Saturday, March 22, 2008

SEWRPC Makes The Case For Its Own Demise. II

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission defied and poisoned its taxpayer-paid public planning mission when it completed three weeks of secret efforts with Thursday's closed-door selection of its next Executive Director, Kenneth Yunker.

[Note: this posting has been updated since 3/20, and is being reposted as a second take, II]

The agency's Executive Committee, an unelected arm of the unelected 21-member full commission, made the decision.

The committee makes up the inner-circle of a closed loop.

Not accountable through elections or normal political procsses, the committee shuttered itself in SEWRPC's Pewaukee office building's off-limits conference room, made the appointment, turned the final contract details over to an even more-obscure subcommittee and headed off to a holiday weekend while the news filtered out to the serfs who gathered a safe distance from the castle walls.

And "filtered out" is fair comment on the way the Journal Sentinel reported the agency's decision - - during what was ironically during the mainstream media's "Sunshine Week."

As it has done previously with some SEWRPC reporting, the paper carried a full account of the hiring decision in the paper's relatively small Waukesha edition's front page of the B, or local section.

That suggests the paper considers SEWRPC primarily of interest just in Waukesha County, not equally across the full seven-county region, or in Milwaukee County, which pays the largest share of the SEWRPC budget's operating funds each year.

In the main edition which includes Milwaukee, a briefer version of the story was placed by the paper in a metro section column of news bits inside on B-2, not far from "Easter egg hunt is rescheduled" in Germantown.

Yunker has been the agency's Deputy, so is being moved up administratively to the agency's directorship without a single public meeting, hearing, advertised search or interview procedure to justify the selection.

What a lost opportunity to bring the agency into the 21st century - - a matter I began to lay out here a couple of months ago once I began to hear that Evenson wanted out and a once-in-a-generation chance for SEWRPC change began looming.

Oddly, the Executive Committee made Yunker's appointment effective in January, 2009 - - so if there is more than eight months left in current Executive Director Phil Evenson's tenure, what was the rush to nail down Yunker's selection, and wasn't there ample time to search the country for candidates?

It's as if the agency wanted to make sure no one could force it to do a search, or gather local input, thus firmly isolating the new Executive Director from the outside world.

Talk about being sent out into a wider community already distrustful of government, and cynical about SEWRPC, yet completely stripped of credibility.

Once SEWRPC's intentions to choose and promote Yunker behind closed doors were made known - - in part through several postings on this blog - Evenson told the Journal Sentinel that the agency wasn't required to have a public process.

Which speaks volumes about how this 100% publicly-funded, seven-county planning agency functions, how it sees itself relative to the people who pay its bills. how far behind the times it really is.

There are libraries and archives galore at SEWRPC, but someone has snipped the words "disclosure" and "transparency " and "participation" from its dictionaries.

Two conservative bloggers have taken note of its questionable process, or lack of it, in picking Evenson's successor.

Chris Lato, here.

And James Widgerson, here.

Examples abound beyond the way the agency chose to bar the public from SEWRPC leadership selection.

SEWRPC finds it easy to shelve public comment through what planning professionals call "react and dismiss," in this case, the unanimously-recorded objections by citizens to fast-tracked highway spending for a special interchange to service a Pabst Farms' shopping center in western Waukesha County.

And it acquired its $4 million office building from one its favorite consulting firms without competitive bids - - details here - - a clear example of SEWRPC telling the taxpayers who pay its bills that the agency prefers to behave like a private business that makes its own rules .
I've argued for years that SEWRPC, by its actions, operates more like a special interest organization, like a suburban Chamber of Commerce, as opposed to a genuine public agency.

It pushes highway building for road contractors, and aids farmland conversion in the suburbs and exurbs for developers who also want roads for home buyers (not apartment dwellers).

That'll be the ultimate payoff in its three-year regional water supply study, another insider-dominated SEWRPC effort.

Close to a conclusion, that study will recommend - - its lead consultant is the same firm that sold SEWRPC its headquarters, and is also advising New Berlin on its Lake Michigan diversion application - - surprise! - -wide use of Lake Michigan water throughout the region, distributed by a new regional water authority, perhaps SEWRPC itself, or an agency it helps to create.

For the road-builders, developers, sprawl-seeking municipalities add SEWRPC's staff and consultants, the water supply study recommendations (which through more behind-the-scenes governmental alchemy become policy - - just you watch), will produce the regional rainbow's perpetual pot of gold.

So this is the right time for the counties, virtually mandated to pay SEWRPC's operating costs through a quiet property tax shift every year, to bring those payments to a close on behalf of the everyday taxpayers who gets nothing in return except the back of SEWRPC's hand.

Just strip those payments - - $2 million a year from the seven counties total - - out of the 2009 budget plans and either dedicate those dollars to another project - - pothole filling, perhaps, or just return them to the taxpayers who have been ripped off by SEWRPC long enough.

SEWRPC wants to behave like a private firm, then let it go out into the marketplace and fight for funding like the real private sector.

If it can raise the money, then it can go about producing studies and pitching them into the public square and see if anyone wants to buy in. We'll see just how valuable that work product really is, or whether the public wants different plans that mean something for everyday people:

Like open space, clean beaches, affordable housing, green development, transit that compensates for high gasoline prices, and more.

But let's stop paying the freight and giving SEWRPC the right to do all this work on land use and transportation, water and development, housing and telecommunications, with the public's imprimatur all over them.

Counties can pay for the planning services they need on their own, or in true partnership with each other.

They don't need to be paying for an autocratic agency that tells them to drop dead, but expects a perpetual bequeath in the will.


Unknown said...

Thanks for keeping tabs on those sneaky buggers.

Anonymous said...

Also, just this week (3/18) members of SEWRPC's own Environmental Justice Task Force specifically requested that any appointment be delayed in order to open up the ED search to more diverse communities. So SEWRPC is also ignoring the wishes of the committee that it set up supposedly to promote diversity and civil rights issues.

Dave said...

If Walker really wants to cut taxes then he should defund SEWRPC.

Zach W. said...

How ironic that all this occurred during Sunshine Week.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone made note of the fact that Yunker's area of professional expertise is transportation engineer? Expect more unnecessary and expensive roads to show up in 'plans' under his gentle guidance.