Thursday, July 31, 2008

August Media Rant: Interview With Ron Hardy

For the August Media Rant, I interviewed Oshkosh's own Ron Hardy (aka Babblemur). Ron is co-chair of the Wisconsin Greens and participated in the convention that nominated the historic "Power to the People" ticket of Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente for President and Vice-President. The Rant is called "Green Blackout." Here it is:

An Obamaniac recently told me that Barack’s election in November would be the best thing for the “little guy” since FDR. If true, you’d think the “big guys” might be threatened by him. Yet as of mid-July, 75 corporations have publicly committed to sponsoring the Democratic National Convention in Denver (compared to 50 for the Republicans). These “friends of the little guy” paying for Barack’s podium include pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Merck, huge corporate welfare recipients like Archer Daniels Midland, and telecommunications giant AT&T.

On July 12th, without corporate sponsorship, the Green Party of the United States at its Chicago convention nominated former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney for President and hip-hop activist/journalist Rosa Clemente for VP. Rooted in America’s movement tradition for justice, McKinney in her acceptance speech linked her “Power to the People” campaign to 19th century abolitionist Sojourner Truth, who told a women’s convention in 1851: "If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!"

Northeast Wisconsin’s corporate media censored news of McKinney’s nomination even though Wisconsin Green Party co-chair Ron Hardy lives in Oshkosh and blogs for Gannett’s Oshkosh Northwestern. I interviewed Ron for this column to get his take on media coverage of McKinney and why citizens should consider voting Green in November.

Media Rants: How has the establishment, corporate media treated the McKinney campaign? Did corporate media show up at the Chicago convention?

Hardy: As far as I could tell, C-SPAN was the only "big" media present at the Convention. There were a number of independent media present, including Pacifica Radio, along with bloggers and independent film producers, but corporate media was nowhere.

Media Rants: How does the Green Party propose to get McKinney's message out in the face of what appears to be a corporate media blackout of her campaign?

Hardy: The campaign will have to rely on "under the radar" media outlets on the Internet and on the streets. Rosa Clemente is a journalist herself, and there are a host of underground media outlets such as Black World Today, The Final Call, Ave. Magazine, Black Commentator and others that have large and dedicated followings. I expect that a good portion of the word on this Power to the People ticket of McKinney/Clemente is going to be spread through social networks, underground zines (print and online), and word of mouth. I think we are going to see a lot more grassroots, "urban-roots" and "net-roots" campaigning from the McKinney-Clemente ticket.

Also keep in mind that the vote that this campaign is going to be targeting such as youth and other disenfranchised and disrespected groups are much more likely to be getting their information online or through social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook rather than "mainstream media". So does the lack of coverage matter that much anyway?

Media Rants: Why should progressives thinking of voting for Obama choose McKinney instead?

Hardy: We are already seeing a disintegration in Obama's "progressive" support, especially after his vote for the new FISA bill in the Senate that expands the Federal Government's domestic surveillance program and further erodes our civil liberties. True progressives are angry at Obama's apparent abandonment of core progressive positions on civil liberties, single-payer universal health care, living wage, fair trade over "free trade", ending the illegal and immoral Bush War on Iraq, and serving the People over the Corporate Interest.

If voters want to vote for a candidate that supports a single-payer universal health care system in America modeled after Medicare, if voters want an end to the War on Drugs, the War on Human Rights, and the War on Civil Liberties, and if voters want to vote for a candidate that has more federal experience fighting for progressive causes in Congress than both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama combined, then they will find a safe vote with Cynthia McKinney.

Media Rants: People often vote for third party candidates in order to “send a message.” What message would be sent by voting Green in 2008?

Hardy: The McKinney/Clemente Power to the People campaign is going to be providing a voice to the voiceless, and a choice to progressives who are tired of expecting the same people who led America into the mess it is in now to suddenly lead us out. We are losing our jobs to other countries that either provide universal health care or no labor rights at all; we are losing our homes to foreclosures; we are losing our privacy rights to the War on Civil Liberties; and we losing our appreciation and value for human rights in general. We as Americans need to reclaim our government and the values that we share as a Nation. A vote for McKinney and Clemente will send that message to Washington D.C.

The Nation’s John Nichols says, “McKinney is an ardent advocate for national health care, expanded education spending and energy policies that emphasize mass transportation and conservation rather than rewarding oil-company profiteering.” To see her “speak truth to power” approach to politics, watch the movie “American Blackout” ( and tell the corporate media to stop censoring the campaign.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Open Government and Executive Level Transparency

Stew Rieckman deserves kudos for challenging local units of government to be truly transparent. (I wish he were equally challenging towards the state legislature--a corrupt and hypocritical outfit that rarely meets in open session, meets regularly in closed partisan caucuses, and houses only one member--Rep. Cory Mason--willing to open the caucuses to public view.). Still, I think Stew was off base in his Sunday column.

Since mid-June, every member of the Common Council has been deluged (no pun intended) with phone calls, emails, and other communications pleading with city government to explain what can and/or will be done to address flooding issues in the city. Many people ask and make comments about plans for the Westhaven golf course. Citizens want more--not less--open discussion among elected officials and city hall staff about such matters.

Given the city wide concern about such issues, I found it perfectly appropriate for councilors Burk Tower and Paul Esslinger to place on our agenda as items for "council member statements, announcements, and discussion" matters related to flooding and the golf course plans. Based on the state Department of Justice Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide, the manner in which the items were noticed on the agenda seems to be appropriate and reasonable.

Stew acknowledges that the council took no action on any item and there were no votes. He claims that as a result of the discussion, the following items were learned:

  • The controversial Westhaven Golf Course retention pond, nature preserve plan was dead.
  • That the city might own two golf courses.
  • That the city might sell the Lake Shore Municipal Golf Course in favor of buying and operating a modified Westhaven Golf Course for flood control.
  • That the city can turn off your water service if you do not comply with sump pump discharge ordinances.
  • That the town of Algoma does not directly contribute to Oshkosh’s flooding problems.
In getting the city hall administration to reveal the above and other pieces of information, the council did not abuse the open meetings law. Rather, we did something that is all too rare: we demanded transparency from the City Hall staff. Citizens could have gone many more months thinking that the original plan for flood control at the Westhaven Golf Course was still "in play" if you will. Instead, we now know that the plan is off the table. That's a victory for transparency.

Citizens could have gone many months wondering if the possible selling of the Lakeshore course was being contemplated. We now know that it is. That's a victory for transparency.

Forcing executive level transparency is not common in Oshkosh. Instead, what typically happens is that individual councilors approach various department heads and get their questions answered privately. It seems to me much more in the spirit and letter of open government regulations to have open discussion of administrative plans.

Stew is also concerned about lack of citizen input during such wide ranging discussions. I am concerned about that too, which is why a year ago I argued that citizen comments should be allowed at all workshops. I don't remember receiving any editorial support or comment for that position.

In short, I agree that the potential for abuse of open government is always present at all meetings of legislatures. However, such abuse did NOT take place at the July 22 common council meeting. Councilors B. Tower and Esslinger took the leadership to provoke necessary public discussion of issues that the majority of citizens see as urgent. These discussions succeeded in bringing some executive level transparency to our proceedings--something that the press should encourage.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Executive Level Duties, Responsibilities, and Authority

Here's one thing that became crystal and painfully clear during last Tuesday's Common Council meeting: we have been without executive level leadership for so long in the city of Oshkosh that a majority of sitting councilors no longer even expect the management level to meet its statutory and city municipal code mandated duties and responsibilities. Nor do the majority expect that the executive level will exercise the authority necessary to carry out his duties and responsibilities. [In no way is this a criticism of acting city manager John Fitzpatrick. John went above and beyond the call of duty during his time in the CM chair. He could have coasted but he chose instead to begin the process of restoring some trust in City Hall. Thanks John.].

The issue provoking this discussion of executive level duties is, of course, the manner in which we awarded a Class B combination liquor license. Mr. Esslinger could not participate in the debate or vote as he was one of the applicants. Ms. King could not vote as the applicant that was ultimately given the license (Boat Yard Bar & Grill) is one of her law firm's clients. Thus, we needed 4 out of 5 councilors to agree on an applicant.

I tried to lay over the vote because, even though each applicant had provided us with some information about their project, we had literally no information, recommendation, or any guidance whatsoever from city administration. [Actually that's not entirely true; if the Redevelopment Authority is thought of as an arm of the Department of Community Development, then the RDA's request that we hold on to the license until such time that the RDA might secure some development could be interpreted as an administrative recommendation. I would find it highly unacceptable and even a bit pathetic if that was the best recommendation the administration could come up with].

Granting a liquor license is not something to be taken lightly. Since so much economic development in our state and region revolves around the need for such licenses, and since the licenses are in short supply, the decision of how to allocate them ought to be made in as rational a manner as possible. Of the 6 applicants, which is most likely to revive a redevelopment area in most need at this point? Which project would have the best "economic multiplier" effect? Of the applicants that have applied who have local track records, what is their reputation? Up to date on taxes? Met all other commitments? How do each of these projects meet the city's goals as specified in our comprehensive plan? These and dozens of other questions are of the type that any sitting councilor can try to answer on his or her own (and of course we would need much more time than Friday evening through Tuesday to do that; I personally was not able to analyze all the applications over the weekend, and I taught a 3-hour class on Monday and Tuesday. The only applicant I had the chance to talk to was John Carlson of the McKnight/Carlson group.). I cannot believe that any councilor had the time necessary to do the proper kind of research or analysis necessary to make this decision in as rational a manner as possible. (If they did have such time, it certainly did not reveal itself in the quality of our discussion and debate; no councilor was able to speak in solid, concrete terms about any of the proposals.).

In our system of government, part-time councilors are supposed to be aided by the full-time professionals in city hall, including the city manager level which is authorized to direct city staff to prepare information and/or recommendations. On this issue, for some reason, 5 of 6 councilors did not want the administration to do its job. (Mr. McHugh had some interest in laying over the resolution, but would not second my resolution to do so.).

The idea that a part-time council would not want information and/or a recommendation from the executive level on a matter like this is shocking to me. Let's review exactly what the executive level duties, responsibilities, and authority are in the city of Oshkosh:

Chapter 2, article IV, sec. 2-19 (Duties and Responsibilities of City Manager) includes:
(G) All fiscal transactions of the City.
(I) Keep the Council informed on all matters.

Clearly, licensing is a fiscal transaction, while "keep the Council informed on all matters" must, at a minimum, keep us informed about the economic and/or other consequences of restaurant and tavern proposals before us.

What about the Manager's authority? Chapter 2, article 4, sec. 2-20 says that the City Manager shall have the authority to:
(E) Make recommendations to the Council on all matters of municipal concern.

Is there anyone out there who believes, really and with a straight face, that the awarding of a precious class B license is not a "matter of municipal concern?"

I did not expect John Fitzpatrick, going into his last meeting as acting CM, to take on these executive level responsibilities. My goal was to delay this item for Mr. Rohloff. A recommendation from him would be especially appropriate as he has said that downtown redevelopment is a high priority for him and we hired him explicitly to take on an economic development role. Delaying this proposal would have given us an opportunity to see exactly what he views as high priority development for Oshkosh.

Keep in mind that we regularly receive executive level information and recommendations on a range of issues, ALL of which are "political." Why the class B license issue is any different remains a mystery. I do hope that incoming city manager Mark Rohloff is able and willing to remind the council of the statutory principles governing the Council/Manager relationship. The Manager level is fully within its rights and responsibilities to make recommendations on all matters of municipal concern. The Council cannot silence that level of leadership because of some vague fear of "politics" getting into that office.

The Final Thought: The Council/Manager relationship requires, at a minimum, that the legal requirements of that relationship as stated in state statutes and the city's municipal codes are upheld.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Supple Group Removes Itself From Akcess Project

The Oshkosh Common Council just received the press release below from Jay Supple. It speaks for itself.

The Supple Group will be removing itself from the downtown Oshkosh Fox River Development. The Supple Group was originally solicited by Akcess Acquisition Group to operate both the future hotel and restaurant as part of the overall development project. The Supples have worked closely with Akcess researching complementary hotel and restaurant brands for the waterfront. Although the Supples were successful in attracting a number of viable hotel brands and developed a restaurant concept for the site, the group has amicably decided to part ways on the project. Both Akcess and the Supple Group continue to be positive about the future of the entire waterfront development and continue to be passionate towards growth in Oshkosh. Jay Supple stated, “As Oshkosh business owners and residents, our family will always be committed to the City of Oshkosh. Our corporate headquarters are here, and this is where we live and raise our children. We are proud of everything we have built in this city and will continue to support and be active in developing Oshkosh.”

Happy Birthday Cat

Today is the 60th birthday of Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. A Muslim since 1977, in 2004 the US government's refusal to allow him into the country became a symbol of the paranoid and absurd side of the War on Terror. Since 2005 he has won two libel suits in Europe (see here and here), contributing damages to charity.

Below are two versions of his famous song "Peace Train." The first is recent, the second from his pre-Muslim pop star period.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Underdog Writes Letter

Mark Reiff, the Republican challenger and underdog in the 54th district state assembly race against incumbent Democrat Gordon Hintz, wrote a letter appearing in today's Northwestern. Commenting on Jeff Wood's decision to leave the Republican Party, Reiff says, "A sitting legislator actually attempting to reduce the amount of state interference in the lives of our citizens and businesses would be a far better test of courage than simply changing labels." Meanwhile, Gordon is in the paper trying to explain the state's plan to reduce staffing at the Oshkosh Job Center.

Conventional wisdom in Oshkosh is that Gordon is a lock to win reelection. He's visible in the community, can raise money, and is an effective street level campaigner. The only way Reiff can win (and in fact the only way any assembly challenger can defeat a sitting incumbent absent some scandal or major "throw the bums out" mood in the electorate) is by outworking Hintz in a vigorous door-to-door campaign. Getting assistance from Simon Bar Sinister political operatives just isn't enough to win assembly campaigns.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Burayidi on TIF

Dr. Michael Burayidi, Director of the UW Oshkosh Urban and Regional Studies program, sent the following op-ed to the Northwestern and copied it to the City Council. Money quote:

The TIF program started out as a noble idea by state governments to help cities revitalize blighted neighborhoods that otherwise would not attract economic investment . . . As is often the case with all things noble, there is potential for abuse. How else does one explain the request by the EAA for a $1.9 million TIF support from the city to build an exhibition hall; a project that does not meet any of the TIF requirements?

Here's the full op-ed

It’s Time for a Moratorium on TIFs

Let’s take a time out in creating new tax increment districts. The first such district in Oshkosh was created in the 1970s and since then, we’ve not taken the time to critically reflect and assess the program to see if we are getting our money’s worth. Luckily, one of the newly established goals for the City Manager is a requirement that he provides an annual report of each of the city’s TIF districts to the Common Council. This should provide us with the opportunity to evaluate the program.

The State Department of Revenue which monitors the TIF program requires municipalities to report the base and current values, as well as the TIF increments overtime. These requirements may not be enough because they don’t help us answer some of the most important questions such as: How do the TID value increments compare to the rest of the municipal property value increment? How many jobs, and what types of jobs were created in the TIDs? What is the public expenditure/job ratio? What is the average wage rate in the TIDs? What has been the tax burden of the TIDs for the county and school district?

In an independent research that I am conducting using data from over three hundred TIDs in the state, I am finding that municipalities do not routinely collect these types of data, hence making it difficult to answer the aforementioned questions. The Common Council can require that city staff make these types of data a part of the report they submit for review.

A quarter of our annual budget currently goes to service the city’s debt. Not all of this debt is due to the creation of tax increment districts, but it does add up. The City of Oshkosh currently has seventeen TIDs, some more successful than others. Appleton and Green Bay each have six tax increment districts, and Fond du Lac has eight. TIDs are costly to communities not just because of the upfront infrastructure cost that municipalities have to bear, but also because they defer revenue that would otherwise go to counties and school districts until the TIF debt is paid off. For school districts in particular, this could mean that they are unable to hire more teachers or undertake needed building repair.

TIFs also have the potential to increase the tax burden for community residents. When TIFs promote residential development such as the one on the 100 Block, they increase the population that resides on the site. The new residents require, and are provided with city services. Their garbage must be collected and they need police and fire service, among others. In the meantime, the increased taxes generated from the development are not available to the city to help pay for these services. This is because the increased tax revenues are put into a segregated fund to pay off the TID debt. This could take decades to pay off. The result is a potential increase in property taxes to meet the shortfall in revenue.

The TIF program started out as a noble idea by state governments to help cities revitalize blighted neighborhoods that otherwise would not attract economic investment. To provide incentives for redeveloping these sites, municipalities would bear some of the cost of redevelopment through land clearance and infrastructure provision. Once the area is redeveloped, the cost of providing this initial land preparation will be recouped from the increased taxes collected from the redeveloped site. In theory this would be a win-win situation for municipalities and the private sector. Cities are able to reduce unsightly and underdeveloped properties and business gets reduced cost for investing at these sites. As is often the case with all things noble, there is potential for abuse. How else does one explain the request by the EAA for a $1.9 million TIF support from the city to build an exhibition hall; a project that does not meet any of the TIF requirements?

So let’s take time out to regroup and assess the program. In the process we should also outline clear and unambiguous criteria to serve public notice of what projects are fundable under the TIF program. It will save city staff time and headache and inform the private sector that the till is not open for anyone’s taking.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Palmeri, Robinson on Friday "Week in Review"

I'll be the left guy opposite Owen Robinson of Boots and Sabers on the right on Friday's WPR Week in Review with Joy Cardin from 8-9 a.m.You can join the conversation by using the toll-free call-in number 1-800-642-1234. You can also e-mail comments/questions to

I'm sure one item that will be discussed is the Senate's passage of the new FISA rules. Russ Feingold correctly voted No. Owen supports the bill.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Last Night's Council Meeting

As predicted, the Council voted last night to extend the Akcess deadline, and to eliminate parking on Ohio St. Both were 4-3 votes, with Palmeri, Esslinger, and McHugh the no votes on each.

The Akcess proposal came with an interesting provision to allow the city OR Akcess to terminate the development agreement if nothing happens by the end of December. I compared the situation to marriage counseling: anyone who's been through it knows that if the counseling is going poorly, there comes a time when the counselor says, "I think we are now moving toward divorce counseling." The fact that Akcess--who until this point had difficulty even acknowledging a possibility of termination--wanted this provision says that we are now in the "divorce counseling" stage.

For those who got into this late, let me restate what my position has been from the beginning. Initially, Akcess came to town talking about a true mixed-use development that would include retail, restaurants, housing, etc. etc. At that point it sounded like an exciting development worthy of support. It had the potential to be the "living learning community" that UW Oshkosh Chancellor Wells has advocated and that I had stated was a good idea for the area.

Soon after getting the attention and interest of the community, however, Akcess announced that in order for the mixed-uses to materialize, a class-A office building would first have to be built. They said that there was a great need and demand for such office space in Oshkosh, and that most of the tenants they would recruit and sign on would already be in the city. For many people in the city, myself included, the move from mixed use to office space felt like a bait and switch, and many red flags went up. (I can't remember when the Supple Hotel and restaurant came into the mix, but we were told that that too could not happen until the office building went up first.).

As time went on in 2007, it became clear that Akcess was going to have trouble getting tenants for the office building. We kept hearing about a "letter of intent" from a financial institution, but little else. Supple even pulled the restaurant (but brought it back into the mix last month). Then, in July of 2007 the common council was asked to purchase the Chamber of Commerce building, which would allow the Chamber to move into the new office building. The Council rejected that proposal by a 7-0 vote.

In November of 2007, with Akcess still not able to secure a sufficient number of tenants to proceed, I requested that the staff and council come up with a "Plan B" in case the Akcess project did not materialize. That request was met with zero support from Community Development and the majority of the Council. Last month it became clear that staff and Akcess was already working on their own "Plan B," a scheme to reintroduce the Chamber building purchase. This was met with more email, phone calls, letters, and on-the-street feedback than any other issue since I've been on the Council. On the strength of Jess King holding steady against a wave of enormous big shot pressure, the proposal was once again defeated (this time by a 4-3 vote).

So here we are, now told that if something doesn't happen by the end of December the agreement can be terminated. Let me be clear: even if the project moves forward, it is not a victory for citizens. Few people have expressed support for an office building that will sit minimally occupied, and Akcess themselves admit that the condo part of the project probably won't happen until 2012 at the earliest.

On the Ohio St. issue, I'm simply tired of what I referred to as "bureacratic blackmail" that forces us to vote in a certain way due to threats of losing state or federal monies if we don't. City councils around the country need to stand up to that kind of crap.

More important, Ohio St. is a mixed use neighborhood, the kind of area that wise planners would see as an important hub in which to grow small businesses (which will be the backbone of the 21st century economy.). Having a 4-lane highway run through the area does not help us move in that direction, and in fact forces existing and new businesses to build more and larger private parking lots. These are the "impervious surfaces" that contribute directly to flooding. The width of the Ohio St. sidewalks will also be narrowed one-foot on each side, which is bad for pedestrians and bikers (who will have to use the sidewalk unless we can find a way to get bike lanes on Ohio.).

During citizen statements, Justin Mitchell talked about the beach water quality issue, and it looked like there was support for moving forward on ideas for better testing and/or signage.

After the meeting we had a workshop on a proposal to create raised medians on Jackson St. from around Smith St . south to Murdock. Turns out that such medians (especially south of Viola Ave.) could create some real access problems for traffic moving in and out of businesses in the area. Our options appear to be to put in some medians excluding the area south of Viola, or do nothing and look for other safety and/or beautification measures for the area.

We cannot minimize the safety issues on Jackson. The late Carol Erdman, a teacher's aide at Oshkosh North High School, died in December of 2004 in an accident at the intersection of Jackson and Smith.

You can see the entire July 8th meeting here.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Son of a Beach!

Check out Main St. Oshkosh for an excellent illustration of how beach safety issues are communicated at Oshkosh's Menominee Park compared to another beach in Door County.

Also take a look at Alex Hummel's blog for some background on a controversy involving a citizen request for clarity regarding water quality safety at the beach.

I became aware of this issue too late to get it on tonight's council meeting agenda as a council member discussion item. However, it would be a great item for citizen statements so if someone shows up to talk about it we can get a discussion going that way.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Beat Goes On

The Tuesday Common Council agenda is not long, but there are two items on it that are fascinating in light of the recent flooding of the city.

The first is the proposal to amend the developer agreement terms for the Akcess waterfront project. Essentially, Akcess now wants until 2012 to meet their "valuation thresholds" and until 2014 to complete all project activities. What's fascinating is the sheer amount of parking space that would exist in the development area should the Akcess proposal become a reality. Check it out here.

Parking lots represent one of the major "impervious surfaces" that contribute to urban flooding. To pass such developments without addressing the serious potential consequences of water runoff from them is, at this point, at best misguided and at worst legislative negligence.

The second item is a proposal to eliminate all parking on Ohio St. from the Fox River to South Park Ave. The new Wisconsin St. bridge will have 4 lanes of traffic, and planners apparently believe that as traffic from the bridge empties on to Ohio St., it would be "safer" for that street to itself be 4 lanes. (Anyone ever seen a "safe" 4 lane highway running through a mixed-use neighborhood?).

There are small businesses on Ohio St. that have benefited from the on-street parking. The message to them, and really to most businesses outside of some sections of downtown, is that they need to be prepared to provide parking for their customers. As a practical matter, this means creating the biggest parking lot possible. I understand that most cities have had policies in place for years to discourage on-street parking and encourage parking lots, but now such policies (at least in Oshkosh) ought to be seen as "pre-flood thinking."

After the floods (and in the now permanent era of high gas prices), we ought to be planning for fewer and smaller parking lots (i.e. less impervious surfaces), slower traffic, expanded mass transit service, and greatly expanded bike lanes and street walkability.

My guess is that the Akcess extension and the elimination of the parking on Ohio will pass the council (with at least 4 and maybe 5 or 6 votes for each), which will only prove that the beat goes on no matter how high the flood waters.