Wednesday, August 25, 2010

SEWRPC Disrespects, Ignores Its Justice Task Force - - Independent Federal Investigation Is In Order

As I had been discussing for the past few days in multiple posts on this blog - - example here - - leaders at the Southeastern Wisconsin Planning Commission (SEWRPC) let its important water supply advisory committee approve Tuesday an incomplete report being prepared by the apparently less-important SEWPRC Environmental Justice Task Force.

Federal agencies recognize environmental justice as a legal operating requirement, and there needs to be an assessment of SEWRPC's dismissive and exclusionary approach to the justice task force that has harmed its ability to do its job.

And this is not the first time that SEWRPC seems tone-deaf to the civil rights implications of its actions, as documented in this posting, with links to two pending complaints.

The report that SEWRPC basically took away from the task force and turned over to the water committee was a consultant's study on the socio-economic impact of having Lake Michigan water diverted to Waukesha, and related water policies regionally.

Carrie Lewis, the manager of the Milwaukee Water Works, and the City of Milwaukee's lone representative on a 32-member water committee - - a hard-working committe, yes, but one set up by SEWRPC's executives as notoriously unrepresentative of the SEWRPC seven-county region population (one Hispanic representative - - since replaced by a Caucasian male - - no African-Americans, no Asians, only two women) - - cast the lone dissenting vote because the justice task force had not yet had its final discussion of the consultant's work and had not taken a vote on whether to endorse the consultant's work.

At one point, SEWRPC was considering allowing the justice task force to conduct its final work on the study by email, but the agency backed down after complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union, and others, about such a process being a violation of Wisconsin's Open Meeting law.

Instead, SEWRPC simply bypassed the justice task force in favor of what it knew would be quick approval action by its water supply advisory committee - - as if that would pass for a fair process or honor the reasons why the justice task force was created in the first place.

More about that in a minute.

But good for Ms. Lewis, and shame on the rest of the members for participating in a procedural charade that effectively marginalizes the justice task force, and keeps it in an agency structure where some committees and their work are more equal than others.

SEWRPC scheduled the next justice task force meeting for 9/2 - - knowing by that time that the water supply committee would have already voted to incorporate the consultant's work into the overall water study.

Because SEWRPC set up the two meetings and their agendas - - and their relative policy impacts - - that way.

SEWRPC says today that any comments the justice task force wishes to make at its post hoc, 9/2 meeting will be incorporated into the final water study - - completing what can only be politely called a you-know-what backwards process, and a shockingly disregard for basic public policy procedures even if issues of minority considerations were taken out of the equation.

But you have to understand the disrespect SEWRPC chose to display towards the volunteers who have sat through many meetings as justice task force members. They accepted an invitation from SEWRPC to do real and needed work and also to help the agency get past its reputation for insensitivity to low-income and minority communities, and to regional racial, environmental justice and equity considerations long-ignored by SEWRPC.

The justice task force was not established in 2007, after 47 years of the agency's existence because SEWRPC realized in a "Eureka" moment of of awareness and self-criticism that its hiring and committee appointment practices repeatedly left out minority representation and work plan focus.

No, it was set up to satisfy criticisms over the agency's insufficient relationships with minority residents and communities that were aired at SEWRPC's mandatory 2004 public federal certification review.

No re-certification, no power to manage certain federal transit and highway funds in the region.

So it set up the justice task force - - and took another two+ years to find members, and get an initial meeting established - - while the water committee, set up in 2005, was working full-steam ahead on a regional water study with barely a shred of minority participation - - but has given the task force a lesser status internally than its higher-profile advisory committees, and has never allowed the task force to even select its own chair.

The dismissive approach by SEWRPC towards a task force it has only grudgingly incorporated into its structure and processes - - the task force had to publicly fight former SEWRPC Executive Director Phil Evenson over getting independent socio-economic analyses included in all SEWRPC regional studies because SEWRPC had not don so on its own - - should most definitely be communicated to federal officials.

Lest SEWRPC be allowed to ignore environmental justice, and to forfeit without consequence any vestige of fairness and genuine interaction towards a large portion of the regional population, already getting minimal attention when it comes to SEWRPC hiring and advisory roles in policy-making.

In a publicly-chartered, 100% taxpayer-funded planning agency, an Environmental Justice Task Force with second-class status reinforced by the agency leadership is a task force that is being prevented from doing its job.

In an agency that is getting away with minimizing - - and that's a generous word - - the value of social and environmental justice in the conduct of its business.

Federal certification reviewers told SEWRPC last year to do a better job engaging the public: does anyone seriously think that kicking the justice task force to the sidelines meets that goal?

The agency gets much of its power from federal transportation and transit agencies, and because the agency has disregarded the outreach and justice components and expectations laid out in its last two quadrennial re-certification reviews by those agencies, an outside and independent federal justice investigation is.

That's the only way we can find out why SEWRPC will not and cannot genuinely engage its minority constituencies.

And probably the only way to drag SEWRPC into the 21st century.


Anonymous said...

Well, I guess we should of seen this coming. SEWRPC scheduling the Water Supply Advisory Committee meeting before the Sept. 2nd EJTF meeting, ignoring and delaying responses to Rowen, and basically ignoring the EJTF for what it is suppose to do.

This should be nice fodder for the ACLU to exemplify the problem(s) with SEWRPC. SEWRPC has perfected the notion of "just going through the motions."

Jim Bouman said...

Hear, hear!

James Rowen said...

What baffles me is that SEWRPC is already the subject of a civil rights complaint over hiring, planning orientation and committee appointments.

There is a serious, long-term and systemic disconnect between SEWRPC management staff, the Commission leadership, and the region they represent, thus with the rules and laws and wider expectations within which they operate.

James Rowen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Rowen said...

Correction: two complaints were filed by the ACLU against SEWRPC, not one.

See - -

Schultzie said...

Wouldn't it be fun if SEWRPC would break up with Ruekert and Mielke the same way that the Highwaymen broke up with WisDOT?