September 5, 2009

A walk in the woods: Nature enhanced by artwork

Ray Foster's animals, like this $70 blowfish, were charmers

It's always hard, at Hawthorn Hollow's annual Walk in the Woods Art Fair, to choose a focal point. Is it the canopy of trees, the lovely walk in the woods, the beauty of the nature sanctuary and arboretum?

Or is it the eclectic and original art work by more than three-score artisans -- many of whom bring a sly sense of humor to their craftsmanship?

Well, of course it's both ... but today let's focus on some of the more interesting art... like, for example, this hand-carved anatomically correct cane that Diana Roulo of Kenosha walked off with. Yes, it was a pricey $250, but she could barely get it off the grounds, so many people stopped her to ask for a closer look. Look closely at that handle: there's a detailed, grinning skull inside it!

The cane was carved by Denny Bell of Pleasant Prairie, right, a former pipefitter, who's been carving for about 12 years. Bell is notable for something else: the Memorial Presentation Cane he and other members of the Wildlife Carving Club of Racine/Kenosha carve for any Wisconsin veteran who has suffered a leg injury in Iraq or Afghanistan since 9/11. The offer is extended to include the family of any Wisconsin veteran who lost their life in the same period.

The canes are presented free of cost -- and that includes shipping. Like the cane Denny is holding, they have a Bald Eagle "topper" carved by a member of the club; the shafts are made of a variety of materials and designs, personalized as the owner would like with name, date, branch of service, a flag..."Let us know what you would like and we will try to put it on the cane for you," the club says. So far, more than 70 of these canes -- decorative gestures of honor not intended as an orthopedic device -- have been presented.

The Wildlife Carving Club meets at River Bend Nature Center on the third Thursday of every month; carving begins at 6 p.m. and the meeting -- often with a demonstration -- begins at 7 p.m. All are welcome. (But keep in mind: if you cut yourself while carving, you have to wear the club's carved cut thumb pendant until someone else "earns" the honor.)

Below, some of the other interesting things we spotted during our walk in the woods.

Julie Schilf made this sly sun hanging, just $35.

Debbie Radke brought Halloween garden creatures, about $60 each

Sue Huss of Elmhurst, IL, photographed these apple blossoms

Tammy Easton's large glass mosaic garden stakes were $135

Nicholas Rostagno's crystalline blue bowls were stunning,
and just $47. The Third Ward artist has master's degrees
in both glaze chemistry and studio ceramics, and created
the process he uses through long experimentation

Marilyn Jacobsen spun yarn, passing the skill to her granddaughter

Janet Erickson and her martini-glass bird feeders, $35

Mark Paffrath entertained with traditional and original compositions

Property transfers: Houses from $8,500 to $390,000

Click here or the map above for a list of the most recent property transfers in Racine County, from the week ending Aug. 24.

Most expensive houses: The money's in Waterford ($300,000 and $314,000), Norway ($365,500) and Burlington ($390,000). The bargain of the week: 1323 Maple St. in Racine went for $8,500.

September 4, 2009

Summer's last great party at First Friday?


It was one of the most successful First Fridays ever. No doubt the end of summer had a lot to do with it, but the weather also cooperated. Whatever the reason, the crowds came out; galleries and boutiques were packed, you could barely walk down Main Street without bumping into friends. Nor was the music limited to Monument Square: Mark Paffrath, Macyn Taylor and Jeff Ward were strumming guitars and singing on Main Street, Paul Kaye and American Restless were on Sixth.

At the north end of Monument Square -- conveniently near the beer tent -- was a birthday party, an Over the Hill bash for some poor geezer who hit the ripe old age of 40. More towards the middle, a family put one of the marble game tables to good use for a pizza party. Meanwhile at the south end, to the rockin' sounds of Mean Jake, there was an old-fashioned dance party.

If that wasn't enough, there were artist receptions, demonstrations, free admission at RAM. Smiles were everywhere. Here are some pictures from the party; if you're not in any of them, you missed a great event.



Mother and daughter requested a jig from Jeff Ward...

...and when he complied, Kameryn Wisch, 7, danced

At RAM, Joseph Seigenthaler's glazed stoneware, rocks
and 'found chair' sculpture got a lot of amused attention

Kids kept busy running around the Monument

Harold Solberg gave Connor Graceffa, 7, a woodturning lesson


Proposed Dollar Store on Washington Ave. falls through

Plans for a 14,000-square-foot Dollar Store at 1130 Washington Ave. have fallen through.

City Development Director Brian O'Connell said Friday the developer with an option to buy the property - formerly Schaeffer Motors - has not contacted the city in over two months.

Abdo Market House, of Minneapolis, was granted a 90-day option in June to buy the Schaeffer site for $70,000. The company had answered the city's request for proposal on the site with plans to build a dollar store worth over $1 million.

Abdo's option technically expires on Sept. 13, but O'Connell said he wasn't expecting to hear from the developer in the next few days.

The city made repeated attempts to reach the developer, O'Connell said. They made phone calls, sent certified letters and talked to partners on the project in hopes of getting a response. The company never answered, he said.

O'Connell said city officials are considering how to proceed with the site. They could offer another request for proposal and see if any new developers are interested, or pull the property off the market and wait awhile for the market to reset.

No decisions have been made, he said.

City bracing employees for tough budget?

Update: I just talked with Mayor John Dickert. The answer to the question in the headline is, in a word, yes.

Dickert said city staff is working for a 0 percent increase budget with zero layoffs.

"That's the goal," he said. "That's the entire emphasis of the next three months. I don't want to raise taxes, and I don't want layoffs."

He added that pay raises for city employees are "impossible."

"Not only can't taxpayers swallow them, but it's impossible for the city to swallow them," Dickert said. "There's just no money."

Original Post:

A city employee sent us the letter below laying out what they consider an ominous sign ahead of the 2010 budget.

All city employees received a letter from City Administrator Tom Friedel laying out exactly how much they're getting paid by the city, including retirement benefits, health benefits, life insurance, Social Security and Medicare contributions and, of course, total wages.

I remember getting a similar letter from Lee Enterprises a few years back as a not-so-subtle reminder that my pay was more than what was in the bi-weekly check. It also preceded the minimal across-the-board raise all employees received - and the de facto months-long hiring freeze.

With the city facing a tough, tough budget for 2010, city employees are on edge about their pay and even their jobs. This "rah rah" letter, as the writer calls it, did little to ease concerns.

Here's excerpts of what was sent:
A Letter dated August 2009 was sent to all City employees by City Administrator Thomas Friedel.

This letter was to notify all City of Racine employees of their 2008 total compensation and benefits summary.

The compensation for each City of Racine employee is public record. Within public records things like Social Security and Medicare Contributions are not included because these are government mandated taxes employers have to pay for each of their employees.

In the case of the letter received in our home it goes like this:

Total Compensation: Gross Wages
Wisconsin Retirement Pension Paid by City $
Social Security Contributions Paid by City $
Medicare Contributions Paid by the City $
Prescription Claims Paid by the City $
Medical Claims Paid by the City $
Health Insurance Administrative Fees $
Hartford Life Insurance Premiums $

Total Compensation and Benefits Paid by the City Total in Dollars and cents

[snip]

Was this done for PR? Because the employees who have been discussing this are not appreciative of this type of unsolicited mail. In this economy everyone is grateful for their jobs and a whole lot of city employee’s wages have been frozen.

I would appreciate if you would build a story out of this but please leave our name out of it.

[snip]

I am interested in hearing if other employers are doing similar rah rah letters to their employees and where this idea came from and why now? Was this presented at a City Council meeting?

September 3, 2009

The cartoon @ RacinePost.com

Vos objects to free cellphones for the poor --
and to 75-cents per month tax on the rest of us

Is it the new 75-cents per month phone tax on most of us, or the free cellphones for the poor that has Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia upset?

Both.

Vos is objecting to a partnership between the TracPhone Wireless Company and the federal government that offers a cell phone plan with texting, call waiting, voicemail, and rollover minutes, with the first 60 minutes per month free, "and all for the price of zero dollars." Do you qualify? As long as you use Badger Care, Food Stamps, participate in the W-2 program or your income is within 35 percent of the federal poverty level, you do."

“You have to ask about priorities,” said Vos, “when the government is paying for free cell phones but leaving people hanging on unemployment, on job training, and on health care. I must have missed the part where we discussed why texting is a higher priority than worker training and jobs.”

Vos notes that the 5 million Wisconsinites who don’t qualify for the free phone are instead paying a new 75-cent per month phone tax, which started Thursday, and a 56-cent increase in the government fee (Universal Service Fund) that pays for a similar program for low-income phone service here in Wisconsin. He blames Democrats, saying that earlier this year, Gov. Doyle and the Democrats expanded the Universal Service Fee to cell phones for the first time.

"Just because the Democrats couldn’t help themselves from raising your cell phone taxes,” Vos said, “doesn’t mean the government should be in the business of handing out free cell phones.”

The federal government’s low-income phone program, called Lifeline, has been in place since 1984. In Wisconsin, the state Universal Service Fund covers the portion of basic telephone service charges exceeding $15 per month for low-income individuals. According to the state’s Public Service Commission, more than 547,000 Wisconsinites are eligible for the TracPhone free cell phone program – more than 31,000 in the Racine/Kenosha area alone. The total cost of the free cell phone program could be as much as $5.4 million.

“Adding a hint of irony,” Vos said, “is that one of the qualifiers for getting a free phone is participation in the ‘Wisconsin Works’ program. W2 was created to end Welfare freebies and provide a hand up, not a handout – looks like the Democrats are taking us right back to the days of something for nothing.”

When the President says, "Kids, stay in school,'
it becomes a controversial message

We've come a long way from the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside chats had the entire nation glued to its radio receivers.

Today, President Obama can't even encourage students to stay in school and understand the importance of their education without it becoming a political issue.

The White House announced this week that the President will address the nation's students next Tuesday, Sept. 8, at 11 a.m. with a back-to-school welcome message -- and already that's become controversial. News outlets around the country are reporting that parents are calling schools saying they do not want their children to participate. Others in the blogosphere are calling it political indoctrination. In Denver, a TV station reported that "conservatives are outraged." The New York Times reports a "revolt" among conservative parents, especially in Texas. Glenn Beck -- he who called the President a "racist" -- has promised a one-hour television special at the same time, "on the indoctrination of your children."

What's a local school district to do?

Racine Unified is walking a tightrope (leaving aside the technological issues) -- leaving it up to individual principals and teachers to determine "if the presidential address is an appropriate learning activity for their individual students." At the same time, "Parents may request that their children not view the speech at any time with a written note to the teacher."

Here is Unified's statement on the matter:
According to a Department of Education memorandum, the president wishes to address students regarding the importance of education and beginning the school year in a positive manner. The Department of Education has encouraged students, teachers and principals to participate by watching the president's address. While this is not required curriculum, we encourage principals and staff to cooperate with the president's request to the extent possible.

President Obama's speech will be broadcast via the Internet at www.whitehouse.gov and on Educational Access Channel 20 or C-SPAN. A video of the president's speech will be posted on the district's Web site www.racine.k12.wi.us. The district does not have the technology to allow all students to view the speech simultaneously. Due to the vastly different technology resources of each building, there is no one plan that can accommodate all situations. In order to allow our students the opportunity to view the president's speech, we are asking that following guidelines are followed:

· This is a request by the President of the United States. We will make an effort to comply with his request while making certain that the essential functions and schedules of the school are not comprised.

· If school schedules conflict with President Obama's speech, schools may elect not to show the speech. Schools may elect to show a recording of the speech during some other appropriate time. Social studies classes at the secondary level are recommended.

· Some schools will be unable to show the president's video live without disrupting the school schedule, previously planned learning activities, lunch periods or other essential functions. The video is not required curriculum.

· Principals and teachers should use their judgment in determining if the presidential address is an appropriate learning activity for their individual students.

· Parents may request that their children not view the speech at any time with a written note to the teacher.

· Parents may elect to view the video with their children at home. The video will be accessible via the district's Web site www.racine.k12.wi.us as soon as possible.

Judicial Power: Judges are elected, but rarely challenged; Lawyers fear reprisal, expense

Racine County's judges serve at the will of the people. Our magistrates serve six-year terms with one, two or three judges up for election every year.

But these powerful, and coveted, positions are rarely contested. The last competitive municipal race in Racine County was in 2004 when Judge John Jude emerged from a field of five to replace Judge Emmanuel Vuvunas.

We found only two instances of a challenger taking on an incumbent judge in the last 20 years, and only one of those went to election. Mark Nielsen took on Judge Gerald Ptacek in 1988 after Ptacek was appointed to the bench by Gov. Tommy Thompson. Nielsen lost the election. Judge Charles Constantine was elected to the bench in 1996 after announcing he would challenge Judge Nancy Wheeler. Wheeler declined to seek re-election.

Other than those two examples, Racine County's 10 Circuit Court judges have been re-elected without challenge for years. Just this past year, judges Wayne Marik, Faye Flancher and Allan Torhorst were re-elected to six year terms without opposition.

Judge Stephen Simanek at a recent hearing

Next spring judges John Jude and Stephen Simanek are up for re-election. Simanek has already announced he's retiring, which opened up the seat Gene Gasiorkiewicz and Georgia Herrera are running for. Jude likely will seek re-election, and likely will be unopposed. (If a third candidate were to enter the race, they're more likely to compete for the open seat and set off a primary election than they are to take on Jude.)

Despite the few attorneys who run in judicial elections, circuit court judge positions are coveted. "Every attorney thinks about being a judge at some point," an attorney said.

Unlike most elected positions, there are minimum requirements to become a judge. You must have a law degree and five years of legal experience to run for election, which makes sense given the technical nature of the job. In return, the job pays well: about $119,000 per year. The salary is covered by the state and is the same for all circuit court judges in Wisconsin.

There are other benefits. Judges carry a certain prestige in the community and the the work itself is generally less stressful than being an attorney.

One lawyer summed up the difference between being a lawyer and judge with a true story about a Racine County judge standing on a tee at Meadowbrook Country Club. He had a trial the next day and noted to his golfing partners that if he was a lawyer on the case he'd be working instead of golfing. But as a judge, he didn't have the same stress.

"Life is a stress sandwich as a trial attorney," the lawyer said. "... Judges work hard. But it's a different kind of work."

But for all the benefits, few attorneys pursue judicial positions and there's little turnover among the ranks of Racine County judges. Why is that?

To investigate that question, we interviewed four prominent Racine attorneys, including three who have considered running for circuit court judge. All four agreed to talk off the record so they could speak candidly. Here are their reasons for the lack of contested judicial elections:

1. It's a long shot.
Incumbent judges are historically difficult to beat. The re-election rate for judges, who serve six-year terms and have immense name recognition, is between 95 and 97 percent. Any challenger, no matter how qualified, is likely to lose.

"Unless you've really got an issue, you're not going to win," said one attorney.

"It's hard to campaign," added another attorney. "What do you say? 'I can be fairer than that guy'?"

Incumbent judges are difficult to defeat because ...

2. Challengers fear reprisal. "If you strike the king, you must kill him," one attorney said dramatically. If you take on a judge and lose, you not only risk the scorn of that judge, but the nine other incumbent judges who have no interest in facing challengers of their own. "The others judges don't like that," said one attorney about challenged elections. "They don't want that (contested elections) to be a trend."

Another lawyer said bluntly: "You don't want to piss off a judge."

(The lawyers interviewed disagreed on the degree of reprisal challengers need to fear from judges. While one said it's a real threat to clients' cases, others said any judge would set aside personal differences and rule based on the law. But everyone agreed challenging a sitting a judge would muddy the waters, at least for awhile.)

Sitting judges are also safe from election challenges because ...

3. You just don't do it. Lawyers are fundamentally conservative in their approach to life, the attorneys said. They like order and known quantities, and you know what you'll get in the incumbent. A challenger creates uncertainty, and the entire legal community - attorneys and judges - will react against that uncertainty.

All that said, the real No. 1 reason judges go unchallenged ...

4. Money. Gasiorkiewicz and Herrera will each spend at least $100,000 between now and next April to get elected, with the total election spending probably reaching over a quarter of a million dollars. That's a lot of money for a job that pays $119,000 per year. Unless you have deep pockets, judicial candidates need major contributions to run a countywide election. On a practical level, this is how challengers are kept in check.

It's difficult to raise money in a judicial election, and few, if any, attorneys are going to give money to someone challenging a sitting judge. Actually, they'll probably give money to the sitting judge just to curry favor with the person who may hear their case.

5. Public is uninformed. This last reason I suggested to the attorneys. In my experience, it's difficult, if not impossible, for outsiders to tell if a judge is doing a good job. When I asked the lawyers how they evaluate judges, all four gave a version of this response: "If they rule in my favor on a motion, they're doing a good job. If they rule against me, they're not." It's a joke, but it suggests a problem with judicial elections.

First, criminal courts - arguably the easiest to evaluate - only make up two of Racine County's 10 courts. The others include: Traffic, misdemeanor, misdemeanor and juvenile, juvenile trial court, probate, family and two civil courts. Criminal cases are covered in the newspaper and judges are responsible for sentencing, so there's something to react to.

But how does the public tell if a judge is doing a good job with traffic cases? Or handling divorce cases well? It's difficult, the attorneys said.

"Judges work without observation," one attorney said, adding there's not much difference from one judge to the next. "Only at the margins," they said.

(That said, judges have tendencies, according to the attorneys. For example, Judge Stephen Simanek rarely grants a motion to suppress evidence, one attorney said. "I can't remember the last time Simanek granted a motion to suppress evidence," they said. That's relevant now because former mayor Gary Becker was just in court trying to get evidence suppressed. Simanek ruled against all of the motions. Similarly, there are some judges the District Attorney's office like and others defense attorneys hope for.)

One possible tool to evaluate the technical skills of a judge is how often they're reversed by the court of appeals. But even then, a lawyer said, 90 percent of a judge's decisions are non-reviewable, leaving a small sample size to work with.

Historically, two sources helped inform the public on judicial candidates. One was a survey of the Racine Bar Association's members and the other was The Journal Times. Both have lost effectiveness in recent years, lawyers said.

The bar survey, which would ask lawyers to evaluate candidates, has been watered down and may not happen at all this year, an attorney said. There's a question of whether the survey is an effective, or even appropriate, tool.

"The bar is struggling with that question," the attorney said.

In 2006, the Racine County Bar Association sent out a survey to its members asking them to rate the county's judges. The survey irritated judges, who questioned its intent. Nevertheless, the JT published some of the results. Judges Emily Mueller and Wayne Marik scored the highest on "overall judicial ability" with a 4.2 out of 5 rating. Judges Allan Torhorst and John Jude scored the lowest with 3.3 and 3.5 ratings, respectively.

In 2004, the bar association surveyed members on the five candidates running to replace Vuvunas. Jude, the eventual election winner, received the most votes. Herrera, who advanced through the primary but lost the general election, finished third in the survey.

The attorneys interviewed for this story said it's likely, but no certainty, the bar association will conduct a survey for the spring election.

The other historic filter for judicial elections, The Journal Times, no longer has the clout to sway elections, attorneys said. The paper no longer endorses in elections, and if it did, likely doesn't have enough readers to make an impact.

The issue of informing the public on judicial candidates could become more important in the next two years. After a relatively stable run among Racine County's judges, change may be coming in the next few years. Two, or even three, judges may retire, opening the door for local attorneys to run and the public to shape the makeup of the local courts.

The problem is settling on the important issues for judicial candidates. Candidates really can't talk issues, because they're expected to rule on each case based on existing state law. For example, someone running for the circuit court probably won't talk openly about how they'll enforce drug laws or whether they'll favor the mom or dad in a child custody case. They can't make election promises about how they'll rule from the bench.

Instead, the elections tend to focus on experience, endorsements, name recognition and flat-out campaigning. The attorneys we talked to said coverage of the election should focus on evaluating candidates' claims for experience and the quality of their past work, following the money that fuels their campaigns and trying to assess if the candidates have the "proper temperament" for the job.

One specific question an attorney suggested was to ask candidates if they have any policies they'll enforce from the bench. If the candidate says yes, it should raise flags, the attorney said.

"If they believe as a judge they can accomplish great things as a matter of policy, don't let them anywhere near the bench," an attorney said. "You save souls one at a time."

Somewhere in all this, it's probably worth asking if it's worthwhile to elect judges. The races do little to separate candidates based on legal philosophy, and if they did, there's no way to evaluate whether judges are following through on their campaign promises.

One lawyer interviewed suggested it's best to elect Circuit Court judges so communities maintain local control over the choices. (The alternative would be to have the governor appoint judges, which would shift control away from local governments.) The same lawyer said appellate and Supreme Court justices (all elected) should be appointed to avoid trivial elections that hinge on issues with little relevance to the judges' actual job (ie. the past two Supreme Court elections).

Another lawyer suggested the problem with the current system is circuit court judges are overpaid. In the past, judges were seasoned attorneys toward the end of a respected career. They would serve one, maybe two, terms and retire, opening up seats for other attorneys.

Now, younger attorneys are running to become judges as a way to lock in a high salary and to, basically, secure a job for life, the attorney said. Reducing judges' salaries would reduce the pool of interested candidates - likely to retirement-age attorneys willing to take a pay cut to transition out of their practice - and increase turnover on the bench, they said.

"I'm not going to say (younger candidates) were incompetent," the attorney said. "But they didn't have the experience to be a judge."

The power of incumbency, the fear of reprisal, incredibly expensive elections and no good way to evaluate judges means judicial elections will largely remain a mystery to the public for the foreseeable future. It also means incumbent judges, despite serving at the will of the people, will retain immense power as the guardian of courts that effect thousands of lives every year.

"Politics is not the check on judges," one attorney said about judicial elections.

The good news, at least for now, is Racine County's sitting judges are all good at their jobs, according to the attorneys interviewed.

"There are judges I've disagreed with all the way to the Supreme Court," one attorney said. "But for the most part we have a pretty good set of judges."

Another attorney said the local bar association - arguably the best source for evaluating judges because they work with them daily - takes a serious look at judicial candidates and works to support only qualified attorneys for the job.

"We know the quality of people's work," they said. "We know who is able to pick up on the sophisticated law we're practicing."

But they also hinted the real political battles aren't waged on election day, but within the bar association to gain support from a legal community that can make or break candidates with fundraising, endorsements and word-of-mouth campaigning.

"Who we're going to support gets very political," the attorney said.

September 2, 2009

Mason denounces baseless rumor

State Rep. Cory Mason denounced a rumor that he won't seek re-election.

"I have no plans to retire," said Mason, D-Racine, who is serving his second term in the state Assembly.

The rumor cropped up at a County Board meeting a few weeks back and has shown up on the RacinePost blogs as anonymous comments. We called Mason Wednesday to ask if we'd missed some kind of announcement about his political future.

Mason said he has no idea where the rumor started, but it definitely didn't start with him. He said he hasn't talked to anybody, including his wife, about leaving office in 2010.

The rumor is a classic journalism example of a person having to deny a negative. In journalism classes we call it the, "Do you beat your wife?" question. If the person denies the question, the story is, "So-and-so denies he beats his wife."

In this case, the story would read "Mason denies rumor that he won't seek re-election," a double-negative that reinforces an unfounded assumption.

We only report it here to cut off a rumor that seems to be spreading. Mason wasn't ready Wednesday to declare his candidacy in 2010, but everything he said suggested he'll pursue a third term.

So we're calling the suggestion that Mason won't run for re-election for what it is - an unsourced rumor lacking validity.

Racine's Post Office no longer on closure list

It appears that Racine's post office -- whether the station in Caledonia or the one on Main Street, whichever was in danger in the first place -- has now been spared.

In July, the U.S. Postal Service put the Post Office on Four-Mile Road on a list of 677 facilities it was considering closing. But some reports later said it was the Main Street Post Office that was in danger.

Today, a revised list of only 413 potential closures no longer lists any Racine Post Office.

The new list is here.

The old list is here.

The Postal Service presented the list to the Postal Regulatory Commission; final decisions will be made after Oct. 2, but officials expect no more than 200 facilities to be closed.

The Postal Service operates almost 37,000 facilities. Mail volume will drop by as much as 20 billion pieces in 2009 versus last year, according to the Postal Service, which estimates it will deliver roughly 170 billion pieces of mail. It forecasts a $7 billion loss this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Shorewest buys Savaglio and Cape; What does it mean?

Shorewest dropped a bomb on the local real estate market when it announced Tuesday it had acquired Savaglio and Cape real estate. It's the biggest local merger since First Weber absorbed N. Christensen and Son three years ago, and will undoubtedly change Racine's real estate playing field.

But how?

The biggest change may be Realtors shifting companies rather than going along with the merger, according to one long-time Realtor who works for a competitor of Shorewest and Savaglio and Cape.

While it's unlikely many people will lose their job in the merger, they said, some Realtors may see an opportunity to jump ship. "If they have to learn a new system, they might as well look around," said the Realtor, noting his company likely will talk to some employees caught up in the merger. "It'll be a new animal for people who work for Savaglio Cape."

The Realtor added any merger is "traumatic" for companies involved. But over time any initially hard feelings are worked out. "It's a major adjustment," they said, "but you can come through it."

Gateway googles taxpayer savings

Gateway Technical College came up with a nifty way to save money and, go figure, it involves technology.

The college announced this week it would use Google for its student email system. The email is part of a larger "Google Apps" program that's being implemented this fall. As Gateway explains it:
The change means all information and correspondence such as financial aid notifications, admissions status notifications, student activities announcements and correspondence from instructors will be delivered to Gateway students via e-mail. The Google services are available online from anywhere that a student has Internet access.
Google Apps Education Edition is a free package of Web-based program designed for schools and universities. The Google Apps service provides online document storage, calendar tools, email and messaging, which are all available from any computer connected to the Internet. At least 2,000 schools worldwide have switched to the system.

Gateway student shouldn't notice the switch to the new system, according to the college. Student will use their existing user names and passwords with no interruption in e-mail delivery.

Jeff Robshaw, Gateway Technical College chief information officer and vice president-Learning Innovation Division, said using Google Apps saves money and improves the school's

"To create this capability internally would be extremely cost prohibitive for a taxpayer-supported entity like Gateway," Robshaw said.

A nice benefit for Gateway's IT staff is Google (as opposed to the college itself) hosts all of the computer used to transmit student emails, calendars and messages.

As for Google, they're giving away the applications as part of a "hook 'em while they're young strategy." If they can get students using Google apps, it's likely they'll continue on into adulthood. The company offers free programs for students and teachers from kindergarten through high school and into college.

The Arc of Racine Participating in Vehicle Donation Program

The Arc of Racine is participating with The Arc of the United States in a national vehicle donation program in which 90% of the net proceeds from the auction of the donated vehicles will benefit the local chapter.

Cars, trucks, boats and other vehicles can be donated by visiting The Arc of Racine’s website at www.thearcofracine.org and clicking on the car keys icon. Donors must designate a beneficiary on the donation form, in which they may choose The Arc of Racine. Donations are tax deductible and vehicles can be towed away free of charge. For more information or questions, please call The Arc of Racine at (262) 634-6303.

The Arc of Racine is a non-profit community organization that works to improve the quality of life for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities by: providing information, advocacy and support to help empower people with disabilities and their families to get needed services; educating professionals, community leaders and elected officials to better understand disabilities and best practices; and collaborating with others in the community to make changes in the system.

September 1, 2009

The answer is ... Team Trivia filling local bars

(From left to right) Nick Tabbert, Eric Basaldua and Brad Winter discuss a trivia question Tuesday night during Team Trivia at the San Francisco Grill, 6300 Washington Ave. The three guys were playing under the team name "Car Brad Bass."

It came down to this: What corporation unveiled a new logo in 2005 that would go on to become internationally famous?

a.) Burger King
b.) AFLAC

Tied for first place, we needed the right answer to secure the win. Huddled in a booth at Shilling's Pub on Wisconsin Ave., we debated the King vs. the Gilbert Gottfried-voiced duck. Which came out in 2005? Fairly confident, we submitted our answer to the judge and waited.

* * *

Back up two hours earlier. My wife and I are at Shillings on a Thursday night to see "Team Trivia," an increasingly popular bar game that pits teams together to compete for gift certificates and a chance at a year-end title. The games started in Racine about a year ago are now hosted in 10 Racine-area bars five nights a week.

Based on our time playing, the game works because it gives people something to talk about. We teamed up with a friend and three people we'd never met. After a few awkward introductions, we were debating questions and answers in no time. While some members knew a crank record player from the early 1900s was a Victrola phonograph (I had no idea), others remembered a reality show to pick the new lead singer of INXS. Everyone brought something.

We weren't alone in discovering teamwork. The bar was packed with at least 14 teams of varying numbers - one guy played alone, while other teams had six or members - whispering about the 100 Years War and trying to place an obscure lyric from a Third Eye Blind song. (Photo-Right: A team playing trivia at the San Francisco Grill on Tuesday night.)

The games, presented by Team Trivia Wisconsin, include 20 questions on a variety of topics. Teams reach a consensus answer and then bid points on how confident they are that they're right. At the end, the team with the most points wins the game, and usually a gift certificate from the hosting bar.

Teams can also register to join the Team Trivia league, which keeps track of teams' points throughout the season. At the end of the season, the teams with the highest point totals over 20 games (teams can play at any participating Racine bar during the week) are invited to a final game to compete for $1,000 in prizes.

Local bars that host games include: Shillings, Evelyn's, George's, McAuliffe's on the Square and McAuliffe's Pub, San Francisco Grill, Jose's Blue Sombrero, Chat's and Michigan's Pub.

The bars hire Team Trivia Wisconsin, which is a national franchise, to run games as a draw for customers on slower nights. The company has won over local bars. A year after moving into Racine, Team Trivia runs games at two bars in Racine on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and at four bars in Racine and Kenosha on Thursdays.

A team member submits an answer to Phil, the host at the San Francisco Grill on Tuesday night.

Jason Bennett, who was hired a year ago when Team Trivia broke into Racine, said the games draw at least 50 people a night. They really took off in Racine this summer, drawing big crowds throughout the week, he said.

"It's a chance to go out, have a fun and win a prize," Bennett said. "Everyone seems to be a fan."

The Team Trivia company, based in Atlanta and started 20 years ago, offers a slick setup for the trivia games. Bennett actually refers to the games as "shows," which is a good description. Along with the straight-up trivia, he plays music between questions, announces funny (usually wrong) answers and keeps tabs on the standings.

Bennett runs the shows off of a laptop that spits out questions, records answers and tallies league results. A college graduate, he fell into the job last year after he couldn't find work. It was a lucky break. Along with enjoying the work (he gets paid to hangout in bars), he's had success in adding new places and expanding the company's reach in Racine and Kenosha.

"It's become more full-time than I expected," Bennett said about the job. "I can't complain."

From his perspective, Bennett said the games create a "talking point" people seem to enjoy. Discussing a trivia question can lead to a story or a joke that brings everyone closer together. In at least once instance, he said, a couple met playing trivia and has been dating for six months.

"The questions lead to great conversation," he said. "In a bar setting people like to talk."

Team Trivia Wisconsin is spreading throughout the state. After starting in Milwaukee, the company now runs games in Madison, Eau Claire and Green Bay, along with Racine and Kenosha.

* * *

Heading into that final question, our team was tied for first with 63 points. We'd only missed three answers all night and victory was in our grasp. We bid the max number of points on the final question and settled on the Burger King King as the logo introduced in 2005. The AFLAC duck has been around forever, right?

Wrong.

It was a trick question. The Aflac duck was introduced in 1999, but the company adopted the duck as its logo in 2005.

The wrong answer sent our team tumbling from first to 11th place. It was a disappointing outcome, but hardly ruined the night. The game was fun and we left Shillings with some new friends. All in all, a good time.

About Team Trivia

If you want to play Team Trivia, visit www.teamtriviawi.com and find tonight's location. Then just show up before the game, register your team and you're ready to go.

If you want to join the Team Trivia fall league, register on the Team Trivia website and take the number to the game host.

One hint: Team Trivia provides one free answer a night on its website. So if you're heading out to play, go online first and get the answer ahead of time to get a head start on the competition.

Another hint: Some nights hosts give out a prize for the funniest/most creative team name.

Last hint: Bennett said teams with large numbers aren't necessarily the most competitive. Lots of members means lots of opinions and not necessarily the right answer. A two-member team won the Summer League's $750 first prize, and one guy has won several weekly games, Bennett said.

Team Trivia Location in Racine

Sunday - McAuliffe's Pub, 3700 Meachem Rd.

Monday - Jose's Blue Sombrero, 6430 Washington Ave; Evelyn's Club Main, 331 Main St.

Tuesday - The San Francisco Grill, 6300 Washington Ave.; McAuliffe's on the Square, 213 6th St.

Wednesday - McAuliffe's Pub, 3700 Meachem Rd.; Michigan's Pub, 1300 Michigan Blvd.

Thursday - Shillings Irish Pub, 611 Wisconsin Ave.; George's Tavern, 1201 N. Main St.

Saturday - Chats at the Racine Marriott, 7111 Washington Ave.

Ryan gets an earful at listening session

Kelly Gallaher asks Ryan for an apology

Rep. Paul Ryan got an earful at his listening session Tuesday.

Before the session was barely 15 minutes old he had been scolded by Community for Change member Kelly Gallaher and Iraqi war protester Miles Kristan.

Although the session was ostensibly for African-American issues, the audience of barely 40 was more than three-quarters white. The meagre crowd at the Douglas Avenue Flatiron Mall was a far contrast to previous Ryan listening sessions that overflowed the available space in much larger halls.

Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, started it off by calling on a surprised Gallaher who, when she found her rhythm, declared him guilty of "abuse of power" in the incident in which one of her emails to Community for Change members was faxed from Ryan's office to conservatives across the country -- bringing her a torrent of hate mail and phone calls.

""You did this for political reasons," Gallaher told Ryan; "You lit a fire that blew them toward me. It all came from your office. I want an apology."

Ryan only gave her a partial one. "Do I regret that these things happened to you? Yes," he said. But he added, "You're a spokesperson for a partisan organization" and one that threatened "to overwhelm" the listening sessions. Ryan defended the dissemination of Gallaher's email this way: "We were asked if we had knowledge of organizations trying to overwhelm the listening sessions. Yes..."

"I am sorry these things happened to you. I feel bad about that." But, "this is an issue people feel strongly about. I want people to come, individuals. We don't want partisan organizations to overwhelm these sessions."

At one point during his response, Gallaher attempted to break in, and Ryan said, "Don't interrupt, or I'll have to ask you to leave." That garnered a few boos from the crowd. After a few more minutes, he said, "We've already spent 12 minutes to give you the chance to speak your mind," and tried to turn the session to African-American concerns.

A black woman asked a question about getting help from the Racine County District Attorney's office, which Ryan said "is not a level of government I have control over."

Miles Kristan being escorted out of the session

The next question came from a white man, Miles Kristan, who asked, "Do you regret your vote on WMDs and Iraq?"

Ryan said, "I regret the way the war was prosecuted," and said "the administration made a couple of colossal blunders," referring to the disbanding of the Iraqi army and Baathification, which removed from office anyone who had served under Saddam Hussein. "The bad decisions made in spring of 2003...what I regret are the immediate aftermath of those."

Ryan referred to the present "success," crediting the surge. "The results are wonderful," he said: no genocide, no atrocities, women holding office. "Wonderful things are happening."

The session moved on to other issues at that point, but Kristan revived his objections to Ryan's votes in favor of the war toward the end of the session, calling the Congressman a "scumbag" and a "fascist" before Racine Police Chief Kurt Wahlen and two officers escorted him from the mall, his hands raised in the air as though being arrested, although he was merely told to go away. Previously, he had been kicked out of last week's Roma Lodge listening session as well.

Eventually, there were questions from African Americans, although the issues tended to concern all Americans. Craig Oliver, left, made the point when he asked/stated: "I thought we were all in this together. Not one health plan for black people and a different one for white people."

Ryan responded by giving the origin of these annual sessions: "Ken Lumpkin (former County Board supervisor -- who has just announced his intention to run for office again) said, 'Let's have a session for the African American community. I hope you're not offended that I thought Ken Lumpkin had a good idea."

Tessa Brown, a social worker, right, asked Ryan, "What can we do about the infant mortality and teen pregnancy rates," which are higher in Racine than anywhere else in Wisconsin. Ryan agreed the problem is severe and suggested she seek money from federal block grants, "which work pretty effectively." Brown said she had applied for these funds, which are oversubscribed, and noted that state funds have been cut. "We don't have the resources, so how do I do it?"

Ryan didn't have an answer, but said, "Let me do some more research, see if there are more resources." Alderman Jim Kaplan stood to say that the Racine Board of Health is also working on the issue, thanks to a state grant obtained by Rep. Cory Mason.

It was now about halfway through the 90-minute session and Keith Fair asked Ryan: "Do you believe that President Obama was born in the U.S.?" "Yes," said Ryan.

Fair then asked what Ryan's position is in response to the poor, and Ryan launched into his slide show presentation on the health care debate -- for what must have been the 18th time this week. "Health care costs are a huge issue," he said, adding, "The problem, Keith, is that we're not ready for the baby boomers. It's ugly stuff; if we don't reform it, costs will go through the roof."

After he got back to questions, David Corey noted that "the biggest health care facility in Kenosha is the jail. Your record is not very supportive of the poor," he told Ryan, mentioning Blackwater and other Iraq war spending. Returning to health care, he said: "You have excellent coverage (as a member of Congress); why can't we get it?"

Ryan replied, "I agree. Members of Congress should be in the same program as other Americans. That's fundamental."

He said he's been very careful of the language he's used, and said, "To say this (Obama's) bill 'has death panels and rationing'... I think that's going overboard. But do I think the bill will lead us down that path? Absolutely yes."

Ryan said Obama is "advocating a modification of the Hippocratic Oath," ("Above all, do no harm.") That generally refers solely to the patient, Ryan said, but "I also worry about society in general and the effect costs can have."

"If this (the current bill) doesn't pass, my hope is that bipartisan cooperation occurs... Look, I'm not saying this hasn't happened before," he said. "Democrats have decided to go it alone because they have the votes."

Mason to lead Talgo here to look for plant sites

State Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, will lead representatives from Spanish train manufacturer Talgo on a Racine-area tour of potential sites for its new Wisconsin train car assembly facility on Tuesday, Sept. 15.

Gov. Doyle announced in July that the State of Wisconsin had entered into a partnership with Talgo to build and put into service two14-car trains for use on the Milwaukee-Chicago Hiawatha run. The $47 million contract calls for the establishment of maintenance and assembly facilities in Wisconsin.

As soon as the agreement was announced, Mason invited Talgo to tour Racine and initiated conversations with Racine Mayor John Dickert, other local elected officials, and Racine County economic development professionals to identify potential assembly facilities that would meet the company’s needs.

Rep. Mason, a commissioner on the Racine Redevelopment Authority, noted, “The Talgo partnership with the state creates an important opportunity to bring jobs to Racine. It will also bring us closer to the development of high speed rail, plugging Racine into the region and serving as a key component of our community’s economic development and growth.”

Rep. Mason continued, “Though numerous southeastern Wisconsin communities are competing to be the site of Talgo’s assembly facility, I fully believe that Racine has the complete package Talgo is seeking to jumpstart its Wisconsin operations. In addition to attractive, available manufacturing sites on rail spurs and local businesses with extensive train experience, we’ve also got workers trained for the kind of 21st Century jobs Talgo aims to create. I am optimistic that we will be able to show Talgo firsthand the numerous benefits of selecting Racine for its new assembly facility,” he said.

August 31, 2009

Op-Ed: Health care's hidden agenda: The Big Lie

By Randolph D. Brandt

It dawned on me when people started calling Barack Obama a Nazi.

He’s a black man, for God’s sake; by definition, he can’t be a Nazi. It’s like calling a Jew a Nazi – an oxymoron.

But only a moron would fail to realize what’s really going on here, and I’m sure Obama realized it from the first day – a lifetime’s experience taught him to recognize it – but yet he can’t say it.

No, then he’d be “playing the race card.”

A lot of people hate Barack Obama because he’s black. Worse, he’s a black man who’s no longer in his place, and by that I mean he’s president of the United States.

If that’s not, not in his place, then nothing is.

Just as Barack Obama cannot acknowledge this conundrum, neither can his opponents because then they’d be, well, racists.

But whenever I see a whole lot of false accusations, wildly exaggerated claims, scary foreshadowings of doom and scapegoating, I recognize The Big Lie.

As Joseph Goebbels knew, if you say it often enough, even otherwise reasonable people will begin to believe it.

Ironically, in this turnabout, it’s the object of The Big Lie who’s accused of a big lie.

There’s not enough difference between the Democrats’ health-care reform plan and the Republicans’ health-care reform plan to justify the kind of hatred that’s being spewed out all over this country right now.

As they say, it’s never really about what it’s about.

In this instance, it’s about putting Barack Obama back in his place.
_________
Randolph D. Brandt is the retired editor of The Journal Times.

Eating Out: Gus's Gyros delivers; Cafe Celeste up and running

Say what you want about his development plans, Tom Tousis and his father, Gus, can run a restaurant. The Tousis family is well known in Racine for running a string of successful restaurants including Andrea's, Gibson's, Ritzy's and Athens Gyros.

You can add Gus's Gyros to the list. We wrote about the new restaurant, located on the north side at Douglas Ave. and Goold St. (next door to the Better Day BP), when it was opening earlier this summer. I finally got to go back for lunch and can vouch for their gyros and fries, which are both among the best in town. The basic gyro, called the "1978," is a bargain at $4.99. Half was enough for lunch with the rest to go. The meat was good (I rank it above the gyros at this year's Greek Fest) and was stuffed into the pita.

The fries are handcut onsite and deep fried with a little salt. They're the best straight-up fry I've had in Racine. A regular order goes for $1.59 and is enough for 2-3 people.

The rest of the menu includes a nice variety of basic sandwiches for all tastes. Grilled cheese, hot dogs and hamburgers are included, along with four types of gyros. (You can see the menu here.)

The restaurant itself is spotless and attractive with a throwback look with lots of chrome and shiny surfaces. It's worth checking out for lunch or dinner, or just a quick carryout. If you dine in, the restaurant includes a small bar and beer on tap. (Above-right: Saganaki burning on the stove. Tousis didn't include the fried cheese on the original menu, but is planning to add it because of customers' requests.)

Tousis opened Gus's in July. He's working on a second, larger restaurant in West Racine as part of a larger development that includes a grocery store and gas station. Tousis has collected signatures of support from the West Racine neighborhood and is now preparing to submit the plan to the city for approval.

The project could be controversial because the site, located at Washington Ave. an West Blvd. is prime real estate for the neighborhood, even though the lot has sat empty for several years.

The City Council rejected a 55-unit low-income housing proposal for the site last year.

New cafe

Cafe Celeste is the latest coffee shop to inhabit the uniquely shaped space at 619 Wisconsin Ave., located next door to Shillings. The beautifully decorated cafe had a soft opening two weeks ago and is now getting up and running. It features healthy and holistic foods (I had a great "macrobiotic" cookie the other day) along with Alterra coffee, a wide selection of teas and shots of wheatgrass.

The cafe is owned by Ben Lehner, Dan Lehner and Kathryn Bencriscutto, who designed the interior to give an early 1900s feel. The building itself was a former alleyway for horses and carriages before someone realized they could turn the space into a building.

We'll have more on Cafe Celeste (including photos) as they get rolling, and have high hopes that they'll stick around awhile and recapture the Courthouse crowd the old Daily Grind successfully courted in that location, as well as new customers looking for a unique menu and experience.

Odds & Ends

A few sentences on restaurants around town:
  • No word yet on the future of Blueberries, the liberally conscious eatery in the former Century Market building. The owners shutdown for the summer/road construction season with plans to open in a new building.
  • Speaking of the Century Market, there are some cool plans in the works for that building. More on that soon.
  • It was too bad to see Timothy York's Bistro shut down last week. Here's hoping another chef can move in and create a "Waves"-esque place in the handsome Sixth St. building.
  • Henry & Wanda's is advertising a new kitchen and menu on the front of their building. I'm looking forward to checking it out.
  • Same goes for Grumpy's Grub on Lathrop and John's Dock in the former Sandpiper's on Dodge St. along the river.
  • Gerald Bester's plans for the former bank on Washington Ave. keeps rolling along. He's hoping to open "Gerald's" in the spring.

DA won't charge mayor, aldermen for secret meeting violation

District Attorney Mike Nieskes will not pursue a violation of the open meetings law against Mayor John Dickert, City Attorney Rob Weber and five members of the Racine City Council.

In a letter (full text below) to Pete Karas, who filed the complaint with the DA's office, Nieskes rejected Karas' arguments and criticized him for bringing the alleged violation to the attention of the media.
... when we met for the first time on August 5, 2009, you indicated to me that you had already been to the media at that time. This caused me to question your statement that you were interested in open and informed government. If you were truly interested in that process, I believe you should at the minimum give law enforcement the opportunity to review those matters prior to giving an interview to the press.
Karas said Monday he was disappointed, but not surprised, by Nieskes' ruling.

"I had a feeling the DA wouldn't do his duty to defend open government," he said. "... it certainly appears his decision not to go forward was a political decision."

(Read the JT's version of the story here.)

With Nieskes declining to pursue charges, Karas is now allowed to file his complaint directly with a Racine County judge. Karas said he met with an attorney who specializes in open meetings cases and is considering his options. He also intends to monitor city government for further violations.

Karas' complaint dates back to a July 7 meeting of the city's Executive Committee, which met in closed session to discuss City Administrator Tom Friedel's contract. The committee gave public notice of the meeting less than 24 hours in advance of the start time, held a quorum of the full City Council and gave no specifics about what would be discussed at the meeting.

City officials defended the meeting saying they could call an "emergency meeting" to discuss Friedel's contract, which allowed them to bypass the requirement for 24-hour notice of a public meeting.

Nieskes dismissed the quorum argument without addressing the fact that enough members of the council attended the Executive Committee meeting for it, basically, to be considered a City Council meeting. He simply said the Executive Committee and City Council, which met right after the committee meeting, were separate bodies. State law forbids the City Council from meeting twice within 12 hours.

As for notification, Nieskes said the city didn't need to give specifics about what would be discussed the meeting. Nieskes wrote in his letter that Dickert didn't want media to attend because "no final decision had been made as to who was chosen for the job." Dickert announced he had chosen Friedel for the job on June 25 - nearly two weeks before the July 7 meeting.

The ironic aspect of this issue is the meeting backfired on Dickert. The new mayor hoped to build consensus on the issue before the council's vote on Friedel's contract, but questions still emerged from the secret meeting.

Alderman Jeff Coe, feeling trapped by the council's rules, took the unusual step on July 22 using the council's public comment period to suggest the committee had agreed to pay Friedel $85,000 per year, only to later learn (after the vote) that Friedel was making $95,000 per year.

If Dickert and the council had simply met in open session, hashed out a deal and moved forward, none of this confusion would have happened. It's much easier to govern in the sunshine than in the shadows.

Here's Nieskes' full letter:


August 26, 2009
Mr. Pete Karas
821 Blame Avenue
Racine, WI 53405


Dear Sir:
On August 6, 2009, you filed a complaint under the Open Meeting statute 19.84, regarding the Public Notice of Meetings of Governmental bodies. Your allegations were
that a meeting of the Executive Committee on July 7, 2009, in the City of Racine, was in violation of those statutes and asked that a portion of the individuals attending the meeting be held responsible and a forfeiture action to recover a penalty against them be initiated. You had come to this office on the previous day, had a discussion with me regarding the complaint; when various errors in the complaint were pointed out, you were asked whether or not you wanted an investigation to begin or wait until you filed a complaint. You indicated you would be filing a complaint in the future. I informed you that I would begin my legal review of the materials promptly. That afternoon there were conversations with a lawyer from the Attorney General’s staff. We reviewed specifically the provisions of Chapter 19.84(3) which require notice of any governmental body be given at least 24 hours prior to the commencement of said meeting unless for good cause, such notice is impossible or impractical, in which case a shorter notice may be given, but in no case may the notice of the meeting be provided in less than 2 hours in advance of
the meeting.

The next day, I requested that an investigator from the Sheriff’s Department review these matters and conduct an investigation. Later that day, the verified complaint was received at my office with the corrections that we discussed being included.
The following is my accurate summary of the matter:

On July 6, 2009, Mayor John Dickert asked his Administrative Assistant Greg Bach to
notify aldermen if they had questions about the issue of appointment of the City
Administrator that he would be in his office at 5:30 until 7:00 p.m. on July 7th to discuss this matter.

At approximately 4:58 p.m. on that day, Mr. Bach sent an email to the aldermen indicating there would be a “meeting” in the Mayor’s office.

Mayor Dickert states that he had discussed the matter with the City Attorney. Mayor Dickert said City Attorney Weber advised the meeting needed to be noticed and there
was a discussion about the meeting being closed. Mayor Dickert, when interviewed by
the investigator stated that he wanted to include the aldermen in the process of electing a new city administrator but did not have to and desired to have their input. He stated he also did not want the media at the meeting as no final decision had been made as to who was chosen for the job and therefore asked for the meeting to be closed.

Alderman David Maack responded at approximately 9:48 p.m., on July 6, 2009, that given the nature of Greg Bach’s email that this meeting needed to be noticed.

City Attorney Rob Weber states, based on David Maack’s email that on July 7, 2009, at 8:58 p.m., he informed the Deputy Clerk to notice the meeting to be as a closed meeting of the Executive Council beginning at 5:30. The purpose of being in closed session was to discuss a personnel matter, an exemption under the statute for having a meeting in closed session.

A meeting was held of the Executive Council of which a number of members of the City Council attended including the Mayor. The meeting was in closed session.

Mr. Karas, you complain about three violations. First, is that it was improperly posted as an emergency meeting. Under Wis. Stats. Chapter 19, there is no use of the phrase “emergency meeting.” Under 19.84(3), a partial quote reads: “Unless for good cause, such notice is impossible or impractical, in which case shorter notice may be given, but in no case may the notice be provided less than 2 hours in advance of the meeting.”

Here it appears that when the oversight was determined based upon the email of Alderperson Maack, the meeting was noticed at that point, it was impossible to give it notice of 24 hours or greater, and still held the meeting. In my review with the Assistant Attorney General, there is no Wisconsin case law or opinions by the Attorney General on the definition of this portion of the statute regarding impractical and impossible, nor is there any definitions of what qualifies it as an emergency. While the better practice would have been to postpone the discussion until a point where the 24-hour notice could have been given, inasmuch as the Mayor and members of the City Council were acting upon the advice of counsel in how to handle this matter at that point, I cannot believe that a forfeiture matter would prevail. The lack of direction by prior case law, by opinions of the Attorney General, and the fact that the individuals’ counsel was consulted and determined the course of action, demonstrates that all the individuals acted in good faith in holding of the meeting.

Therefore, it is the determination of the District Attorney’s Office that there is no action that lies on this issue.

Your next complaint is that violation does not properly notice the discussion. As I stated previously, it is an exemption from the Open Meetings portion of the statute that personnel matters can be discussed in closed sessions pursuant to Chapter 19.85(1 )(c). I believe the description that is found in the minutes posted albeit before 9:00 a.m. on the morning of the meeting on July 7, 2009, accurately described the subject matter. The subject matter is, “It is intended the Executive Committee will convene in closed session pursuant to Wis. Stat. Sec. 19. 85(1)(c) to consider the employment compensation of the public employee over which the common Council has jurisdiction or exercise ability.” By my reading and my review with the Assistant Attorney General, that is an adequate notification. To have further information would erase the allowable purpose of closed session matters. Therefore, I cannot find there was a violation of the Open Meetings statute pursuant to that matter.

The final complaint is the two meetings were one body within 12 hours. If the argument is that these are actually one meeting of the Common Council occurring in closed and open sessions of each other, I find that that allegation has no basis in fact. These are two separate meetings of two separate bodies. The fact the bodies have overlapping members do not make it a meeting of one body.

Based on my review and findings, there is no basis for a prosecution for a forfeiture
action against any of the individuals and none will be filed by this office. In addition, I feel I must comment on two matters regarding this complaint. First, as the complainant you have acknowledged to me that you knew of other individuals who attended your alleged improper meeting, but you were electing not to file a complaint against them. I am somewhat disappointed that you would pick and choose only certain attendees to pursue any action against. I don’t know the basis for your selective complaint, but I do not believe it would be an appropriate action if this office had engaged in the same sort of behavior. Second, is my disappointment that when we met for the first time on August 5, 2009, you indicated to me that you had already been to the media at that time. This caused me to question your statement that you were interested in open and informed government. If you were truly interested in that process, I believe you should at the minimum give law enforcement the opportunity to review those matters prior to giving an interview to the press. While a review by the press is an important component to an open government with an informed electorate, I believe these actions call into question your actual motives.

Sincerely,


MICHAEL E. NIESKES
Racine County District Attorney

cc
John Dickert, Mayor, City of Racine, City Hall, 730 Washington Ave., Racine, WI 53403
Greg Helding, Alderperson, City of Racine, City Hall, 730 Washington Ave., Racine, WI
53403
Aron Wisneski, Alderperson, City of Racine, City HaIl, 730 Washington Ave., Racine,
WI
Sandy Weidner, Alderperson, City of Racine, City Hall, 730 Washington Ave., Racine,
WI 53403
James Spangenberg, Alderperson, City of Racine, City Hall, 730 Washington Ave.,
Racine, WI 53403
Rob Weber, City Attorney, City Hall, 730 Washington Ave., Racine, WI 53403

2009 Racine Bike Jam


We're a few days late with these, but here are some photos from the 2009 Bike Jam on Saturday at the Pershing Park Skate Park in Racine. The 12th annual event was organized by Kuko Padilla, the Racine native who has been maintaining the park (often spending his own money to do so) since it opened in 1998. To get an idea of Padilla's relationship to the park, the 35-year-old and his wife Becky were married on top of one of the skate ramps. Becky and Kuko were at the Bike Jam on Saturday grilling food and running the small concession stand. It was a great day ... congratulations to Padilla on another successful jam!

Here are some photos from Saturday afternoon: