More than six years ago, when the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission was touting its $6.25 billion reconstruction and widening plan, a nationally-known engineer critic of conventional highway-building named Walter Kulash told a meeting of community leaders at a Milwaukee luncheon that SEWRPC's plan was a bad investment, particularly for the downtown.
Kulash spoke at the invitation of then-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who opposed the SEWRPC plan.
Ken Yunker, SEWRPC's then-assistant executive director, and now executive director-designee, was asked by the Journal Sentinel what he thought of Kulash's presentation.
"Very entertaining," Yunker responded, as he went on to discount Kulash's analysis.
It brought to mind "review-and-dismiss," a bureaucratic phrase that describes SEWRPC's attitude towards criticisms of its work or practices from outside the organization - - an attitude not unheard of when it comes to some agencies' reflexive insularity, but dismaying when it comes to those actually planning public infrastructure and people's well-being with tax dollars.
I attended the Kulash luncheon as Norquist's policy director, was stunned to see the remark in the paper the next day, and have long remembered it.
Yunker's one-liner came to mind again when I read these past weeks about two civil rights complaints filed with federal agencies against SEWRPC on behalf of low-income or minority Milwaukee organizations.
I'd argue that affirmative action inaction at SEWRPC, and a belief that the agency has regularly overlooked or discounted the interests of minority, low-income taxpayers, and the relatively few City of Milwaukee residents on its payroll - - an institutional, legacy "review-and-dismiss," if you will - - has provided some of the complainants' frustrations and motivation.
Details of the complaints can be found in a summary blog posting, here.
Remedies sought include federal investigations, withdrawal of federal funds, SEWRPC's establishment of a Milwaukee office, transportation assistance for employees because the Pewaukee office chosen by SEWRPC is not on a bus line, and more.
SEWRPC is a relatively-low profile, seven-county regional organization that works in an exurban office park, with dozens of employees, and a $7-8 million annual budget that comes completely from public agencies and tax dollars.
The agency is literally off the beaten path - - and is also similarly disconnected by race, income and culture from downtown Milwaukee and the region's other diverse populations centers, such as Racine and Kenosha.
Some examples of "review-and-dismiss?"
Where do we begin?
SEWRPC's proposed many miles of new freeway lanes through Milwaukee County will come at the loss of homes, businesses and millions in tax base - - a process that began with the reconstruction and widening of the Marquette Interchange.
The overall scheme was opposed by the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee County Board - - but approved regardless by SEWRPC and forwarded to the state, which is busy committing billions of dollars to the plan - - regardless of $4 per-gallon gasoline, transit deficits throughout SEWRPC's seven-county region and the disproportionate weight those circumstances have on low-income and minority residents.
SEWRPC has also gone ahead and recommended a $25 million, fast-tracked I-94 full diamond interchange be constructed to serve the proposed Pabst Farms shopping mall in Western Waukesha County, over the objections of all 50 people who filed comments against it during one of those fruitless public comment period.
Little wonder that the hurried interchange plan is the basis of one of the federal complaints, since the interchange area and populations are not served by transit - - a circumstance that the complainants say shows low-income, minority and transit-dependent groups have little meaningful input or impact at SEWRPC.
And these are issues that SEWRPC knows have been raised before.
In 2004, a host of complaints were aired at a federal hearing in Milwaukee about SEWRPC's relationship with minorities and low-income.
Those testifying were individuals and groups, including representatives of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the entire Milwaukee Common Council.
Out of that process came the creation of SEWRPC's Environmental Justice Task Force (EJTF), which SEWRPC said it would use to better guide its outreach and work with, and on behalf of, disadvantaged communities.
But just this spring, when the still-relatively-new EJFT learned that the agency was about to name an Executive Director-designee without its input, EJTF members asked SEWRPC to delay the hiring until it could participate.
SEWRPC had not advertised the opening or conducted a job search because it planned to promote its deputy director into the agency top job - - as it had done when it hired Phil Evenson more than a decade ago, making him only SEWRPC's second executive director since the agency's founding in 1960.
Yunker will be Executive Director number three - - in 48 years.
Remember - - this is a public agency. All of its funding comes from various tax sources, including property taxes, and its employees are public employees.
SEWRPC is not a private consulting firm that is more free to set its own hiring and promotion rules and procedures.
The original Executive Director, Kurt Bauer, is still working three-quarters time on contract as executive director-emeritus - - another position filled for years, but not advertised: senior SEWRPC appointments are rare, and long-lasting.
SEWRPC refused the EJTF's request - - more dismissal than review, I'd say - - and Ken Yunker's appointment was made as planned (see page 2 of these task force minutes); even the SEWRPC-appointed chair of the task force called the process a missed opportunity.
So should SEWRPC be surprised that its executive director hiring 'process' ends up cited prominently in the second discrimination complaint?
More than a year ago, attorneys and groups representing low-income and minority residents in the region sent a three-page letter to SEWRPC that crystallized many long-standing sentiments about the agency's discounting of minorities and low-income residents in SEWRPC operations.
The central issue in that September 7, 2007 letter was the makeup of a key SEWRPC group - - the 33-member Water Supply Advisory Committee - - and the direction its $1 million study.
The opening sentence: "We are writing to express concern that the SEWRPC Water Supply Study appears to be operating in violation of federal civil rights regulations and environmental justice requirements."
A year ago.
The letter expressed objections that the committee had but one minority member (an Hispanic surnamed male), no members speaking for low-income and minority communities, and no focus in the study work plan on the implications of water transfers on economic justice issues.
The letter asked that the study be stopped, then revised to include those communities and their priorities, noting that some concerns about disadvantaged residents in the region had been raised with SEWRPC at least four years earlier.
SEWRPC defended the water supply study and committee structure in a September 27th response letter; the study and the committee have continued.
Little wonder, then, that allegations of discrimination in the composition of the water supply committee (mentioned also: the other SEWRPC committees with but three minorities of 126 members total, per SEWRPC figures) were referenced in the eighteen pages of the second civil rights complaint.
Raising concerns about the basic fairness and scope of the water committee and study is quite timely:
The study's initial recommendation by SEWRPC consultants and staff calling for widespread diversions of Lake Michigan water to more than a dozen suburbs to meet their projected water needs to 2035 - - suburbs far whiter and wealthier than the City of Milwaukee - - will be presented by SEWRPC staff and consultants on Tuesday, September 23, 2008.
But as the episode with engineer and highway critic Walker Kulash shows, complaints and concerns about SEWRPC have been raised, and dismissed, for years.
I wrote an op-ed for Isthmus about SEWRPC equity issues in September, 2002.
The issues were relevant at the time to a Madison audience because then Gov. Scott McCallum, (R), was thinking about folding Madison and Dane County into a SEWRPC-type, multi-county organization for the first time - - where suburban, exurban and rural interests would have overwhelmed the more populous Dane County and City of Madison.
That agency was not created, and a few years later, a new, more urban-friendly regional planning arrangement for Madison and Dane County was approved.
And in the new organization, the critical transportation planning component was assigned to City of Madison officials and planners - - a point I noted in an op-ed I wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sunday Crossroads section this June.
In that piece, I suggested that Milwaukee City and County withdraw from SEWRPC and adopt their own, urban-focused regional planning commission, perhaps based on the new Madison/Dane County model.
Milwaukee County's contribution annually to SEWRPC is about $850,000, the largest among all seven SEWRPC member counties, which means that City of Milwaukee taxpayers kick in about half - - yet SEWRPC has no City of Milwaukee board representative.
That Crossroads piece was attacked by a number of regional officials in a reply op-ed - - "review-and-dismiss," big time - - and that's fine.
Give-and-take is what newspaper op-ed pages are all about.
Let's hope federal civil rights compliance officials at the US Departments of Labor, and Transportation, where the local complaints have landed, don't practice SEWRPC's style of "review and dismiss."
This time, federal law is involved.