordering ballots. Right now, the city is holding up the process.

The ballots should be back in time to give absentee voters about two weeks to vote before the election, according to Racine Clerk Janice Johnson-Martin.

Johnson-Martin will order enough ballots for a 75 percent turnout, which is standard for a mayor's race. That anticipates about 54,000 votes - a big number compared to past elections. In 2003 - the last contested mayoral election in the city - voters cast 13,481 votes. (Gary Becker defeated Ron Thomas and write-in candidate Jim Smith.)

As for the field, there's a lot of depth there. It makes you wonder where all of these candidates were in 2007 when Becker ran unopposed. That's probably a testament to the power the former mayor held.

It's impossible to list a front-runner at this point, and it's going to be that kind of an election even past the primary. Unless one candidate really wallops the field - and that seems unlikely - there's not going to be a clear favorite.

One aside: It seems clear the City Council made a good decision in requiring that the interim mayor not run for office. If Tom Friedel was in the race at this point, it's my guess he'd be the leading candidate simply because, well, he's mayor. But he's not, and now the field is wide open.

A second aside: If Facebook is any indication, Helding and Karas are in the lead. Both have had ads on my page in recent days. You wonder how much money will be thrown around in this race. If the campaigns hit their goals, we'll see tens of thousands of dollars circulating in the next few weeks.

4:15 Update: Pete Karas and Kim Plache filed.

2 p.m. Update:
Austin Rodriguez's papers were returned to him, after City Clerk Janice Johnson-Martin counted his signatures, rejected some and came up with just 178 valid ones. He's back collecting more. Raymond Fay has completed the filing process. All await the final 5 p.m. deadline... And then the next crucial moment: the drawing at 10 a.m. Thursday morning to determine ballot placement -- whose name will be on top.

Pete Karas called to say he's planning to file his papers this afternoon.

Original post:

Mayoral candidates have until 5 p.m. today to file paperwork for the April 7 primary election. Here's who is officially in, as of 11 a.m.:

Jody Harding
Greg Helding
James Spangenberg
Bob Turner
Lesia Hill-Driver
QA Shakoor II
John Dickert
Jamie Charon

Notable names not in yet:

Pete Karas
Kim Plache
Raymond Fay

March 10, 2009

Two unions agree to county pay freeze proposal

Two unions representing county employees have agreed to salary freezes in 2009, according to Racine County Exec. Bill McReynolds, thus protecting their members against any layoffs during the year.

The two bargaining units are the Racine County Federation of Nurses, Local 5039, AFT, AFL-CIO, which represents nurses at the county's Ridgewood Care Center, and the Racine County Attorneys' Association, which represents attorneys in the county's Office of Corporation Counsel and Child Support Enforcement.

None of the county's other six bargaining units has acted on McReynolds' pay freeze proposal, which he made on Feb. 23. Unions have been told they must respond by March 16.

McReynolds said, "I deeply appreciate the sense of responsibility shown by these two bargaining units. Knowing that current economic conditions place great pressure on Racine County's budget, I've asked all our bargaining units to agree to a pay freeze. These are the first two units to step up to the plate. They are professionals and public servants in the best senses of those terms."

Journal Times will shrink on April 14

Here's a short wrap-up of recent news concerning Lee Enterprises, parent company of the Journal Times, and the JT itself.

1. Lee has not yet announced, but we learned on good authority, that today's annual meeting did approve the proposed reverse stock split (which will turn anywhere from four to ten existing shares into one share). The move is contemplated to bring Lee back into compliance with New York Stock Exchange rules requiring listed companies' stock to be trading at more than $1 per share. Lee stock currently is trading at 28 cents. (So a 4-1 reverse split would be cutting things rather close...)

The annual meeting gave the Board of Directors authority to make the reverse split; the board might or might not actually do it. Under the NYSE's temporary rules, Lee is still in compliance -- and, in any case, will have a tougher time meeting the stock exchange's minimum capitalization requirement of $25 million -- another rule that is temporarily suspended, lowered through June 30 to $15 million -- but also under long-term review, given the growing number of companies that would be affected, and de-listed. Lee's current capitalization is $12.8 million

2. Donna Melby, advertising director, of the Journal Times has, in her own words, "some exciting news coming this spring at the Journal Times."

On April 14, the paper will get smaller: roughly an inch and one-half narrower (tabloid products, like the Pennysaver, will instead get shorter). "We're confident Journal Times readers and advertisers will be pleased with a newspaper that is easier to handle and read," Melby writes.

But wait, here's the really exciting part: Although advertisers' ads will get smaller, ad rates will not change!

The paper's new page size will be 11" wide, down from the current 12" or so. The Journal Times is not alone in shrinking its page size; many newspapers across the country have shrunk in response to high newsprint prices and general economic conditions.

3. Your newspaper carrier -- alas, the PC Police no longer permit the sexist term "newsboy" -- may or may not be changing. Regardless, there's an important change afoot for everyone who gets more than one newspaper -- say the Wall Street Journal, Milwaukee Sentinel or New York Times along with the Journal Times in the morning.

Until now, there were at least two delivery services: the Journal Times' and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel handling itself and the other papers. But Journal Times carriers were notified on Feb. 10 that they would henceforth be handling all those other papers, and also USA Today, Investor's Business Daily, Financial Times and Barron's. Carriers who couldn't handle the larger distribution, and bigger routes in general, were given the pink slip.

We spoke to Kevin Barz, who had delivered about 60 papers in North Bay since 2001; he said he was offered a larger route -- one with 300 papers and a larger geographic area -- but he had to turn it down due to health issues, and his route was terminated. Barz, a grandfather who handled his route with the 15-year-old grandson he had hoped to turn the route over to when the boy gets his driver's license this summer, was disappointed. He also wonders what will happen to the 15 or so elderly customers he had for whom his grandson put the paper between their front doors or on the porch, or wherever they wanted it, instead of just throwing it in the driveway.

4. Lee also announced today that 70 percent of adults in its 12 largest markets read the newspaper or visit the newspaper's online website over the course of a week, compared with 67 percent the previous year. The Journal Times is not among those 12 largest papers, although Madison's Wisconsin State Journal is. Melby says the newspaper and its website reach 75% of Racine County adults every week. At least once during the week, that is...

President and CEO Mary Junck also said the earnings outlook for 2009 "remains weak," and Lee is prepared to reduce cash costs 12-13 percent below 2008's, a cut of more than $100 million.

Counting leads to charity for Montessori kids

Small World Montessori School, 1008 High St., celebrated its 100th day of school last week in a special way

The students counted each day they were in school, in anticipation of a 100-day party. Administrator Amy Schaal said, "We wanted to make this a special event and help instill a sense of altruism in the students. We also wanted this to be a family celebration, which includes talking about the number 100 and learning about its significance."

To achieve those goals, the school decided to donate 100 items to Homeless Assistance Leadership Organization. HALO works to meet emergency shelter needs, coordinate supportive services and provide community leadership to prevent chronic homelessness in Racine County.

The students participated in a numbers board to learn more about the number 100. Next to a box for the donation items, there was a box of cutout numbers from 1-100, and a display poster to track the number of donations. The student who brought in the first item, found the cutout number "1" and posted it to the matching number on the display poster. If the next family brought in three items, they found the next three cutout numbers and posted them to the corresponding spots on the display poster. That helped the children with both number recognition and addition.

This weekend the school delivered three huge bags of donations to HALO: bags of pillows, diapers, deodorant and other materials

March 9, 2009

Maack leads charge on expanding oversight of mayoral spending

Mayor Gary Becker’s legacy may be more paperwork for city officials planning to travel.

The city’s Personnel and Finance Committee voted Monday night to draft a travel policy for employees to get reimbursed for meals, hotel rooms and airplane tickets for city business. The proposal may set limits on travel spending and formalize oversight on travel spending.

The committee also voted to draft policies regarding the mayor’s monthly car and phone allowances, and to review expenses from the mayor’s office on a quarterly basis.

Alderman David Maack brought the proposals forward. He said he had concerns about how Becker spent money as mayor and wanted more oversight of how future mayors and city employees spent money.

“I don’t see it as good practice not to have a policy in place,” he said.

Perhaps the most serious concern Maack raised was a $300 a month car allowance Becker received. The mayor unilaterally instituted the allowance in 2008 to replace the mileage payments he had received in the past. Becker, apparently, didn’t like fill out the paperwork that came with the mileage reimbursement.

Maack said he didn’t have a problem with the allowance. But he was concerned Becker changed the policy without seeking approval from City Council members.

“What I object to is it didn’t come through the council,” Maack said. “At a minimum it should have come to the finance committee for approval.”

Finance Director Dave Braun said he “wholeheartedly” agreed with Maack’s assessment.

But Maack didn’t get a receptive audience on all points. One of the biggest problems he ran into was the lack of wrongdoing by Becker in how he spent the mayor’s budget. Braun supplied the committee with Becker’s spending records. He said there didn’t appear to be any problems.

That left the committee wondering if the new policies were a solution in search of a problem. Alderman Bob Anderson said he didn’t want to “handcuff” the mayor with unnecessary policy. Maack responded he saw the policies as oversight, not handcuffing. (That led Mayor Tom Friedel to quip: “I wish they’d stop using that term.”)

Alderman Sandy Weidner, who sat in the crowd, seemed skeptical of Maack’s proposals, and pointed out a possible discrepancy in the committee’s discussion and what was posted on the meeting’s agenda. The agenda said the committee would discuss the mayor’s spending, but conversation drifted to include all employees. Her point, while possibly correct, was ignored.

She was joined in the audience by Alderman and mayor candidate Greg Helding. Police Chief Kurt Wahlen was also there.

Friedel, former chairman of the Finance committee, supported all of Maack’s proposal except one that would have required the City Council president to sign off on the mayor’s travel spending. Friedel said there were sufficient safeguards in place for travel reimbursements, and noted travel by elected officials is an important part of their job. Becker traveled the Coastal Management Group’s meetings and brought back $400,000 in grants to the city since 2004.

Maack’s motion for the City Council president sign-off died for lack of a second by the committee.

The three proposals that did pass now need to be written and approved by the committee and the full City Council to take effect.

State dismisses Grammer complaint

The state's Equal Rights Division dismissed Janelle Grammer's complaint against former City Administrator Ben Hughes, according to findings released Monday by the city.

You can read the state's determination here. Grammer has the right to appeal the decision, but as of now, the state concluded there is no need for a hearing on the matter.

You can read the city's press release here. In the city's statement, they note Grammer also withdrew her internal complaint and asked for no further investigation into the matter.

Read past stories about Grammer's complaint here, here and here.

March 8, 2009

Thoughts for Food: A good time, for a good cause

Music was the method, but the message was caring for others Saturday night.

There were nine venues and 36 rockin' bands -- all donating their time and talent to raise funds for the Racine County Food Bank.

Racine was jumping as the 17th annual Thoughts for Food brought out hundreds of charitably-minded music lovers, who each contributed money and at least two cans of food to the cause. Early estimates put Saturday's food donations equal to or better than last year's total of about 3,500 pounds.

As for money: Cash sales were around $12,000 from 1,200 people, not including advance sales of $2,500. Total attendance, including band members and their guests, came to about 1,750.

Over the years, Thoughts for Food has raised in the neighborhood of $300,000. Which may explain Dan Taivalkoski's smile, below.

Dan Taivalkoski of the Food Bank, halfway through the evening

Golden Show Band at the Rhino

The Argonauts brought a violin to the Redline

OCD at Michigan's Pub

Eric Scott of EZ Livin' at the Eagles

Antoinette Slater of the High Stakes Band at the Eagles

Dancing to Mean Jake at George's

At Coaster's, the dancing was contagious