First-Person Account Of Muzzled Free Speech At Monday Highway Hearing
I had posted items this week detailing complaints emanating from a Wisconsin Department of Transportation hearing at State Fair Park where citizens alleged that WisDOT officials, in conjunction with the State Fair police, blocked the distribution of literature inside the public meeting area in the Tommy G. Thompson building.
One of those citizens, Jeff Gonyo, is the founder of an anti-highway expansion organization that has been at odds with WisDOT for years, particularly over the widening of Highway J/164 in Waukesha and Washington Counties.
Gonyo has written a lengthy first-person account of the incident and his view of the history leading up to it, and has appended at the bottom of his account his email address and his organization's website.
Here, also, is a copy of the Zoo Interchange plan, complete with maps.
At $2.3 billion, it would be the largest highway project in state history - - three times the cost of the just-completed Marquette Interchange project, for example.
In a nutshell, Gonyo says he was told by WisDOT officials he could not display signs and distribute leaflets in the Thompson building, and if he persisted, State Fair Park police would be called.
Later, according to Gonyo, the State Fair Police Chief arrived, and agreed with WisDOT officials who wanted the signs and leaflet-distribution removed from the building; the Chief decided the group could distribute its leaflets at two State Fair Park street entrance gates at least two blocks from the building.
I will post Mr. Gonyo's text below (bold-facing is in the original).
And I will add several links to the posting when time permits, and will also add comment when received from WisDOT, [an effort Wednesday to obtain comment from WisDOT officials in the Waukesha regional office got bounced to WisDOT's central office in Madison, where I placed a call Thursday morning, too.].
Here is my "first person account" along with a brief well-documented history leading up to the WisDOT's gross abuse of our free speech rights at yesterday's so-called "public hearing" on the Zoo Interchange Study's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).
Here is some "background information" leading up to yesterday's WisDOT "free speech" squashing actions against our citizens group. For the past 10 years, the Highway J Citizens Group, U.A.'s general mission has been as follows: 1) Stopping unnecessary, fiscally-irresponsible and environmentally-damaging road expansion projects in our affected communities (focusing on those proposed projects located here in Southeastern Wisconsin -- like the Highway 164 four-lane expansion and the proposed Zoo Interchange expansion), 2) Protecting our groundwater quality, 3) Promoting proper land use decisions, and 4) Preserving our overall “quality of life” in this beautiful Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin .
As part of that mission, our members (now numbering over 15,000 statewide by our last estimate) regularly attend, participate and share information with other interested citizens on these issues of great community concern to all of us. The WisDOT's Zoo Interchange Study is just one of those road expansion plans that greatly concerns our members because of:
1) Its $2.3 billion taxpayer-funded price-tag (which is approximately $400 in additional taxes imposed upon every man, woman and child residing in the State of Wisconsin),
2) The economic (by last count, over 40 homes and businesses would be eliminated under the WisDOT's preferred eight-lane expansion option) and environmental devastation (especially air and noise pollution) it will cause to the nearby affected residential and small-business communities,
3) The WisDOT's continued refusal to consider less costly, more-community-friendly, reasonable alternatives to solve this area's traffic safety and congestion problems (such as less-intrusive alternate routes to alleviate traffic congestion, greater emphasis on mass transit and the other non-expansion alternatives, and adopting the less-costly, smaller-sized "spot improvement" rebuilding alternatives which WisDOT acknowledges would solve the safety problems associated with the Zoo Interchange, and
4) The WisDOT's refusal to hold a true public hearing where the citizens can give testimony into an open microphone "one at a time" in front of a citizen audience that can hear and understand that testimony.
Attached to this e-mail is a copy of my June 23, 2009 written comments which were delivered as part of my "oral testimony" to one of the WisDOT court reporters yesterday. This testimony goes into great detail about our citizens group's concerns about the Zoo Interchange Study and the many related "legally-actionable" deficiencies in this project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Also attached here is a PDF copy of our alternate routes leaflet that we wanted to distribute to the people yesterday attending the WisDOT's public hearing on this project.
Consistent with these concerns specified above, the HJCG had an information and display table set up at the WisDOT's public information meetings on the Zoo Interchange Study held on 1) January 17, 2008 at the Zoofari Conference Center (see attached photos), 2) January 23, 2008 at the State Fair Park's Tommy Thompson Youth Center (see attached photos), and 3) May 29, 2008 at the Wauwatosa West High School (see attached photos). At all of these events, we presented detailed information on how the WisDOT could save the taxpayers of Wisconsin over a billion dollars by simply adopting our reasonable alternatives.
At the January 23, 2008 meeting, our citizens group has a small DVD player on our information table which played the HJCG narrated movie discussing our reasonable alternatives to solving some of Southeastern Wisconsin's transportation problems. The movie volume was so low that a person would need to be right next to the table to hear it. The movie and written information we offered drew more people to our HJCG table than were going to the WisDOT tables. Citizens were actually starting to question the necessity of the WisDOT's expensive "$2.3 Billion Cadillac Plan" for expanding the Zoo Interchange after learning about our more reasonable alternatives for solving the traffic safety and congestion problems of this area. WISDOT WAS OBVIOUSLY VERY UPSET about the popularity of and citizen interest in our presented ideas.
In an effort to curtail our ability to effectively convey information to these concerned citizens, WisDOT Zoo Interchange Project Manager DONNA BROWN sent me the attached May 13, 2008 letter indicating that WisDOT would not be allowing us to have any audio or video presentations as part of our information and display table at any of their future meetings on the Zoo Interchange Study.
We fully complied with that request at the May 29, 2008 WisDOT public information meeting on this project held at the Wauwatosa West High School. However, we let the public know just why we could not show our video by putting a sign on an unplugged, shut-off DVD player stating that "WisDOT Zoo Interchange Project Director DONNA BROWN does not want you to see this video presentation offering reasonable alternatives to this wasteful project." We also had another sign on our table that stated, "WISDOT'S MODUS OPERANDI: Empty Promises, Deceitful Conduct and Outright Lies! CAN WE REALLY TRUST THE WISDOT? LEARN MORE HERE!" That sign was decorated with several American flags and a flashing green light to draw attention to our table and the information on it.
Again our table drew great attention from the attending citizens and, after receiving our information, these citizens were very upset at both the WisDOT's unnecessary and costly Zoo Interchange expansion plans and their anti-democratic tactics to squash our first amendment rights to disseminate information about reasonable alternatives to this project. A WisDOT official then came over to our table that evening on May 29, 2008 and DEMANDED that we take the above signs down because they were "disparaging the integrity of the WisDOT." We refused to do so, saying that their attempts to force us to remove these signs constituted an illegal restriction of the "CONTENT" of our communication. That interaction between this WisDOT official and our HJCG members attracted even more people to our table. Ultimately a second WisDOT official came over to our table and told the first official to "just forget about it" because his actions were "attracting to much attention" to our table.
After carefully reviewing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Zoo Interchange Study, I immediately noticed that NONE of our previously-presented reasonable alternatives (especially the alternate routes -- discussed in the attached leaflet) were discussed (or even mentioned) in the DEIS. That failure to discuss these reasonable alternatives constitutes a blatant violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) (which also is one of the key problems with the Highway 164 FEIS and ROD approved by the WisDOT that is now part of the current litigation against them). Also, the air pollution analysis (especially on greenhouse gas emissions) was grossly deficient. Finally, the announced June 23, 2009 and June 24, 2009 "open house" formatted public hearing on this project is illegal, designed to stifle citizen interaction and input and thus, the subject of our current federal litigation on the previously-approved Highway 164 four-lane expansion.
Knowing these continuing problems with the WisDOT's Zoo Interchange Study DEIS, we prepared additional sign display boards and literature to be part of our information table at this "public hearing" for distribution to the many attending concerned citizens. As representatives of the HJCG, Al Wilhelmi (our president) and I arrived at the WisDOT's public hearing at the State Fair Park's Tommy Thompson Youth Center on Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at approximately 2:00 PM (its start-time). We had our table display signs and literature loaded on a small luggage cart that we pulled through the doors.
Immediately upon entering the front doors of the Tommy Thompson Youth Center, both Mr. Wilhelmi and I were "aggressively accosted" by both WisDOT Zoo Interchange Project Director DONNA BROWN and Forward 45 Consulting Project Manager BRAD HEIMLICH and were told that we would not be allowed to have an HJCG table at this event because our informational signs and materials were "offensive to the WisDOT" and it would be "highly-disruptive" at this "open house" style public hearing to allow this type of communication and interaction with the arriving people. Mr. Heimlich even went so far as to say that "WisDOT rented and paid for this room to present their plan for the Zoo Interchange, and there were only two permissible ways for citizens to communicate their ideas at this public hearing -- either orally testifying privately to a court reporter or submitted written comments in their "collection box." Neither one of these options would allow for "citizen to citizen interaction" and discussion about the merits of this project.
I then told both Ms. Brown and Mr. Heimlich that what they were doing was not only inconsistent with past practice on this project (as well as others I participated in), but also was an illegal suppression of our freedom to communicate our ideas to the attending public being held on state property and being paid for 100% by taxpayer dollars. I reminded both Ms. Brown and Mr. Heimlich that, at such taxpayer-funded public hearings, ALL POINTS OF VIEW ON THE SUBJECT IN QUESTION MUST BE FULLY AND FAIRLY REPRESENTED and failure to do so would result in prompt legal action from our citizens group. Mr. Heimlich (with the support of Ms. Brown) then said, "You have only two options here -- you can orally give your testimony to a court reporter in private or submit it to the WisDOT in writing -- and, after you have done so, THEN YOU CAN LEAVE!"
I then repeated that this was a TAXPAYER-FUNDED PUBLIC HEARING to solicit citizen input on a TAXPAYER-FUNDED PROJECT and as ONE OF THOSE TAXPAYERS, I had the right to communicate my ideas to the other people who attended this hearing. I then told Ms. Brown and Mr. Heimlich that I would be "moving about the room" during this public hearing talking with other residents, and if they wanted information about our reasonable alternatives, I would give them a copy of our leaflet after that individual "one-on-one" discussion. Both Ms. Brown and Mr. Heimlich said that I could not do that, and if I did not leave, they would call the police and have me removed from the premises. I then demanded a copy of each of their business cards so that I could tell the public, our elected officials and our attorneys who the these two WisDOT officials were (Ms. Brown and Mr. Heimlich) that had violated our rights at this public hearing. Both Al Wilhelmi and I personally witnessed this discussion.
Almost immediately after this blatant assault on our free speech rights, State Fair Police Sergeant Brian Reynolds arrived and the two WisDOT officials named above (joined by a third WisDOT official now) repeated their position to Sergeant Reynolds while both Al Wilhelmi and I listened to their excuses as to why we would not be allowed to communicate with the other people attending this public hearing. Sergeant Reynolds seemed "puzzled" by the WisDOT's adamant demands that we not be allowed to share our information with the other people at this public hearing. Sergeant Reynolds then stated, "In my more than 20 years of law enforcement experience, I never had to respond to a call where citizens were being prevented from disseminating and communicating information to the public at a public hearing."
Sergeant Reynolds then said that, since "this was a new experience for him," he would need to call State Fair Police Chief Thomas Struebling to the scene to ask his advice on how to proceed. Sergeant Reynolds then asked both Al Wilhelmi and me to step outside and wait with him on the front steps of the Tommy Thompson Youth Center until Chief Struebling arrived. We moved our luggage cart of signs and literature to the steps outside the front door. (A few minutes later, Al Wilhelmi later went back inside the doors to sit down because of the intense heat and humidity outside -- he's 80 years old and the WisDOT tried to keep him outside of a public hearing that his tax dollars had paid for!)
While waiting outside for Chief Struebling to arrive, I showed Sergeant Reynolds our seven signs that we had intended to display on our information table which the WisDOT found to be offensive (they are attached here) --- I asked him, do these look offensive to you? Since they were factual in nature backed up by credible documented sources, Sergeant Reynolds admitted "they were not offensive to him." I then gave Sergeant Reynolds a copy of our HJCG general brochure and Zoo Interchange alternatives leaflet and asked him if those items seemed "offensive" to him. He admitted they were not.
By this time, I had noticed that Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Reporter Tom Held was outside with us taking down notes on his notepad. I then asked Mr. Held to come closer to us so he could get the information on these unfolding events. Mr. Held told me that he just had seen how Ms. Brown and Mr. Heimlich were trying to keep us out of their public hearing and he wanted to know why. Mr. Held then said that "he could not understand why WisDOT had suddenly decided to prevent us from disseminating our materials because he had seen our table at the May 29, 2008 WisDOT public information meeting at the Wauwatosa West High School (and we were allowed to be there). I then showed Mr. Held the same signs and gave him the same literature that Sergeant Reynolds had just viewed and received. In fact, some of the signs included past Milwaukee Journal Sentinel articles on them "WRITTEN BY MR. HELD HIMSELF" about the Zoo Interchange Project -- these were part of the items that WisDOT found "so offensive" here.
By now, Chief Struebling had arrived. Chief Struebling then told me that, in his opinion, "the WisDOT had the right to decide just how people would be allowed to communicate with other people at THEIR PUBLIC HEARING because it was THEIR EVENT!" I then indicated that, if I was going to be forcibly kept out of the public hearing room, then I would hand out our HJCG literature outside the front doors of the building as people "came and went by." Chief Struebling then said that State Fair Park rules prohibit me from doing so, and the only allowable place to hand out these materials would be at a location over two blocks away from the Tommy Thompson Youth Center's entrance WHERE NOBODY WHO WAS ATTENDING THIS PUBLIC HEARING WOULD SEE ME (and thus, would not be aware of or given an opportunity to obtain our information on the reasonable alternatives to the WisDOT's Zoo Interchange expansion plans). I told Chief Struebling that, requiring us to stand more than two blocks away from the building, would be like "telling me to stand on the moon when all of the people who would be interested in my materials are located on the earth." HOW RIDICULOUS IS THAT?
I then told Sergeant Reynolds and Chief Struebling that, because the WisDOT (with police assistance) was illegally excluding us from the taxpayer-funded public hearing, we would be contacting our attorneys, Governor Jim Doyle, our state senators and state representatives, and our attorneys to pursue legal action against everyone involved in this suppression of our free speech rights here. Near the end my communications with both of these State Fair Park police officers, Al Wilhelmi then came back outside and assisted me in putting our materials back into the car.
Then, I entered the building and decided to orally testify to one of the court reporters. I planned not only to "read into the record" the attached comments about the DEIS that I had previously prepared for this purpose, but also to enter into the record all of the facts surrounding DONNA BROWN'S and BRAD HEIMLICH'S actions excluding our citizens group from distributing information to and communicating with other citizens at this public hearing. I then was escorted by a WisDOT employee to a secluded room in the back of the Tommy Thompson Youth Center where three court reporters were sitting (one at each of the three tables) in that same room. The room was totally isolated from the people who were out in the main area viewing the WisDOT project exhibits. When I entered the room, I noticed that it was about 15 feet by 15 feet in size and the three court reporters were at tables located about 4 feet from each other.
I sat down to testify and started to speak to the court reporter while two other people were speaking to the other two court reporters at the same time in the same room. A few minutes into my testimony, the neighboring court reporter told me to "tone it down" because she couldn't hear the testimony of the person who was speaking to her. I then told my court reporter "HERE IS ONE OF THE KEY PROBLEMS WITH THESE "OPEN HOUSE" PUBLIC HEARINGS -- The public outside cannot hear my testimony because they aren't in this room. Yet, I am so close to the other two court reporters that if I speak in a normal voice, my testimony irritates them and interferes with the two neighboring citizens testimony which is being given at the same time!"
About half way through my oral testimony, the neighboring court reporter again interrupted me and said "if you can't talk quieter, then shut up -- I can't hear the person testifying to me here." I then told my court reporter that "It's obvious that the WisDOT has intentionally set up these sham public hearings in this format to deter citizens from participating and interacting with each other on these project proposals." Upon conclusion of my testimony, I told my court reporter that, in a law office or court setting, it would "absolutely insane" to have three court reporters take oral testimony from three different people at the same time in the same small room like the WisDOT has allowed to occur here. She appeared to "nod in agreement" with me on that closing point made.
After finishing my oral testimony, I again ran into Tom Held outside of the room where oral testimony was being taken and told him that, if we win our federal lawsuit, the WisDOT will have "repeat" every public hearing in the state where the "open house" format had been used (including this one on the Zoo Interchange Study's DEIS). I then encouraged him to thoroughly investigate this matter and cover it in his news story. Unfortunately, Mr. Held's story in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel didn't even mention this controversy or our presence at this WisDOT public hearing.
Al Wilhelmi and I then left the building returning to our car in the parking lot. While leaving, we were followed out of the Tommy Thompson Youth Center by BRAD HEIMLICH, and he did not return into the building until we were in our car and leaving the parking lot. MR. HEIMLICH APPARENTLY WANTED TO MAKE ABSOLUTELY SURE WE DIDN'T COME BACK!
In my 10 years of fighting the WisDOT to stop unnecessary, fiscally-irresponsible and environmentally-damaging road expansion projects in our state, I have never seen such a public display of undemocratic, oppressive, anti-citizen behavior on the part of a government agency using people's tax dollars to deter citizen participation from the very same people paying those taxes. One of the sign boards, we wanted to display yesterday contained the following heading, "Federal Highway Administration Admits "Open House" Public Hearing Format Precludes Debate on a Project's Merits!" On that sign board was a copy of a document which I found on the Federal Highway Administration's website entitled, "Public Involvement Techniques for Transportation Decision-Making: Open Forum Hearings/Open Houses" which listed one of "drawbacks" of these types of public hearings as EXACTLY THAT (see pages 6 thru 7 of this attached FHWA document which I printed off their website just a few hours before yesterday's WisDOT public hearing).
Also, I should note that, on page 1 of this same document, the FHWA states the following about "open house" format public hearings: "These events can include non-agency displays. Sister agencies and community proponents or opponents may be given space to present a point of view, displays, documents, or handouts in separate, visible areas. Some agencies have found that allowing public groups to set up tables outside the meeting or hearing room helps the public distinguish official agency information from other sources."
I showed this document (from my sign board) to both WisDOT's DONNA BROWN and Forward 45's BRAD HEIMLICH and indicated that the FHWA position here was in direct contradiction with their actions to prevent me from having such a display table with our HJCG information on it. However, THEY DIDN'T SEEM TO CARE! Since this is a federally-funded project, I think that we ALL should petition the FHWA to remove all federal funding for this project given that WisDOT's actions are in direct contradiction to the FHWA's statements in this document. What do you think?
In closing, I want to mention that Judge Adelman has just informed our attorneys that the HJCG federal lawsuit's oral argument is now scheduled for Wednesday, July 8, 2009 at 10:30 AM in his courtroom (Room 390) in the federal courthouse in downtown Milwaukee (517 East Wisconsin Avenue). Please join us at this very important federal court hearing on our Highway 164 federal lawsuit.
At this oral argument our attorneys and the government attorneys will be arguing the case before Judge Adelman with a ruling to be issued about 30 days thereafter. If we win, such a favorable ruling, will "change the way the WisDOT does business in Wisconsin" -- especially on how they conduct future public hearings and analyze reasonable alternatives on road projects under consideration. THE PEOPLE'S VOICE WILL FINALLY BE HEARD! (For your convenience, I am attaching copies of our federal lawsuit's amended complaint and the two most recent legal briefs filed by our attorneys with Judge Adelman earlier this year.)
I hope that this information is helpful to you in "keeping the pressure" on the WisDOT in your excellent blog postings on "The Political Environment." Keep up the great work! Thank you again!
HIGHWAY J CITIZENS GROUP, U.A.
P.O. Box 152, Hubertus, WI 53033
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