Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanksgiving When People Make The Public Interest Their Special Interest

Today I'm giving thanks to the volunteers and non-profit organizations and staffers that aren't getting rich when working for fresh air, clean water, land preservation, economic equality, alternative energy, social justice and world peace

So many to thank - - and you know who you are - - but here are a few:

The good folks who trying to maintain and preserve the Monarch Trail on the County Grounds, where an unholy alliance of officials from the private sector, UWM, Milwaukee County and the City of Wauwatosa are hell-bent on digging up and paving over a key section of open space in the Milwaukee County.

Hats off to those volunteers.

*  Then there are publicly-minded citizens working to keep Lake Michigan water planning and growth plans in Waukesha County out in the open.

Which is not easy, as the City of Waukesha canceled a meeting with another public body - - the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - - because representatives from a coalition of environmental organizations wanted to sit in and observe a discussion about Waukesha's controversial application for a diversion of Lake Michigan water.

Details here.

Citing his city attorney, the Waukesha Common Council president Paul Ybarra charged that the observers were a "special interest."

The letter with that absurd claim has been posted by the DNR, here.

That's the public's reward for being interested in how its money and environment is to be used, and for trying to maintain a transparent process that began, I will remind you, with Waukesha's two attempts to win a Lake Michigan diversion with a back-door confidential process discovered through the Wisconsin Open Meetings law.

So you want to know what a special interest is? Here's a good example (hat tip, road-builders.)

Or how the special interests work? Learn from the oil and gas lobbyists.

Waukesha County has a decades-old watchdog group, the Waukesha Environmental Action League (WEAL) - - what Ybarra & Co. presumably think is a fearsome "special interest." Consider its position on wetlands, for example:

"...preserving and enhancing the natural heritage of Waukesha County. We encourage developers, private landowners, and governments to preserve and protect wetlands by setting them aside as outlots, conservation easements, or through purchase by public or private agencies."

 Special interest or public interest?

*  And speaking of people trying to keep the public's business open - - a goal too often ignored by public employees being paid to perform and protect public business and interests - - here's a little information a less-well-publicized struggle for open and democratic government activity.

An Environmental Justice Task Force (EJTF) set up in 2007 under pressure by federal regulators who evaluate the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission is not producing accurate and complete minutes of the task force's public meetings, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.

This dispute has arisen because SEWRPC does not carry out video or even simpler audio recordings of its meetings from which meeting minutes could be then be produced and posted online.

(I raised this issue unsuccessfully with then SEWRPC Deputy Director, and now Executive Director Ken Yunker, after a 2005 session of the SEWRPC water supply advisory committee.)

SEWRPC assigns a planner to take notes at the EJTF meetings, but has refused to provide those notes so that that the accuracy of some meeting minutes could be validated.

The Open Records law provides an exemption to disclosure of some notes - - but is legal parsing and reliance on technicalities any way to run a public meeting, or to respond to a request from an observer about the meeting minutes' accuracy?

Yunker has said he would try and resolve disagreements about the minutes - - but there are ways to make sure this doesn't happen again: how about getting a nice digital voice-activated audio recorder?

They now come with a little pop-out, built-in USB plug for a computer connection to facilitate transcription and cost about $70. I just bought one.

SEWRPC could do that, too, or with a few bucks more, videotape and stream meeting content, too, because the technology gets less costly by the month.

You could watch all of SEWRPC's proceedings, and archive them.

The agency finally has an updated website, but can't take some baby steps to make the most if it.

Money is not the issue: SEWRPC ponies up $1,000 every year for a thank-you dinner for Commissioners, senior staff and consultants - - these soirees are held at The University Club on the lower east side in Milwaukee - - but chooses to document meetings with ball point pens and note paper, and leaves the advocacy for open meeting content and policy-making discussions to more motivated observers.

We all owe these advocates and activists and others our thanks for their special interest in the public interest.


Melissa Malott said...

Mmm-hmm, that WEAL mission for wetlands is an excellent example of an extreme special interest group.

But seriously, that's a wonderful post, Jim; I'm thankful for all the people I know who work hard for a better future for Wisconsin, including you.

Anonymous said...

James, your cummulative reporting, the overview of environmental interests gives us all the sense of accomplishment. You are an umbrella of understanding and encouragment. We thank YOU.

James Rowen said...

Thank you for these comments. Now everyone go eat dinner.

SocratesChildren said...

My company transcribes recorded voice. Last year I purchased a digital recorder because I was impressed by the quality of the digital recording. I have since loaned it free to two clients who were about to do interviews on (low quality) tapes.

I offer this device to SEWRPC for a meeting, after which they can easily upload the audio to a computer, to their web site. No charge. Just good will. They may just like it enough to buy one ($150 at Office Depot).

eddee said...

And thanks to you, for providing information and insight. Keep up the good work!