Monday, December 17, 2007

Waukesha Again, And Again, Forms Its Water Policies In Secret

When it comes to water policy-making, Waukesha is about as transparent as the Kremlin.

Last year, I discovered, through an open records request, two confidential applications to Gov. Jim Doyle for permission to divert up to 24 million gallons daily from Lake Michigan to Waukesha, without any requirement to return the water to the lake.

I published my findings on, with a link to the applications in pdf format. You can access the column and file, here.

The Governor did not approve the requests, which would have constituted an end-run around a 1986 federal law and a US-Canada agreement which Doyle had signed, but which Wisconsin has yet to implement.

Waukesha governmental bodies routinely go into closed session to discuss water planning - - its Water Utility did it again at its November meeting - - agenda here - - and tomorrow night, its Common Council is set to do the same thing, according to today's Waukesha Freeman:

"The common council, which will meet at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, will be dealing with water issues, the proposed expansion of the Waukesha Public Library and looking for a better way to run its annual budget meeting.

"The council will go into closed session, Mayor Larry Nelson said, to discuss with legal counsel the radium compliance order by the state Department of Natural Resources.

"Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility, said the city met last week with the DNR and the closed session will serve as an update for the council members on the progress the city is making to comply with radium standards."

Waukesha has spent, and continues to pay out, hundreds of thousands of dollars on consultants to craft water policy planning, including a likely application for Lake Michigan water.

Sources indicate that Waukesha's thinking, shared with and vetted by the DNR, involves some return of diverted water to Lake Michigan down the Root River, and some permanent water discharge away from Lake Michigan to the Fox River and Mississippi River water shed.

It is unclear whether such a plan would win the mandatory approval of all eight Great Lakes Governors - - the procedure that the utility's confidential applications in 2005 tried to skirt.

Waukesha's stable of consultants include lawyers, scientists, and the public relations form of Martin J. Schreiber & Associates, not to mention recent contracts with a professional fundraiser to shake the Congressional money tree, and a PR firm in Washington, DC, created by by former Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour.

A lot of public money goes into this planning, and federal funds flow back into the utility's budgets, but when it comes to telling the public what's going on, the council and utility prefer closed sessions.

Waukesha leaders have complained about what they perceive is unfair criticism in some quarters for their water planning practices and intentions, but their methods and penchant for closed-door meetings and back-door tactics raise more questions than answers.


Jim Bouman said...

On Nov.14th, at the last meeting of the Waukesha Water Utility Commission, two citizens attended (It required getting up before dawn (7:00am)to be there in time to speak up as a ratepayer or resident).

I spoke up. I asked the Commission to stop meeting in secret on the subject of "water supply options", just as I have asked several times in the past.

The Commission President, Daniel Warren (whose day job is "Development Manager" of Pabst Farms, in case you're wondering whether the leader of the Utility is somebody who knows a good plan when he sees it) did get a little hot under the collar when it came time to discuss the motion to close the session. He claimed to "feel umbrance" over my questioning his integrity.

The time for public comment was past; I had no right to speak. So I kept my mouth shut.

But, if I had been able to speak I would have said:

"Only one person in this room has ever been cited by the District Attorney of Waukesha for violation of Wisconsin's Open Meetings Law. Cited and FINED for the offense.
That person is Daniel Warren, President of this Water Utility Commission"

"Umbrance" indeed.
* * *

The Business of the Waukesha Water Utility is the Public’s Business.

Mayor Larry Nelson, in the 19 months he has had the power to appoint four of the five members of the Water Utility Commission (as well as one seat at the table for himself), has been consistent in his replies to questions about what the Commission was planning on the subject of diverting Lake Michigan Water to the City of Waukesha: “No decision has been made. We are exploring all the options. When a direction is chosen it will have to be discussed by the City Council and is subject to their power to approve any plan. That will be the time for public input.”

On Nov. 14th, the Commission met at 7:00 am, a time when most Waukesha adults are either brushing and flossing or heading to work. On the agenda were about twenty items, large and small. Two appeared to be critically important to the public:
1. Approval of the 2008 Water Utility Budget.
2. A plan to evict the public from the room and go into a closed session, “Pursuant to Sec 19.85 (1) (e) & (g), Wisconsin Statutes, to discuss strategy relative to our long term water options, as well as radium compliance, with legal counsel”.
And, indeed they did vote unanimously to exclude the citizens/ratepayers and meet in secret. Commissioner Greg Zinda: "Aye". Commissioner Alderman Peggy Bull: "Aye". Commissioner Mayor Larry Nelson: "Aye". Commission President Daniel Warren: "Aye". Commissioner Gerald Couri: Absent.
So they met. And the public still doesn't know what they're up to. Except, they gave us a hint. More than a hint. Their downtown lawyer from Reinhart Boerner, Francis Gallo, hadn't arrived by the time the closed meeting agenda item came up. So, they skipped ahead to a review of budgetary stuff—pages of spreadsheets and detailed budgets for each Utility Department.

Perhaps inadvertently, tucked into seventy pages of figures we found, under a heading called "2008 Significant Budget Items," part of an executive summary provided by the Commission's accountant, Peggy Steeno:
“New Water Supply Investigation/Plan:
Included in this item are the consulting services to continue to assist the Utility with its investigation into a new water supply. The assumptions with this item are that an application for Great Lakes water will be submitted for review in early 2008. This item includes the support necessary to achieve development and approval of the application and initiate the negotiations with a wholesale provider. The current estimate for these services in 2008 is $300,000.”

Diversion of water from Lake Michigan is not something that the public has any information on, nor do the time-lines imply that they will have much to say about it.

It is a done deal. And it appears that it became a done deal through a two-year series of closed meetings, first among the members of the Water Utility Commission and continuing in a parallel series of closed meeting of the Commission with the City Council.

Citizens of Waukesha are encouraged to come to the meeting of the Waukesha Water Utility Commission scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 20 at 5:30 pm. At the Water Utility Building, next to City Hall. Address the Commission, as is your right. City residents and customers need to be present at the start of the meeting. The first order of business is public comment. Make clear to the Commissioners that the public’s business is to be done IN PUBLIC.

Oh! About the budget. Remember the 17% increase in water rates that Mayor Nelson and his Water Utility Commission just put in place several months ago? Well, they are already planning another double digit increase which they discussed at the November meeting. The request for another big bite out of the ratepayers—probably in the area of 19%--will come at the end of 2008. Somebody has to pay the tab for the $300,000 for all those consultants they are going to hire beginning in two weeks.

Come to the meeting. Insist on an open discussion of these important matters. Make your opinion known.

The Public’s business must be done in public, not in secret.

James Rowen said...

Thanks to Jim Bouman for that account of the meeting.

It'd be an interesting question to pose to a judge: does a 7 a.m. meeting in a small conference room constitute a public meeting?

And even if it did, technically, what does the scheduling and format say about the intent and outcome?

The City of Waukesha is its own worst enemy when it comes to how the public perceives it.

Which starts because of how the city and especially its water utility perceive its public and ratepayers: donors, but certainly not participants.

Continuing my initial Russian/Kremlin analogy, serfs.