This article first appeared in Isthmus on March 12, 1999.
Thus far in 1999, County Executive Kathleen Falk has pulled off surprising compromises on thorny county issues at a clip of one per month.
In January, Falk announced her plan to work with the Realtors and builders to promote the $30 million land-purchase referendum in exchange for up to three pilot septic subdivisions. In February, she stood with Chief Judge Dan Moeser and announced a compromise on the size and scope of a new county courthouse. And on March 4, Falk, the state Department of Transportation and a representative of Gov. Tommy Thompson agreed on a deal for a four-lane Highway 12, with $16 million in land preservation and a state commitment to back a rail and mass-transit study and pay for half the engineering costs of whichever alternative is deemed best.
"It's been a hell of year so far," says Falk's top aide, Topf Wells. "Good luck and good fortune often, but not always in this vale of tears, come to those of a pure heart and noble intentions."
Wells credits the success to his boss' intelligence, diligence, integrity and the fact that she never personalizes disputes. But he's not the only one singing her praises.
"I have to be very cautious about my remarks because I don't want to say too many nice things for fear they'll be used against me someday, but I think she deserves a lot of credit," declared County Supv. Mike Blaska on the County Board floor last Thursday. "My hat goes off to her."
Of course, Blaska can't resist noting that much of what Falk has backed -- from a new courthouse to a four-lane Highway 12 -- were things he campaigned for when he ran against her two years ago. "I'm pleased by the fact that she's seen the light," he jokes. "I'm not here to say I told you so, but Blaska was right all along."
Other conservatives supes flat out praise her: "I am very, very, very happy with the way she handled Highway 12," says Supv. Dennis O'Loughlin. "She is a great listener, and she's willing to take the heat for decisions."
While some supes have grumbled about being left out of discussions, most agree with Supv. Helen Johnson: "You can't negotiate with 50 people." But Madison Ald. Ken Golden wishes the city could have been at the table, given that an expanded highway will dump more traffic on city streets like University Avenue. And Midwest Sierra Club head Supv. Brett Hulsey described the deal as "putting lipstick on a pig."
Liberal Supv. John Hendrick disagrees with making Highway 12 four lanes, but is pleased with what Falk got -- and the fact that it sets a precedent for the DOT to set aside land or easements or purchase development rights as part of future highway projects. And he praises Falk for being up-front, in a document for the board and press, about the terms of the deal.
Given Falk's recent performance, what's she planning for April? Wells says there's more work on Design Dane, improvements to welfare reform, working off the Expo debt and a project to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail: "There's a lot more to do."