Thursday, August 28, 2008

Civil Rights Complaint Hits SEWRPC

The long-standing lack of participation by City of Milwaukee representatives and minorities at the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planing Commission, and its focus on highway planning over transit, has led to a federal civil rights complaint against the commission, records show.

The complaint, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, is here.

This is a significant development, as SEWRPC will have to demonstrate that its structure, work output and recommended plans have fair representation, and are evenly-focused without discrimination - - a genuine challenge, I'd say.

On behalf of a coalition of low-income residents, the complaint seeks a federal investigation, federally-ordered changes in representation in SEWRPC committees, and transportation planning by SEWRPC that includes transit services for groups and communities heretofore ignored.

It asks for a withdrawal of federal funding if SEWRPC failed to comply.

[Friday update: Here is a statement from the ACLU - Wisconsin: I still do not see a response from SEWRPC, though I hear that one is being prepared.

Sunday update: I see no reporting about the complaint in the mainstream media.]

Look no further than its affirmative action reports, which every year concede that its minuscule number of minority employees is due, in part, to its location far from the minority population centers in the region.

A situation made worse in 2002 when SEWRPC moved from downtown Waukesha to Pewaukee, putting it farther from Milwaukee and other centers of low-income and minority job-seekers, or transit-dependent workers.

The Pewaukee location is not on a bus line.

SEWRPC Executive Director Phil Evenson said in July that he planned to drop the SEWRPC headquarters' location issue language from the forthcoming 2008-2009 affirmative action report, though the fulltime staff is still overwhelmingly white, SEWRPC records show.

And while continuing to cite its affirmative action problem areas, the SEWRPC reports indicate no assertive new or successful strategies to boost minority hiring.

That contributes to the very planning and work supervision by the staff and commission board that is insensitive to the very transit issues cited in the complaint, and which I'd argue have also led to the unwillingness of SEWRPC to write and promote a housing plan for the region since 1975.

The complaint calls attention to several SEWRPC transit and transportation recommendations, including the recent SEWRPC approval of the disputed interstate interchange to the still-not-built Pabst Farms shopping mall in western Waukesha County.

The interchange will cost $23.1 million in public funding, and was moved forward on regional planning schedules.

The complaint specifically asks that SEWRPC plan and implement transit improvement in Waukesha County to serve people without cars at the same time that the interchange plan is implemented.

The Pabst Farm shopping mall interchange recommendation was made this year in the face of substantial citizen opposition in writing to SEWRPC, and also as regional transit service continues its decline.

Sound fair and balanced to you?

And legal, the WCLU is asking?

The WCLU complaint also notes the absence of any Milwaukee residents on the SEWRPC commission, and the few minority representatives on SEWRPC advisory committees where crucial work on final recommendations and plans is researched and honed.

In a June 20, 2008 posting about SEWRPC, I made these observations about SEWRPC, Milwaukee, affirmative action and taxation without representation:

You can contort yourself into knots and turn blue in the face defending SEWRPC, but you cannot get past these facts which grate on city dwellers in Milwaukee:

With a population of 600,000, and more residents than any of the non-Milwaukee County counties in SEWRPC - - all of which have three SEWRPC board seats, the City of Milwaukee has no seat at the table.

Despite having the largest share of minority residents in the region, SEWRPC has no minority management staff members, and has not had a minority staff member for years.

There isn't even a mamangement staff member with a City of Milwaukee address.

And minorities are excluded from SEWRPC's powerful advisory committees. There are zero African-Americans, and only one City representative, on the 32-member water supply advisory committee.

This is 2008.

The US Civil Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to end this sort of institutional discrimination more than 40 years ago.

How is that SEWRPC is immune, tone-deaf, care-free and thoughtless when it comes to basic fairness and equity in basic operations, like hiring?

Yet the City of Milwaukee, where more than half the population is now minority, is responsible for sending SEWRPC about $400,000 annually in recent years as its portion of Milwaukee County's contribution to SEWRPC's operating budget.

I have paid careful attention to the SEWRPC water advisory committee that has been meeting and working since 2005.

The committee will spend $1 million dollars on consultants and other activities; recommendations will influence housing, transportation and development in the SEWRPC seven-county region for decades.

There is strong demand for Lake Michigan water by Waukesha County communities; 140,000 new residents are projected for the County in the coming decades, so water availability is central to how and where that huge population increase will be absorbed.

Will there be consideration of water's economic impacts on the region's minority and low-income residents - - the very people under-represented in SEWRPC advisory and decision-making tasks?

The water committee has 32 members - - including one Hispanic-surnamed male and zero African-Americans.

Would you like to be the attorney who argues that representation is fair representation to the region's minority residents, and for the City of Milwaukee, where minorities now make up its residential majority?

The complaint moves some of these important issues about SEWRPC's basic structure and actions from the political realm to a legal framework.
This is no doubt the beginning of a process that should get the attention of City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee officials who are considering whether SEWRPC's structure should be changed to better reflect the goals of Milwaukee and its minority and low-income taxpayers.

I argued in a June op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Crossroads section that Milwaukee should withdraw from SEWRPC to establish a planning body that would elevate the needs of Milwaukee that are lost in a suburban-oriented, seven-county commission where Milwaukee does not even have a seat at the table.

A Milwaukee Common Council resolution to review SEWRPC and various reform options is underway at City Hall.

SEWRPC did itself no favors in the spring when it named a new Executive Director without a job search or public review.

It did so despite a request from a new SEWRPC body, the Environmental Justice Task Force (EJTF), that SEWRPC delay an apparent done-deal, in-house hiring so the EJTC could participate in a more open hiring procedure, or at least review the hiring.

The Commission's pick, Ken Yunker, will move from the Deputy Director position to Executive Director, in January 2009.

The EJTF was created under pressure from Federal highway funders who felt SEWRPC was doing an inadequate job of community outreach when planning federally-funded transportation projects.

Some of the complaints about SEWRPC's outreach came as it wrote and recommended the $6.3 billion freeway reconstruction and expansion plan - - a plan that the state has accepted, and will add 127 miles of new lanes, but has no transit components.

The plan is underway, with the $800 million Marquette Interchange completed, the $1.9 billion rebuilding and widening of I-94 to the Illinois state line from Milwaukee about to begin, and a half-billion reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange fast-tracked to start in a few years.

$4-per-gallon gasoline makes that plan look archaic, even hostile, to low-income families and workers trying to reach jobs as transit service declines in the Milwaukee region.


Anonymous said...

Bully for WCLU and attorneys Dennis Grzezinski and Karyn Rotker for filing this lawsuit. It's about time someone took SEWRPC to task for its lack of representation of minority and low-income populations. Understand, though, that SEWRPC is an equal opportunity ignorer. Many presentations have been give, comments submitted, letters written, and SEWRPC officials implored, only to have the white males Boys Club at SEWRPC ignore all and proceed to do what they intended all along. This is the way it was under Phil Evenson's and Kurt Bauer's direction. Expect more of the same from the even more-opinionated and thin-skinned Ken Yunker.

Anonymous said...

Has this been reported in the MJS? If so, I haven't seen it. If not, why not? This is big news, about something that has been brewing for quite some time. It should also be big news that Milwaukee County doesn't have all of its appointees in place (or at least didn't the last few times I looked). Why not?

James Rowen said...

To Lynn: the Journal Sentinel is reporting Tuesday afternoon online for tomorrow's paper.