Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mayor Scrima, Meet Mayor Soglin

Jeff Scrima's first weeks in Waukesha as Mayor after his stunning upset of incumbent Larry Nelsom last month remind me somewhat of how Paul Soglin started his first iteration as Mayor of Madison in 1973.

I'll get to that in a minute, though certainly there are differences: Soglin (website, here) was on the left: Scrima is more conservative.

What is significantly similar is that both were faced with big, defining challenges as new Mayors.

As to Scrima: a power struggle has broken out in Waukesha over who will speak for the city in its upcoming contacts with Milwaukee over Waukesha's plan to obtain a diversion of Lake Michigan water.

The question is important because Waukesha has to speak with one voice.

And also because the dynamic will be replicated when Waukesha also speaks about water to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the seven other Great Lakes states, the Town of Waukesha over related water concerns, the City of Wauwatosa, and so forth.

Nelson had said water was the issue that took the biggest chunk of his time during his four years as Mayor.

And he pushed hard for the Lake Michigan option.

But Scrima, an untested upstart candidate at age 32, had during the campaign raised questions about and objections to the very Lake Michigan alternative that came to define Nelson's tenure.

Now media and other sources are indicating that elements of the Waukesha power structure in and close to City Hall want to continue to remain in control of the water supply search process - - despite the outcome of the election, and also despite the curious fact that the diversion application is undergoing some continuing editing and has yet to be sent off to the DNR and posted on the city's website as the review process begins.

I saw a similar effort to box in and undercut a new Mayor years ago in Madison when Paul Soglin was first elected Mayor, at age 27. I was his then-administrative assistant, a position now called chief of staff.

The old guard fought back in and around City Hall because some more senior officials and traditional power-brokers couldn't grasp or abide the sudden shift in power.

New young Mayors get tested, that's for sure.

In Madison, circa 1973-'74, a big issue that functioned as a rallying point for Soglin's opponents, and that became something of a surrogate issue for other political disputes was who controlled the police department.

Soglin and a new police chief from outside the ranks eventually prevailed internally over the police union and some particularly strong-willed officers, and also won the public's support in that issue and others because both the chief and Mayor were forceful people who did their homework.

But in large measure, also, because Soglin pushed back and governed - - with the support of the grassroots movement that put him in office to bring about change.

Folks in Madison did get used to his being Mayor, even if they didn't like it. And he served several terms during two separate eras without ever being defeated as the incumbent.

Waukesha dilutes Scrima's power with an elected City Attorney and an appointed city administrator, while Soglin had a similar, though not identical, set of obstacles.

In Soglin's case, he inherited an entrenched, though appointed city attorney, and, like Scrima, had to deal with a city administrator - - but Soglin managed to work with, and sometimes around these officials.

Soglin was not in a classic "strong-Mayor" form of government and neither is Scrima.

Scrima will win allies in and around his City Hall, too, if he governs reasonably and effectively, and the city will work out its internal power struggles - - though Scrima will succeed faster and get on firmer ground if he has the active support of the people who voted him into office.

If they really wanted change, they will have to step up and help him out.

One major obstacle that Soglin did not face: Scrima has to contend with one a fairly independent water utility, and its well-paid, influential consultants.

This may be Scrima's biggest hurdle because the water utility staff and consultants created the diversion application and are heavily-invested in strategies that will lead to its implementation.

The Waukesha Water Utility and its managing commission make up a formidable organization, not unlike a separate government, with a history of relative independence, plus a separate building from which revenues from rate payers are generated.

It's the physical, personnel and policy center of the issue - - water - - that, so far, is the surrogate issue for people in Waukesha who are struggling with the notion of a new Mayor, and perhaps a new direction on water supply details.

Look no farther than the water utility announcing it will not resubmit the diversion application to the Council after its editing is done - - something happening at the suggestion of the City Attorney, but apparently behind-closed-doors, since the application's April 8th approval.

This is a bad process for several reasons:

First, it means that Waukesha residents and taxpayers are not going to see the final plan before it enters the review process.

Second, Wauwatosa and Milwaukee, both downstream from Waukesha's preferred wastewater discharge point, will not see in advance what is finally being proposed.

Finally, the groups that studied a preliminary draft of the application are not going to see if Waukesha decided to address or incorporate their detailed comments - - analyses sure to be echoed as the DNR and other states begin their mandatory reviews.

Here, for example, are some of the questions about the application raised by the venerable Waukesha Environmental Action League.

If people maneuvering to keep Scrima on the sidelines believe the application can pass muster, why not air it openly one more time so the Council and general public can see it?


Anonymous said...

The environmentalists in Milwaukee and the Town of Waukesha should be caucusing right now about which law firm to select.

Waukesha's rebel delegation of alderman clearly are attempting to seal a deal with Milwaukee even before the DNR application is reviewed.

It's transparent that Oak Creek and Racine considerations are cost prohibititive and a return line to Lake Michigan rather than Underwood Creek will undermine the "cost effective" approach to solving Waukesha's need to provide water with a reduced radium level.

Environmentalists need to focus on Underwood Creek and the provisions of the Great Lakes compact and keep this in the courts for as long as possible. Waukesha has a 100 year supply of water and Scrima is introducing to their common council on Tuesday a new company and their technology to remove radium locally. Problem solved.

Waukesha doesn't need Lake Michigan water.

James Rowen said...

There is more than one area company with water treatment technology that is being used elsewhere, but not by Waukesha.