Thursday, February 28, 2008

Pothole hell

Fixing potholes is one of the more mundane aspects of local government. Suddenly, because Milwaukee streets are so old and because city residents are unwilling or unable to pay the very high special assessments for street reconstruction the city levies and because of the weird weather we've been having and because of difficult city budgets, potholes are big and potholes are big news.

Municipalities -- especially older ones -- are rather trapped on this one. Their streets are the oldest and most in need of repair; state-imposed property tax limits reduce communities' ability to raise revenue; and the state continues to reduce, in real terms, the money it gives to cities to deal with local road issues.

Instead, the state is pouring money into freeway expansion projects like the North-South I-94 fiasco. By the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's own admission, the unfunded $1.9 billion-plus-hundreds-of-millions-in-interest-costs will provide minimal traffic improvement and will likely hurt efforts to redevelop Milwaukee's aging commercial corridors.

So when you break an axle, a bicycle, a motorcycle or some bones trying to get to that big freeway that doesn't do much for anybody except cost them money, please remember to thank the Wisconsin Department of Transportation!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Police report on voting

Is the Milwaukee Police Department's report on non-voter fraud a precedent? Will the department regularly issue reports on crimes that might have been, but weren't? Or maybe it's not non-crimes, but simply sloppy government management, that will trigger the department to issue 67-page reports three years after the fact.

Wow. Better add another three recruit classes at the Police Academy and increase property taxes a little more to pay for our new gun-toting auditors.

Better idea: Cops should fight crime. What a concept, eh?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

He must be joking

From the Bellingham Herald:

The bulk of funding for the federal Highway Trust Fund comes from the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax. But revenues from the tax have flattened, probably because people are driving less in response to the rising price of gas and because cars have become more fuel efficient. The federal gas tax was last increased 14 years ago.

White House budget officials said the highway trust fund will have a surplus of roughly $3 billion in the current fiscal year. But by the end of fiscal 2009 it will be running a $3.9 billion deficit.

“There are challenges,” said Christin Baker, a spokeswoman for the federal Office of Management and Budget, which writes the president’s annual budget proposal. “We can’t spend what we don’t have.”

Oh, yeah? Since when?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Audit slams jail medical system

It's not a good feeling to realize that the ol' web host is...not there. At all. May the IT gods bring it back.

But for now, what should have been there is here.

Feb. 21- The Sheriff Department's three-year-old medical records system for jail and House of Correction inmates, acquired under circumstances that raise conflict-of-interest questions, is so bad it should be replaced, according to a new audit.

"The outlook for the current EMR (electronic medical records) system is not good," according to the audit. The audit was requested by the County Board. County Supervisor Lynne DeBruin was the chief sponsor of the measure seeking the study.

Direct and indirect costs of implementing and operating the system total about $1.3 million, the audit said.

"We estimate the annual cost of simply maintaining the sytem is about $446,000," the audit said.

County staff has done significant programming work to make the system work, the audit said. Projected cost savings are about $1.1 million short of projections, it said.

Many of the system's features have not been implemented and it is missing integrity and safety checks, exposing the county to a high level of risk, according to the audit. The system's performance has been unacceptable at the House of Correction, the audit said, which also said that some of the system's goals, such as standardizing clinical documentation, have been achieved.

The Sheriff's Department, in its response to the audit, disputed many of the findings and contended that the system saved more than the audit said it did.

The vendor, Sequest Tecnologies Inc., was selected in a process tightly controlled by a single county administrator despite the firm's lack of directly relevant experience, according to the audit.

"The venture with Milwaukee County represented the vendor's first experience in corrections and their first experience in corrections in a primarily medical setting," according to a report by SysLogic Inc., consultants hired to help with the audit.

The administrator in charge of the selection process previously had purchased a system from the vendor, according to the audit.

"More importantly, when the program administrator left county employment in early 2005, he shortly thereafter went to work for the same vendor that was selected," the audit said.

The administrator has been identified as Michael E. Kalonick, who was medical and mental health program administrator for the Sheriff's Department.

The selection process also was flawed in other ways, the audit said:
  • There is little documentation to support key decisions. Documents lacking include the final results of the scores given to submitted proposals.
  • No input was requested of the county's information technology division when technical specifications were developed. Technology staff also was absent from the panel reviewing vendors' oral presentations. "This exposes the process to speculation that specifications may have been written so broadly that a potential shortcoming in a vendor's technical expertise would not necessarily disqualify it from consideration," the audit said.
  • The Sheriff's Department said project cost would account for 40% of the total evaluation points. "Together with no documentation of the evaluation forms or anything that summarizes the results, this factor could have been over-inflated in announcing the results so that choosing the vendor with no correctional-based experience appeared justified," the audit said.Feb. 21- The Sheriff Department's three-year-old medical records system for jail and House of Correction inmates, acquired under circumstances that raise conflict-of-interest questions, is so bad it should be replaced, according to a new audit.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

DeBruin marches on

Lynne DeBruin came in first in her three-way re-election battle, which was not really a surprise because she is a good supervisor who has served her constituents well under a county financial situation that made the job more difficult.

What is surprising (at least to me) is that Dan Cody, a who had union and organized support, was knocked out of the race and the very conservative Dan Wycklendt, a first-time candidate, advanced. My total contact with the Wycklendt camp during the race was receiving a single piece of campaign literature last week. He must have spent a lot of time in the far western part of very bizarrely shaped 15th. There are some extremely conservative strongholds out there

This analysis is pretty easy. DeBruin and Cody split the liberal / moderate vote, with Wycklendt picking up the conservatives. DeBruin got 50% of the total vote (with one voting unit still to report, according to the JS); Wycklendt got 30% of the vote, and Cody got 20%. It is likely that Cody voters will swing to DeBruin in the general election unless something really dramatic happens.

On to the general election, then, with this in mind: Re-elect County Supervisor Lynne DeBruin.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Dear Mr. Ignatius -- You should have thought of this earlier

Washington Post columnis David Ignatius came up with an amazing theme on Sunday: Barack Obama's policy positions need to be examined more closely by the press so the country doesn't suffer "buyers' remorse."

Except many primaries are over and lots and lots of people in lots of states have lost their chance to be more fully informed before casting their ballots.

For gosh sakes, David, couldn't you thought of this earlier?

Walker - Brennan round two

The battling letters bout between County Executive Scott Walker and Chief Circuit Judge Kitty Brennan continued last week, with Brennan winning on points.

If you remember round 1, Walker wrote to Brennan to suggest that judges be careful of whom they sentence to work release. Brennan wrote back, in a bit of an over-reach, that Walker was asking judges not to sentence anyone to work release. She correctly pointed out, though, that work release options were a matter of law and it is up the Walker administration to provide a safe and secure location for inmates to be held when they're not working.

On to round two. Walker wrote to Brennan again last week, repeating much of what he said in his first go-round, and using a illustrative case to drum up more support for his proposal to close the downtown work release center and put the inmates on GPS tracking. The exec wrote:

The individual who walked away from his work release last month was serving two Huber sentences -- one for felon in possession of a firearm and one for jumping bail. Review of this case raised a concern that others like this individual might be sentenced to work release.

Brennan, in her response, first expressed impatience with the letter-writing contest. "I don't see what purpose these letters back and forth serve," she wrote. "But because you have written to me again and copied all 47 judges and the CJC (Criminal Justice Council) Executive Committee I must again respond in writing."

She said the walk-away inmate cited by Walker, Corey McElroy, didn't have a job and shouldn't have been in the downtown work release center in the first place. The decision to put him there was made by Walker's people at the House of Correction.

Brennan wrote:

Your HOC staff moved him to the work release center and staff gave him "work detail" in the county jail. Your staff was transporting him across the street from the work release center to the jail when he walked away. No GPS would have prevented a walk-away from 'work detail." Presumably your staff should have prevented it.

GPS may or may not be a good alternative for work release inmates, Brennan wrote.

I've already expressed my opinion that a GPS program will only be safe if there is sufficient law enforcement monitoring of offenders and strict enforcement of violations. I do not see adequate monitoring and enforcement staffing levels or jail beds addressed un your current GPS proposal...

I hope in the future we can talk personally about these issues, rather than exchanging letters.

Round to Brennan.
Fighters to your corners. Round three coming up.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Michael Horne calls out WisDOT

Michael Horne at MilwaukeeWorld did some asking of WisDOT and got a "sort of" answer to his question about traffic counts about traffic counts at the controversial 27th St. freeway exit, but not records he requested (WisDOT sometimes has problems with that pesky open records law). Even the information WisDOT provided him demonstrates that the agency has been undercounting cars using the southbound exit ramp by 28%.

I don't know if WisDOT considers undercounting by 28% to be mere rounding, but I do hope that it isn't rounding down by 28% on its estimated $1.9 billion cost for the proposed, unfunded North-South I-94 expansion project. Or maybe that is the hundreds of millions of dollars in interest costs on bonding for the project that WisDOT never mentions when talking about its price.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Senate caves on eavesdropping; Hillary Clinton ducks

The U.S. Senate this week caved in completely, totally and absolutely to President Bush's demand to expand federal eavesdropping authority and to forgive telecom companies for prosecutable trangressions they have committed in his name.

It's a terrible trampling of the constitution and the justice system, but that's never stopped Bush before. Senators were so afraid of being accused of being weak on terror that they abetted Bush's power grab and granted the immunity even before they knew just what crimes the firms may have committed in the name of national security.

As spineless as the Senate was, one amoeba stands out for absolute duty avoidance: Sen. Hillary Clinton. She did not show up to vote on any aspect of the immunity issue, even though she was in town campaigning. Barack Obama and John McCain, also out on the hustings that day, at least made it to vote on some of the bill's amendments (Obama opposed immunity for telecoms, McCain supported it).

Clinton is campaigning on the theme that she is ready to make the tough decisions. Doesn't she have an obligation to at least show up at work when they are being made?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Walker's letter less than nothing

County Executive Scott Walker didn't tell judges not to sentence anyone to work release, as Chief Judge Kitty Brennan said in a letter this week -- he just told them not to sentence anyone to work release who "presents a reasonable risk to the safety of the public. "

Walker did not define what he considers a "reasonable risk," and the category could be fairly narrow or exceptionally broad. Brennan obviously took it to be as broad as it possibly could be.

Here is the body of the letter Walker sent to circuit judges:

As you know, there is a great deal of discussion about the future of Huber work release. The members of a standing committee of the Community Justice Council (CJC) are currently reviewing a recommendation that was included in the 2008 county budget. The panel will make a recommendation to the CJC. Once that recommendation is made, we will review it with the Milwaukee County Board.

Until such a transition is made, I ask that you carefully consider who you sentence to work release in Milwaukee County. Unlike the proposed system, work release under the system we inherited is not designed to directly monitor individuals during the time they are at work. With that in mind, I ask that you not sentence anyone to work release who presents a reasonable risk to the safety of the public.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter.

Gee, Scott, what do you think judges are doing now? Deliberately giving the most dangerous felons work-release sentences?

Walker's missive seems to be mostly a butt-covering move, a statement that "If anything goes wrong with the facility I didn't even try to fix, I'm going to blame judges for sending the wrong people there."

Brennan is absolutely right when she said that Walker's administration is responsible for providing a safe and secure work release facility. It has failed to do so. For Walker to blame the Community Correctional Center's shortcomings on a system he "inherited" is ridiculous.
Walker's been in office since 2002, for heaven's sake! Is he honestly saying there is nothing his administration could have done in the six years since to make things better, or at least to ensure they didn't get so much worse?

Oopsie, daisy -- JS forgot to mention

Whoops! Those pesky little details. The JS, in opining against the residency rule for teachers, brought up the case of Custer teacher Dan Bearss, who was forced to resign because he didn't live in the city.

Unmentioned by the paper is that Mr. Bearss knew a condition of his employment was that he live in the city, but did not feel he should be bound by his contract because he did not want to be bound by his contract. Bearss said he did adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in terms of his address -- a policy, at minimum, of passive deception.

Sort of like the one today practiced by the JS when it didn't tell readers about Bearss' years-long game of hide-and-seek.

If the residency rule is worth debating, then there has got to be a better case study than Dan Bears, maybe even one the JS editorial board can fully tell and still support its position.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Walker seeks halt to work-release sentencings: Brennan

Scott Walker is suggesting that judges not sentence inmates to work-release, according to a letter from Chief Judge Kitty Brennan. Brennan suggests that Walker has a duty to provide a decent work-release facility, as much as would rather not do so.

Brennan's letter also raises the key question: if judges don't have work release, where the hell are they supposed to put these miscreants? Should judges let 'em all go? Lock them up if they don't need to be totally locked up? The county already is on the hook for huge damages due to its maltreatment of inmates in the jail, which staff testified was due in part to overcrowded conditions -- hasn't Walker learned anything?

Anyway, here's Brennan's letter, sent in response to a Feb. 5 Walker missive.

February 12, 2008

Scott Walker
Milwaukee County Executive
901 N. 9th Street, Room 306
Milwaukee, WI 53233

Dear County Executive Walker:

I have received your letter of February 5, 2008, in which you ask the Judges not to sentence anyone to work release. Apparently you do not believe your work release center can effectively supervise offenders and safely protect the public. In that case, I suggest you fix it or shut it down. You, not the Courts, are responsible for the effective and safe operation of the House of Correction and Community Release Center.

Judges are obligated by law to consider work release along with many other sentencing possibilities. It’s part of the statutes and case law requirements. It’s up to you, as the ultimate supervisor of the HOC, to provide a work release center that effectively and safely supervises offenders.

If you decide to eliminate your work release center, please consider that you may be creating bigger problems for the public. All of those offenders who would otherwise be eligible for work release must then be housed in the jail or House of Correction. That will significantly strain the jail and HOC capacity and cost the taxpayers a great deal of money. In addition, without a work release program, no convicted offenders will be able to earn the money to: 1) provide restitution to victims; 2) support their families; or, 3) pay their fines and forfeitures.

While the newly formed Community Justice Council (CJC) will address this issue, it may take weeks or months for the CJC to fully develop and discuss a work release center or GPS proposal. We have no idea what conclusion the CJC may reach on this issue. Whatever resolution they reach, the elected officials with responsibility in the area of courts, corrections and budget will have to determine their official response. Neither you, nor I, nor any elected official can delegate our Constitutional responsibilities to the CJC.

We all recognize this is a difficult problem. And we in the Courts are happy to work with you, the HOC staff and the CJC to help you find a solution to your work release program’s problems.


Hon. Kitty K. Brennan

C: All Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judges
Members of the CJC Executive Committee w/Enclosure

Monday, February 11, 2008

Another chance to block a bad idea

Every billboard in the city could be converted into brightly-lit LED message boards that change messages every six seconds, under a proposed ordinance being pushed hard by the billboard industry with enthusiastic in-house assistance by Ald. Mike D'Amato.

Fortunately, Aldermen Robert Bauman and Michael Murphy got the matter referred back to the Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee, so there still is a chance to kill this thing before it lives.

This is a really bad piece of legislation. It should die.

The Department of Public Works has said signs should not be allowed to change more than every 30 seconds, because signs that change more often may distract drivers and pose safety concerns. There also are related concerns about light pollution, energy use and just the overall obnoxiousness of lights flashing in people's windows.

The Federal Highway Administration is studying the safety issues connected, but the industry does not want to wait for the study results. It wants those six-second message boards, and it wants them now.

At the very least, aldermen he council should wait for the FHWA study to be finished before rushing to do the billboard industry's bidding.

And residents who care about the historic aesthetic of some of the city's major neighborhoods might want to tell their aldermen that the blight of flashing LED billboards should never be endorsed by the Common Council or the mayor.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

If you're looking for a good read...

Author Lesley Kagen was at Vliet Street's Perpendicular wine bar recently to promote her critcally acclaimed book, "Whistling in the Dark."

The book takes place on Milwaukee's west side, including Vliet St (Perpindicular, by the way, is at 5000 W. Vliet St.), back in the days when the Zoo was in Washington Park and kids ran around seeking dinner at whichever neighbors had the best food.

Kagen, who attended Hi-Mount and St. Sebastian schools, is no stranger to public speaking. She temporarily abandoned metro Milwaukee for California, where she did voice-overs for commercials -- you may recognize her voice: "Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman."

Thanks to Perpendicular for promoting a local author. Pretty good wine, too.

JK Rowling jumps to the dark side

JK Rowling is trying to claim ownership of everything Harry Potter, to a far greater extent than recognized by courts previously.

According to New York Times columnist Joe Nocera:

She is essentially claiming that the decision to publish — or even to allow — a Harry Potter encyclopedia is hers alone, since after all, the characters in her books came out of her head. They are her intellectual property. And in her view, no one else can use them without her permission.

“There have been a huge number of companion books that have been published,” Mr. Blair said. (Blair is Neil Blair, who works for the literary agency that represents Rowling.) “Ninety-nine percent have come to speak to us. In every case they have made changes to ensure compliance. They fall in line.” But, he added: “These guys refused to contact us. They refused to answer any questions. They refused to show us any details.”

Just imagine if that kind of grotesquely broad copyright claim is allowed to stand. Would reviewers be allowed to review books without getting prior approval of the author? Would scholarly treatments of major works be prohibited? Would students working on their dissertations be forced to pay royalties for quoting from published works? What would happen to encyclopedias?

Says Nocera:

Copyright holders have tried to impose rules on the rest of us — through threats and litigation — that were never intended to be part of copyright law...Have these efforts had — as we like to say in the news business — a chilling effect? You bet they have....

No one is saying that anyone can simply steal the work of others. But the law absolutely allows anyone to create something new based on someone else’s art. This is something the Internet has made dramatically easier — which is part of the reason we’re all so much more aware of copyright than we used to be. But it has long been true for writers, filmmakers and other artists. That’s what “fair use” means.

What Ms. Rowling is saying, however, is that her control of Harry Potter is so all-encompassing that only she gets to decide the terms under which a companion book is allowable....This is really a power grab. RDR Books should not have to “fall into line” to publish the Lexicon. Ms. Rowling is claiming a right that, if granted, will hurt us all.

Will it be black magic? Rowling waves her wand and fair use rights disappear? Let's hope not.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Mike Mukasey flunks justice 101

US Attorney Gen. Mike Mukasey is worried that giving crack offenders a chance at slightly early releases from prison is a terrible thing because "many of them" are "violent gang members."

"1,600 convicted crack dealers, many of them violent gang members, will be eligible for immediate release into communities nationwide," Mukasey said, according to the Washington Post.

A federal panel voted to retroactively apply a law that eases the 100-times disparity in the sentences between crack offenses and powder cocaine offenses. Mukasey wants Congress to block the early-out language, which eventually will allow about 20,000 inmates to be released over seven to 10 years.

Of the 1,600 Mukasey referred to, how many are violent gang members? Mukasey doesn't say, probably because he doesn't know if the number is 1 or 1,599.

And how does he know they are gang members in the first place? Mukasey, again, doesn't say. Is it simply because so many of them are poor and black? Is that his criteria?

How many powder cocaine dealers are members of violent gangs? How many marijuana traffickers? Both drugs are common among gangs. Funny Mukasey did not call for penalties for those crimes to match the old crack sentences.

The crack sentencing disparity was a blight on the criminal justice system. It wasn't just defendants and defense lawyers who found it unjust -- judges and prosecutors did, too.

Mukasey's fear-mongering is disgusting and, worse, he is calling for people to remain in prison for one crime because they may be guilty of unproven others.

That is not how America is supposed to work.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The stimulus package joke

The bad news is that the Senate killed a stimulus package last night that would have extended unemployment benefits and increase heating assistance for the poor.

It died by a single vote. The Republican front-runner for president, John McCain, didn't bother to show up for it.

The good news is that the Senate killed a stimulus package last night that had become a double-sided duct tape for special interests and included favors for the oil and coal industry.

The bad news is that Congress' fall-back position is a House stimulus package that includes tax rebates for individuals that won't get into the economy for months, at best, and that includes more tax breaks for big corporations. (The Senate plan also had tax rebates.)

It's possible that the package will end up in a conference committee, where undoubtedly it will be festooned with more favors for rich, fund-raising friends. Will the donations, or the tax rebates, make it into the economy faster?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The snow

Shoveling the first time today was OK.

Shoveling the second time -- have I mentioned that we have an extremely long driveway? -- was less OK.

Shoveling the third time -- the thrill was gone, as were the upper arm muscles.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Barack -- Hillary coverage

News coverage of the Democratic presidential race seems to go like this:

Race. Race.
Gender. Race? Gender. Gender.
Bill Clinton!

So easy, yet so incredibly unhelpful in making a decision.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Memo to Dems: more highways aren't the answer

The Dems in the state senate have come up with an economic development plan that includes a $50 million boost in transportation funding. Unfortunately, it includes absolutely no additional money for local road aids and no money for transit outside of the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail extension. Here is the entire transportation proposal:

Increase funding for State Highway Rehabilitation Program and Major Highway Development Program. A $50 million investment in the transportation fund will translate into about 2500 good-paying jobs for our state according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Give state approval for the car rental fee increase of $13 in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine counties to provide funding source for the KRM project. This is the local funding source that has been agreed to, on a bipartisan basis, by Republican and Democratic County Executives and Mayors of Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha.

The Senate's press release says everything in its proposal would be funded by closing the "Las Vegas Loophole," which allows state companies to shift profits in states without corporate income taxes. Obviously, the proposal to increase car rental fees negates that statement, and the Dems might want to re-word it.

The worst part of the proposal, though, is its enthusiastic endorsement more money for highways. Are the Senate Dems kidding? Have they driven on local roads lately? Have they depended on bus lines that just aren't there any more? Have they looked at the money WisDOT has wasted in these areas? (And when will the Legislature order an audit of the Marquette Interchange project, by the way?) Again and again wasteful road spending is touted as a way to create jobs. Adding and maintaining bus lines and fixing local roads create jobs, too, and save them for people reliant on transit.

Fix the loophole, sure. The Senate Dems need to fix their proposal as well.

Close the loophole, yes.

Just to be clear

The JS today reports that Rosella Tucker, charged with embezzling $300,000 from an MPS charter school, is receiving money to tutor MPS kids who attend low-performing schools.

Well, that sucks. Shouldn't happen.

What the story doesn't quite say is that MPS doesn't have any choice about whether Ms. Tucker tutors kids or not. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction provides a list of people and companies approved to provide the supplementary services. MPS cannot filter the list, cannot pick and choose among those vendors.

The DPI has no information on the financial health of Sherbro Educational Services and isn't scheduled to receive any until Tucker files required paperwork in September of this year, said Patrick Gasper, a spokesman for the state agency.

Would DPI be so lackadaisical if Ms. Tucker was accused of asssault and battery, or some other crime of violence? Ms. Tucker hasn't had her day in court and deserves a presumption of innocense, but it does seem odd to keep her on a list of people approved to teach kids. Just what, pray tell, is she teaching them?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Unseemly relief

Selfish, shameful relief. It always arrives in the winter, when it's nasty outside, and either there is a a heating / air conditioning truck in someone's driveway or, in an updated version of that, the city sends out an e-notify about a homeowner in the neighborhood pulling a permit:

"Permit type: Gas Furnace"

The mind wanders over briefly to wonder why someone would get a new furnace in the middle of the coldest winter in years. Then the mind shudders and runs away from that thought, occupied with a new one: Thank God it isn't me.

And knowing darned well that some day it will be.