The Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce is getting involved in County Board politics, and board chairman Scott McDonell thinks it's acting on behalf of the Republican Party.
"There's no logic to their choices, other than trying to overturn the County Board, which is Democratic," says McDonell. (The board is officially nonpartisan, but individual supervisors may affiliate with political parties.)
The chamber has endorsed Madison Common Council candidates in the past two elections, but this is the first time it's endorsed candidates for the County Board.
Delora Newton, executive vice president of the chamber, says it has waited to endorse board candidates because "we feel before you endorse in races, you should get to know the players and know the issues. We felt this year, we were ready." The group has endorsed 19 candidates among the 37 seats on the April 6 ballot.
The candidates were sent questionnaires and then invited in for interviews. Newton says the chamber endorsed candidates who "either have a history of being good on business issues or indicated they would be open-minded."
Does that mean the current board is hostile to the business community? "No, I'm not saying that," she says.
But McDonell says that the endorsements heavily favor Republican and conservative candidates, and that the chamber only backed Democratic or liberal candidates who faced no opposition or weren't in a close race.
He notes that the chamber has lobbied the board on only one issue, pushing in favor of forming a regional transportation authority. Yet the board endorsed Jack Martz, who voted against an RTA, and failed to endorse either Matt Veldran or Robin Schmidt, who both voted in favor of the RTA.
"It doesn't make any sense to me when you have an agenda and you've lobbied the County Board on issues, then you don't endorse candidates who voted the way you wanted," McDonell says.
Pols ask about primates
Twenty members of the Dane County Board recently took the unusual step of questioning the UW-Madison about its use of nonhuman primates in research.
In a Feb. 5 letter (PDF) to Chancellor Biddy Martin, the supervisors asked for information on how the All-Campus Animal Care and Use Committee reached its findings that university research on primates is ethical.
"Many of the committee members earn their salaries or benefit in other ways from research on animals," the letter said. "How can we be confident that self-interest did not affect their decision?"
In her response (PDF), Martin quotes Dr. Eric Sandgren, director of the UW Research Animal Resources Center, saying the university considers the ethics of animal research on a case-by-case basis, just as is done for human research. Animal rights activist Rick Marolt calls that disingenuous: "People get to decide for themselves whether or not to participate in experiments. No committee makes that decision for them."
Marolt thinks the supervisors' letter is a significant step toward forcing the university to be accountable and ethical. "And they're perhaps showing state legislators it's okay to care about this issue."
How low can they go?
Madison officials have pitched a number of high-profile projects - including a new Central Library and the Edgewater Hotel - by arguing that now is a great time to build because contractors, desperate for business, are bidding low.
This indeed seems to be the case. The 15 city projects bid since the beginning of last December have come in a combined $860,000 under estimate. For instance, Raymond P. Cattell Inc. bid $545,000 to repave a section of University Avenue - $308,000 less than the city had estimated. And Tri-North Builders bid $746,000 to renovate Elizabeth Link Peace Park, $161,000 less than estimated.
"We are seeing a great deal of competition in our bidding," says city engineer Rob Phillips. He agrees the city is saving money but cautions against making generalizations about it. "Engineers don't really want to be low on their estimates."
Thomas Thayer, president and CEO of Tri-North, says it once was typical for five to seven contractors to bid on a job; now he's seeing 20 to 30. And like everyone else, he's cut his profit margins to compete.
"I don't know how much longer this industry can continue to put out numbers like this," he says.
Though he's seeing some improvement in parts of the country, Thayer expects Madison to lag. "Wisconsin was a little slower to react to the recession," he says. "As such it's a little slow to return when it does get better."