Tuesday, March 24, 2009

SEWRPC Leadership Reverses Course; Now Supports Wider Water Study Analysis

A division between the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and its Environmental Justice Task Force over how studies are constructed and carried out appears resolved.

Ken Yunker, the SEWRPC Executive Director, told Tuesday's Task Force meeting that SEWEPC's staff now supports adding to the draft water supply study and recommendations an independent socio-economic analysis that the Task Force requested be included last year, but to which then-Executive Director Phil Evenson objected.

Evenson had told the Task Force that he was "insulted" by its vote approving the requested independent analysis.

I attended the meeting where the exchange took place, and blogged about it, here.

This may seem like inconsequential inside baseball, but in fact it will substantially improve SEWRPC recommendations and ameliorate long-standing complaints that SEWRPC studies, especially those started and finished in-house, lacke vitality, innovation, credibility and appeal.

It's also a victory for the Task Force and grassroots citizen participation at an agency that has had its outreach problems.

It made no sense to me that SEWRPC would fight with a Task Force it had created following a federal certification review in 2004 - - a review that said SEWRPC needed to do a better job reaching out to communities that felt ignored by SEWRPC procedures.

With the 2008 federal quadrennial review still open, and with criticism of the agency's management, governing structure and funding gaining steam over housing, transit, highway spending and affirmative action, I'm guessing that cooler heads - - or perhaps those who are more politically aware or astute - - are prevailing at the agency.

That's speculation, but it rings true.

Twenty-five months ago, in one of the first postings on this blog - - and 260 of them are focused on SEWRPC and its institutional shortcomings - - I took note of the agency's troubled outreach activities.

Maybe things are changing, these 25 months later:

Monday, February 26, 2007
ACLU Slaps SEWRPC Over Pulseless Outreach

The Wisconsin ACLU, from its Milwaukee offices, has rightly told the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission that the agency is moving far too slowly with the formation of a task force on environmental justice.

SEWRPC has had months to get this outreach effort underway but has not made task force appointments and is not aggressively getting input on appointees from communities to whom this long-overdue outreach effort is aimed, the ACLU says in its new release.

With its laissez-faire approach, SEWRPC is skating on thin ice with watchdog groups like the ACLU, and federal regulators who could use federal civil rights to light a fire under SEWRPC, as the ACLU further reminds SEWRPC by letter.

The Pewaukee-based agency already has minimal credibility with large sections of the region because of its pro-suburban history, and giving the task force formation a low priority only reinforces SEWRPC's negative image.

At this very moment, SEWRPC and other entities are discussing major changes to transit and water management policies that will guide development in the region for generations, and will therefore profoundly impact low-income residents.

Yet those residents are regularly shut out of many of these policy discussions - - a problem the environmental justice task force could help remedy.

If SEWRPC had a comprehensive planning strategy and a more inclusive mentality, it wouldn't need an environmental justice task force in the first place: its commissioners and multiple committees would have integrated genuine environmental justice principles and goals into all their work as a matter of routine.

For example, if environmental justice were an important thread in SEWRPC operations, its last housing plan for our heavily-segregated region wouldn't have been done in 1975, and SEWRPC would have been a champion for transit expansion, not $6.6 billion in new, suburb-serving freeways lanes.

It's a disgrace that community groups representing low-income and minority populations had to demand a task force in the first place, and reprehensible that SEWRPC continues to drag its feet on its implementation.
OK: back to the water study:

SEWRPC officials who guided the three-year water study have said repeatedly that the region has no water supply crisis, so slowing down the study's approval and making it more complete by studying and documenting the effect of water transfers on housing, transportation, job development and other related matters makes all the sense in the world.

Yunker told the Task Force meeting that he saw no reason why the agency's governing body - - a 21-member panel appointed by the Governor and officials from the region's seven counties - - should object to the staff recommendation that the independent socio-economic analysis be added.

It was not made clear at the Task Force meeting how the socio-economic analysis would be added to the study, or who would perform the work.

The Task Force resolution from last October recommended that all SEWRPC studies include an independent socio-economic analysis.

Given the willingness to add the level of analysis to the water supply study, it seems logical to assume that all studies will contain these elements.

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