Thursday, June 18, 2009

Arrogance At SEWRPC: It Invites Public Comment, Then Criticizes The Commenters And Suggests They Drop Their Comments

I had said yesterday that I would post some information about the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission setting a new standard for institutional arrogance.

This is the information:

In March, several environmental and conservation groups sent SEWRPC detailed comments on the agency's draft water supply study during a publicly-announced period during which comments would be accepted.

That's a standard part of many public agencies' practice in Wisconsin.

The groups' comments also incorporated observations and criticisms of the agency's master Land Use Plan.

I've previously written about the way some observers have characterized how SEWRPC often deals with critics and comments: "Review and dismiss" is how it has been characterized.

Some history here.

In the case of the groups' water study and land use plan comments, the agency went beyond review and dismiss, sending to the groups over the signature of SEWRPC Executive Director Ken Yunker a chippy, highly-defensive 13-page response.

In his response, Yunker defends the land use plan, as updated in 2006, as having "received national and international attention for the pioneering concepts advanced" in the 1966 original plan, and goes on to say that the groups' criticisms of the plan as outdated or inadequate are "totally misleading and incorrect..."

I've seen this overkill tendency at work at SEWRPC before, particularly when the land use plan is criticized.

In May of last year, local water expert Peter McAvoy, an attorney and official at the 16th Street Community Health Clinic, spoke at a meeting of the SEWRPC Environmental Justice Task Force (EJFT) about what he said were inadequacies in the land use plan, and how those inadequacies could affect the usefulness and relevancy of the water study.

Five months later, SEWRPC's then-Executive Director Philip Evenson took up nearly 45 minutes at the October meeting of the EJFT to show a 23-panel PowerPoint presentation specifically produced to rebut McAvoy's remarks.

Here is the PowerPoint: think of the staff time that went into its preparation, and the volumes it speaks for the way SEWRPC handles criticism.

Back to the Yunker letter to the groups:

Yunker points to what he says are factual errors in some of the groups' claims, notes what he calls misinterpretations, and at one point, when discussing a series of questions posed about the City of Waukesha's potential Lake Michigan diversion, remarks:

"Some of the questions you ask are unnecessary, as the answers are obvious or have been addressed in the plan report...We also note that by letter dated January 6, 2009, you asked very similar questions to those above of the City of Waukesha. It is unclear to us why you would expect the regional water study plan to answer the same questions you asked the City of Waukesha to address as part of the City's more-detailed second-level planning."

Are SEWRPC and Waukesha so closely bound in water study and diversion planning that they should be addressed as a single entity?Yunker concludes: "We hope that upon careful consideration of our response to your letter of March 12, 2009 you would agree that the regional land use plan and attendant water supply plans are in the best interests of the Region and worthy of your support. The Commission staff would be pleased to meet with you to discuss the issues raised if you think that would be useful."

Oh, right: after being lectured, and, frankly condescended, by an agency so sure of itself, and so sure of its planning practices, too - - despite recently agreeing to put the entire water study on hold because it needed the addition of a separate, socio-economic analysis SEWRPC did not include from the start in 2005 - - that Yunker would tell the groups:

"...there is no basis for a change in the regional land use plan based upon water supply considerations."

In other words, lay off the land use plan.

You call that planning?

You call that seeking and dealing with public input and comment?

But SEWRPC wasn't content to merely wag a finger at the groups for having the temerity to question the land use plan, its basis, and the validity of the water study:

A separate letter was sent to some of the groups - - I have confirmed three so far - - defending, again, the land use plan, and the water study, yet more forcefully blasting the comment letter.

And going an additional step - - is there precedence for this? - - urging the groups to dissociate themselves from the original comment letter.

Divide and conquer!

This second letter was signed by Bob Biebel, SEWRPC's Special Projects Environmental Engineer and in-house manager of the water study, and was received by at least Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Waukesha Environmental Action League and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

In his letter, Biebel says:

"The Commission staff was surprised to have your organization listed as being in support of the letter in question, as it contains an unfounded attack on the Commission's regional land use plan and a number of misleading and incorrect statements. We have prepared a response to the letter in order to correct the misinformation it contains and to attempt to minimize the damage to the public interest which it may cause..."

Biebel asks the groups to "consider withdrawing support for the letter," and also suggests a follow-up meeting.

I have never heard of a public agency that not once, but twice, is willing to get in the face of critics - - and in this case - - long-established, mainstream groups led by professional staffs and boards of directors, but made up of large numbers of members and taxpayers.

As part of a public comment period!

I interpret the SEWRPC response, in its extreme defensiveness, reflecting the pressure it is under from two pending civil rights complaints, separate 2008 Milwaukee city and county governments' requests to the state for audits and the Commission's restructuring, and a federal certification review that began in October and is apparently not ready for release.

Those federal reviewers should take note of how SEWRPC is managing this particular outreach episode.

If comments are submitted that may contain errors, then why not simply point them out and treat the comments as an effort to improve the existing study and plans.

What SEWRPC is saying is that their plan is infallible, and they don't want or like criticism.

My opinion: Biebel's use of the term "unfounded attack" is over-the-top and a pure projection.

I asked Cheryl Nenn, Riverkeeper's interim executive director, what she thought of the Biebel letter.

"It was really arrogant," she replied.

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