Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Water Policy Made In Closed Meetings Or By Closed Minds

In the last few days there has been a convergence of issues surrounding the City of Waukesha's efforts to win a diversion of Lake Michigan water.

A Waukesha activist and blogger named James Bouman, fed up with a spate of closed meetings of the Waukesha Water Utility as it works towards a costly and consequential plan to tap into Lake Michigan, has filed a complaint that alleges the meetings were held in violation of the state's Open Meeting law.

You can read the complaint, here.

Bouman is no stranger to the utility, having taken issue with some of its decisions and meeting procedures; the utility commission is made up of the Mayor, aldermen and citizens familiar with Wisconsin's Open Meetings law, so it will be interesting to see what becomes of the complaint.

But what does it say about things in general, and Waukesha in particular, if a citizen has to find a lawyer to go to court to try and open up the proceedings of an important agency - - and one that is spending a lot of public funds in pursuit of a water supply policy with huge public budgetary, growth and environmental consequences?

Then we have the Southeastern Wisconsin Planning Commission blasting a coalition of environmental organizations that had the temerity to question the agency's master plan and draft water supply study.

In this case, SEWRPC solicited comments, didn't like the feedback, and got confrontational, as it has before, when its planning procedures are questioned.

Some history here.

And let's note the effective intra-agency tag team effort underway between SEWRPC and the Waukesha Water Utility when it comes to water supply planning and a Lake Michigan diversion.

SEWRPC's draft study, as the environmental groups noted, recommended the diversion for Waukesha without fully vetting or examining all the possible alternatives, or all the potential environmental effects.

To which SEWRPC replied, 'Hey, the sort of environmental issues you are raising are Waukesha's responsibility to study in phase two, the next planning step.'

Yet SEWRPC has already drawn and formally certified a map showing where Waukesha could move diverted water outside its current service territory.

The map becomes part of the formal application Waukesha says it will forward later this year for diversion permission.

And the mapping function, a key piece of the application process, gives SEWRPC a major role in diversion decision-making, putting the agency beyond a purely advisory role.

You see what is happening?

With the draft study and the map, SEWRPC is validating Waukesha's diversion plan-in-preparation.

And Waukesha is free to say, 'We concluded that a Lake Michigan diversion is the best water supply option, and it's already blessed by SEWRPC.'

The message from both Waukesha and SEWRPC to the public, and especially to anyone offering input or alternatives: 'No need to pester us with any more pesky questions or bright ideas. We insiders have everything under control.

James Bouman's legal complaint might ferret out more information about Waukesha's decision-making.

And the environmental groups may get some better answers from SEWRPC than 'why are you asking these questions, anyway?,' but it all doesn't say much that's good about the state of Open Government in Southeastern Wisconsin, does it?

No comments: