Friday, August 31, 2007

Academia at its Worst

My September Media Rant for the Valley Scene takes on the myth of the liberal university in the context of some recent terminations of "radical" professors at the University of Colorado and DePaul. The text of the rant can be found below and in this link.

Academia at its Worst

The myth of the “liberal” university is as widespread and false as the myth of the “liberal” media. A liberal university (like a liberal media) would be a safe space for dissent and would welcome thinking that challenges established power. Today, universities act like corporate media in treating dissent as “bad for business.” The University of Colorado’s recent termination of Ward Churchill, along with DePaul University’s decision to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein and Mehrene Larudee, make “liberal university” sound like the punch line to a bad joke.

Shortly after September 11, 2001 professor Churchill wrote an essay called “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” In it, he referred to World Trade Center corporate employees as “little Eichmanns,” suggesting that the people who died in the attacks were the moral equivalents of Nazi officials “just following orders” when sending Jews to the death camps. Nearly 6 years later, in July of this year, the Colorado Board of Regents voted 8-1 to approve UC Boulder president Hank Brown’s recommendation that Churchill be fired.

Hank Brown and the Colorado Board of Regents insist Churchill’s firing had nothing to do with his controversial statements, but with research misconduct uncovered by a university committee. They claim instances of plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication can be found in Churchill’s scholarly writings. Though admitting that the extensive review of Churchill’s writings (his work has been examined more thoroughly than probably any scholar in the history of academia) would not have taken place were it not for the media backlash against his 9/11 statements, Brown still claims with a straight face that he received fair treatment.

For his part, Churchill told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the Board had engaged in a “carefully managed illusion of due process.” His view is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, each of which laments the chilling effect the Churchill decision will have on the off-campus speech of professors. The Chronicle also cited Churchill supporter Eric Cheyfitz, a professor of American Studies at Cornell who argues that the Committee making accusations against Churchill itself engaged in research misconduct in a variety of ways including the reliance on scholars who have had longstanding disagreements with him.

The situation was exploited by the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni, along with Bill O’Reilly, David Horowitz, and other right wing media complaining that “Ward Churchill is everywhere” in academia. The University of Colorado administration did not enjoy the negative public relations and, rather than take a stand for the principles of academic freedom and protection of free expression, made what was essentially a business decision to terminate an individual whose words offended those forces in the legislature and media that could do the campus harm.

Professor Norman Finkelstein’s tenure denial at DePaul University presents an even more shocking case of the abandonment of liberal values in the academy. Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust victims, has produced a huge body of scholarly and popular writings that show, among other things, how the Holocaust has been exploited for political gain and how the United States and Israel act in ways that contradict their stated calls for peace in the middle east. The late Raul Hilberg, much admired founder of the field of Holocaust Studies, praised Finkelstein’s scholarship as vital and rigorous.

Finkelstein’s work naturally attracts vehement condemnation, the most vocal and strident from Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. Finkelstein’s 2005 book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, provides evidence that parts of Dershowitz’s 2003 The Case for Israel were plagiarized. Dershowitz proceeded to distribute a dossier of materials to individuals involved in the DePaul tenure decision, identifying “Norman Finkelstein's most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations, and distortions."

The department and college personnel committee, both of which found Dershowitz’s criticisms of Finkelstein’s scholarship to be baseless, granted positive recommendations for tenure. But the Dean of the College along with university president Dennis Holtschneider parroted Dershowitz’s accusations of Finkelstein’s “unprofessional personal attacks” and voted to deny. Holtschneider’s tenure denial letter, available on the web, provides little evidence that he had independently read any of Finkelstein’s work.

Finkelstein told the Chronicle: "DePaul is in a growth mode, and they see me as an albatross because they're getting all this negative publicity because of me. And they want to get rid of me. And now the question is, what's going to prevail? The principles of fairness, the principles of academic freedom, or power and money in the form of a mailed fist?" The DePaul Administration abandoned fairness and academic freedom principles not only for Finkelstein, but also for professor Mehrene Larudee. She was called an outstanding teacher and scholar at every level of review but denied tenure by Holtschneider. Her sin? Publicly supporting Finkelstein.

Universities at their best represent open and safe spaces for free thinking that challenges widely accepted opinions. At their worst, they act like corporate media and stifle dissent in the interest of the bottom line. As regards the treatment of Churchill and Finkelstein, we’ve seen academia at its worst.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tuesday's Meeting

I guess the theme of the Tuesday, August 28th meeting was "deja vu all over again," as there seemed to be lots of familiar topics raised (and not just on the change of government referendum). Some high and low lights:

*Bryan Bain's well meaning attempt to establish a workshop meeting via an ordinance change was defeated. The debate on this matter had deja vu qualities to it, as we once again spent time discussing the length of our meetings. No one on the council enjoys starting workshops at a late time, but there was not majority support for solving that problem by adding another meeting.

I did move to amend the ordinance to require that citizen input would be allowed at workshop meetings. The amendment failed. [Note: Later in the evening we had a workshop dealing with the Inspections Division of the Department of Community Development, and I thought it provided a classic example of why we should have citizen input at workshops. I'll write more about this at a later time.]. Oshkosh News covers the workshop vote here.

*Another Bain proposal, this one an ordinance to create an annual permit for all night parking, was held over until the next meeting. The ordinance as presented has an exception for one entire neighborhood of the city (the campus area.). The concern of the administration was that students in that neighborhood might buy an annual permit for parking and then leave town after 9 months, thus taking that permit out of commission for 3 months and preventing its use by someone else. The problem was/is that not everyone in the neighborhood is a student who leaves town after 9 months, and so essentially we would have a situation where people in that neighborhood would continue to have to get a monthly permit even if they do not meet the student stereotype on which the neighborhood exception is based. Hopefully the administration can find a solution before the next meeting. Oshkosh News covers the matter here.

*After much discussion at prior meetings and workshops, the proposal to renovate the Oshkosh Convention Centre passed after a brief discussion of whether or not to take the city manager's advice to use TIF financing. An amendment to use TIF financing failed 3-4 (Palmeri, King, McHugh, and Frank Tower voting against TIF). The vote on the original resolution, to renovate using monies from the Capital Improvements budget, was unanimous. I suspect the vote was unanimous at least in part because we learned that Award Hospitality is in active negotiations to purchase the Park Plaza Hotel. I voted in favor of the renovation mostly because I think the city has a responsibility to maintain buildings that it owns; the idea that we should simply tear down buildings that we have let suffer via deferred maintenance does not sit well. I also believe that if managed well (a very big IF, I know) the Convention Centre CAN add a great deal to the downtown economy.

*My resolution to set a special November election for a change of government referendum failed 2-5, with only Paul Esslinger and I voting for it. I thought, and still think, that resolving the appointed vs. elected executive issue is the key item that needs to be resolved before we can move forward productively. I completely understand the opposition to what I was proposing, but what was frustrating was the lack of coherent suggestions on how to move forward in the absence of a special referendum.

One exception was Burk Tower's opposition, which was useful in terms of articulating a point of view on how to move the city forward; Burk just doesn't think a referendum is necessary and believes we ought to proceed with a manager search no matter what citizens decide to do. I disagree with him strongly, and think that if we follow his suggestion we will simply be repeating the mistakes of 1996, but at least he left little doubt about what direction he thinks we need to go in.

Much of the other opposition was along the lines of "we might need a referendum, just not this one at this time." Or "we need a community discussion." Okay, but if history is a guide we can see where we are headed: discussions will go on endlessly and without direction or not go on at all, the council at some point will have to begin a manager search, citizens convinced a change is needed will attempt to put a referendum on the ballot, and once again we will be right back where we were in 1996.

Jim Simmons during the citizen statements suggested the idea of a "Charter Convention" to arrive at a new form of government. I think it's a good idea, but the fact that it came from Simmons will make it immediately unacceptable to those who support the manager/council form of government. Strong supporters of manager/council need to come out in favor of something like a Charter Convention if it is to have any chance.

I do hope that I am dead wrong on most of this, and that somehow in the next few months a series of discussions will miraculously arrive at "the" referendum question that meets everyone's approval. Don't hold your breath.

*We had 11 people speak during citizen statements, including two people who criticized me virulently for speaking out against David Omachinski's appointment to the redevelopment authority. One gentleman said, in what I guess was a market defense of outsourcing, that Omachinski was "simply an employee following orders." He's not wrong: read Robert Jackall's 1988 Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, for some great insight into the "bureaucratic ethic" that creates the CEO mentality. Read some Hannah Arendt or Stanley Milgram too.

Other citizens came to say that the neighborhood around the old Mercy Medical Center (not too far from where I live) is seeing an increase in deteriorating properties and criminal activities. It's good to see people speaking out about such matters; my hope is that such speaking out will lead to the creation of strong neighborhood associations capable of organizing blocks and sponsoring collective action.

*During Council Member statements, Councilor King issued what on the agenda was called "Apology to Mr. Omachinski." Several times she referred to herself as a "progressive Democrat" while seeming to blame outsourcing on the American consumer. Our vote against Omachinski was compared to McCarthyism, a charge repeated here. Pat Belongie's letter (scroll down) offered support for my view. She must not be a progressive Democrat.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Response to Attack Editorial

The Northwestern published my response to their Aug. 19 attack editorial today, leaving out the word "attack" in the first line. Yesterday the paper wrote an editorial in favor of placing a change of government referendum on the November ballot, but it is not online yet. Here's the letter I sent responding to the attack editorial.

To the Editor:

The Northwestern’s attack editorial of August 19 did not accurately summarize my reasons for voting against Mayor Tower’s appointment of former Oshkosh B’Gosh executive David Omachinski to sit on the Redevelopment Authority.

From1993-2002 Mr. Omachinski was Vice-President of Finance, Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer at B’Gosh. On his resume’ he lists as one of his accomplishments: “Successfully developed and carried out 5 year plan to migrate all domestic manufacturing to offshore sources.” Oshkosh B’Gosh continued to use our city’s name even as they sent all the manufacturing jobs to the third world. During Mr. Omachinski’s reign as Chief Financial Officer the company should have changed its name to “Honduras B’Gosh.”

I also opposed the appointment because we simply need to see more diversity on the Redevelopment Authority. Industry, finance, and big business are currently very well represented on the Oshkosh Redevelopment Authority. Instead of throwing a tantrum when the Council dares to say No to a CFO, the Northwestern should urge the creation of an Authority that is truly representative of the entire community. A truly representative Redevelopment Authority is more likely to pursue policies that benefit all of the taxpayers, including victims of outsourcing.

Tony Palmeri
Oshkosh Common Council

Thursday, August 23, 2007

All Those Years Ago

I'm back to blogging after bad weather knocked out my phone and Internet service for a few days.

Kudos to the Oshkosh Northwestern for going back to the archives and linking articles related to the search for a city manager in 1996. You can find the materials in the community forum here. I think a consensus has developed that all those years ago it would have made much sense to get the form of government question settled before moving on with a manager search.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Possible Referendum Question

Below is what I sent city attorney Kraft today to request placement on the council's August 28th agenda. He said he would have a response by the end of the day:

Be it resolved, that the Oshkosh Common Council call for a special ballot on Tuesday, November 6th so that electors may vote on the following:

It is hereby ordained that the city of Oshkosh shall abandon the city manager form of government and reorganize under Chapter 62 of Wisconsin State Statutes. A Mayor shall be a full-time Chief Executive Officer of the City. The Mayor shall be elected at-large to a term of four years. The Mayoral election and reorganization under Chapter 62 shall take place in April of 2008.



Monday, August 20, 2007

The Road Ahead

As noted in this Oshkosh Northwestern summary, effective October 13th Richard Wollangk will retire as City Manager.

The Northwestern summary says that "an interim manager will be appointed as a national search gets underway for a new manager." An interim manager will indeed be appointed, but the Council has not yet decided to start a national search for a new manager.

If the Council were to start a national search for a new manager, I am quite sure that such a move would provoke a citizen movement to change the form of government.

As we learned in 1996, it makes little sense to begin a search for a city manager until citizens have made their voice heard on the form of government. As a result, at the next Council meeting (August 28) I am going to ask the Council to approve the placement of language on a special November referendum ballot that would ask citizens it they want to discontinue the City Manager form of government and move to the strong Mayor form outlined in chapter 62 of the Wisconsin State Statutes.

If the citizens reject a change in government, then the Council should move full steam ahead with a search for a new manager. But to begin that search without first having a change of government referendum--which would mean only that citizens themselves would prepare a referendum question for the April ballot--would make it very difficult to attract qualified city manager candidates and place us right back in the position we were 10 years ago.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) I will present a possible referendum language to the city attorney. When I get feedback on the appropriateness of the language, I will post it on this blog.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Palmeri On Your Radio

I'll be on the Friday, Aug. 17 Wisconsin Public Radio "Week in Review" from 8 - 9 a.m. Also on the show will be Marathon County Republican Kevin Hermening. We were on the show together in June of 2006.

Whatever happened to Joe Jackson?

Here's one of my all time favorite tunes:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tuesday's Meeting

Here's some highlights from last night's Common Council meeting.

*Before we got to citizen statements, Councilor Bain read this statement:

There has been a lot of discussion concerning my participation in the deliberations regarding the City Manager. Unfortunately, some issues have become unclear, and I would like to clarify some concerns that have been raised.

I want to make it clear that it was my decision to leave the July 30th closed session. My decision was based on the advice of the council’s attorney. I was advised not to participate due to public statements I made regarding city leadership. Given that advice, I felt at that time the best decision possible was to leave the meeting. I was not kicked out, and there are no laws that prevent me from attending and participating."

I will, however, be participating in tomorrow’s closed session, where I have been informed that the council will review a possible alternative resolution.

Hopefully Bryan's statement will put an end to the phone calls asking "why you kicked Mr. Bain out of the meeting."

*The Council was asked to approve the appointment of former Oshkosh B'Gosh Executive David Omachinski to serve on the Redevelopment Authority. Normally mayoral appointments in our form of government are rubber stamped by the council, but on this occasion Dennis McHugh, Paul Esslinger and I voted "No" and the resolution to appoint was thus defeated on a 3-3 tie (Jess King was not at the meeting.). Here is a draft of comments I made before voting no (some of my remarks were extemporaneous so this is not an exact transcript of what I said):

The resolution asks us to approve the appointment of David Omachinksi to the Redevelopment Authority. I do not know Mr. Omachinski, but in our packets we have his resume'; based on what I see in it I will have to vote no.

Mr. Omachinski served in a variety of Executive positions at Oshkosh B’gosh from 1993-2005. From 1993-2002 he was Vice-President of Finance, Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer of the company. On his resume he lists as one of his accomplishments: Successfully developed and carried out 5 year plan to migrate all domestic manufacturing to offshore sources. As a result, he improved gross profit margin over 800 basis points.” In 1996 Oshkosh B’Gosh was still the 3rd largest employer in the city of Oshkosh. By the time Mr. Omachinski was done with his 5 year plan we have lost every single manufacturing job. Every one. And where did those jobs go?

A report issued in late 2003 by the National Labor Committee detailed the horrors at a textile plant in El Salvador. Here’s what they found: "Each worker had to sew 34 pairs of Oshkosh children's pants a day, while being paid just 19 cents for each pair they sewed. Workers' wages come to less than 9/10ths of one percent of the retail price."

At the same plant, the NLC found: supervisors scream and curse at the workers; women not working fast enough are made to stand in the corner; workers needed permission to drink water or go to the bathroom; women had to submit to forced pregnancy tests when hired and three months later and if testing positive were immediately fired; limited access to health care; U.S. corporate codes of conduct were never explained and meaningless; workers constantly intimidated in an atmosphere of blatant repression of the legal rights to freedom of association and to organize. The management of the plant made a direct threat to the workers:
"If a union comes into the factory, it is going to die. If a union is ever organized here, we are going to leave the country and shut down the factory."

I understand that Mr. Omachinski was just doing his job. He did it, and we know that in the garment industry, it can be a very nasty world.

As a Common Council, we have the power to say no to this appointment. The state statutes governing redevelopment authorities says:

In making appointments of commissioners, the appointing power shall give due consideration to the general interest of the appointee in a redevelopment, slum clearance or urban renewal program and shall, insofar as is possible, designate representatives from the general public, labor, industry, finance or business group, and civic organizations.

Our current redevelopment authority is well represented by individuals from industry and business groups. We should have a representative from labor on the authority, and I think the mayor should appoint someone from that area.

Oshkosh News covers my comments here.

*A woman concerned about noise and lighting at Titan Stadium delivered a passionate presentation during citizen statements. Mr. Bain and Mayor Tower heard her concerns at the Fifth Tuesday Forum and are in the process of getting some answers for her.

*Mr. Esslinger asked the city manager some questions about the 100 block financing and how it might relate to the Akcess development in terms of guarantees provided to make up for shortfalls. The answers provided were vague and will have to be revisited.

*The Council approved recommendations by Mr. Bain to make motions to Table and motions to Suspend Rules debatable. The recommendations passed on a 4-2 vote (Palmeri and McHugh voting No). I voted no because (1) I think debating these motions will make our meetings even longer than is already the case; and (2) a councilor uncertain about why a motion to table or suspend rules was made should simply, in my opinion, vote no.

*We had a budget workshop after the meeting which was too long for me to summarize here. One thing I did point out which I think bears repeating here is that in an annual financial report that we were provided, pp. 108-109 break down employment in the city in terms of manufacturing, non-manufacturing, and government jobs. The source of the information is the Chamber of Commerce, which (I am not making this up) list the Miles Kimball Company as having 1,250 manufacturing jobs in the community. I imagine that some manufacturing might go on there, though would not know it from the company's recruitment language, which says: Employment opportunities may exist in the key areas of merchandising, creative, inventory planning, customer service, marketing, information systems, printing, finance, fulfillment and human resources.

We should be thankful that Miles Kimball employs over 1,200 people, but calling them all manufacturing jobs reminds me of the Bush Administration's attempt to call fast food workers "manufacturers" (they do, after all, "make" the burgers, right?).

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

R.I.P: Phil "The Scooter" Rizzuto

New York Yankees' Hall of Fame shortstop and broadcaster Phil Rizzuto died today at the age of 89. I grew up watching Yankee games on WPIX TV in New York (often on a rabbit eared antenna television that required a pair of pliers to change the channel), and Rizzuto was by far my favorite broadcaster.

Rizzuto was an Italian-Catholic guy from Brooklyn and maybe I identified with him for that reason alone, but I think it was more than that. He had an engaging, youthful wackiness about him that many of us lose when we become "serious" adults. If your favorite uncle was a sports broadcaster, he'd probably sound a bit like Phil Rizzuto. Here's his 1994 induction speech at Cooperstown.

Thanks for the memories, Phil. I'm sure I'm not the only person who lost interest inYankee broadcasts after you retired.

Northwestern Should Apologize For 100 Block Role

The Oshkosh Northwestern Editorial Board's outrage over the 100 block and call for future transparency is amusing given that the paper in 2001 played a key role in preventing the public from learning the intricacies of the Ganther/Niebauer/Kinney financing scheme. My recollection is this:

In late March of 2001 the Common Council held a closed meeting in which two proposals for the 100 block were considered: an office complex and a mixed use development (the Ganther/Niebauer proposal). Before the Council met on April 10th, there was no announcement that the Ganther proposal had been selected, nor did the Oshkosh Northwestern do any digging to find out what the Council had done behind closed doors. That means that during the critical two week period between the time the Council met in closed session and the time they would meet in public to approve the 100 block proposal, no serious attempt was made to investigate the nature of the financing plan.

On the day of the April 10th meeting, when it became clear to some government watchers that the Council should delay a vote since a questionable deal was being rushed through, this is what the Oshkosh Northwestern editorial board wrote:

"While we are sure the Common Council will want to peer into all of the nooks and crannies of the proposals, which is prudent, it cannot afford protracted, frivolous deliberations."

As it turned out, only Councilors Melanie Bloechl and Kevin McGee had any interest in peering into the nooks and crannies of the proposals, and as I recall Bloechl called to delay a vote to allow for more public input. The call was not listened to. Thus the Ganther/Niebauer/Kinney financing scheme was put into place with little input from the public and no resistance from the Northwestern.

Today's Northwestern editorial talks about lessons learned from the 100 block fiasco, but it is not clear that the editorialists have yet learned any. Last week's paper included an absolutely inane editorial on TIF financing that contributed little to our understanding of that important topic, and today's editorial refers to the Akcess Waterfront proposal as a "far more confident" and "fiscally supported" effort than Five Rivers or the 100 block. Exactly how is it that a development can be labeled "far more confident" when its centerpiece--an office building--will house already existing local businesses, the majority of whom have yet to even make a commitment to locate there? The Waterfront proposal might be more fiscally supported, but only if we have faith that what we are being told about master developer agreements and pay-go TIFs is accurate.

Based on the track record of the city officals responsible for cutting such deals, and the Northwestern's track record of after-the-fact outrage, it's not clear that the Waterfront proposal deserves to be treated with enthusiasm at this point.

The Northwestern's call for transparency in future projects is much appreciated. However, in order for their call to be credible they should do two things:
*Apologize for their role in creating the conditions that led to the 100 block fiasco.
*Engage in more in-depth and serious reporting on TIF, master developer agreements, and other redevelopment tools.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Real Problem With Workshops

As reported in the Northwestern, Councilor Bain is proposing a new ordinance that would dedicate the first Tuesday of each month to workshop sessions. Currently workshops are held after council meetings, and often do not start until 10 p.m. or later.

I think the late start of workshop sessions has been a problem, but there are bigger problems with the workshops that the ordinance does not address. The workshops, I have noticed, actually are ways to circumvent citizen input. They do this in two ways.

First, citizens generally have not been allowed to speak at workshops. The common pattern has been for the Mayor and/or Council to invite guests (e.g. the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the DOT, etc.) who usually give a presentation and are then questioned by the Council. The only recent workshop I can recall that allowed citizen input was the second workshop we had on the Convention Center.

Second and equally troubling is the fact that the Council often gives "direction" to the city staff at the workshops which have the force of resolutions. For example, when the Department of Community Development originally proposed a TIF financing model for the Convention Center, they did it at the "direction" of the Council in workshop session. Many other examples could be provided.

Whether we have workshop meetings on the first Tuesdays, keep them where they currently are, or create another alternative, we have to do something to make sure they feature genuine citizen input. Moreover, we have to make sure that the Council is not using the workshops as a way to provide direction to the staff without having to actually vote on those directions.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Media Rant: Looking For Love In The Immigration Debate

Lori and I are off to Kansas City and a few other towns and so I won't be posting again until late next week.

The August issue of the Valley Scene (not available on-line) features a few pieces on immigration. I'll leave you with my contribution: Looking For Love In The Immigration Debate.