Mayor Dave Cieslewicz does not want the city of Madison to wait any longer for a Central Park downtown. The city has not yet raised the estimated $10 million needed to relocate railroad tracks at the site, but Cieslewicz says work on the park should begin anyway.
"We can't wait to move the tracks," he says. "It's too expensive."
Cieslewicz says some park elements - like a "great lawn" for festivals and an area for skateboarders - could move forward. "There's some excitement about starting the skate park sometime soon," he says. "And we're looking for a permanent structure for festivals," including La Fête de Marquette.
A city committee tasked with designing the park will recommend a plan - including the skate park, children's play areas and natural landscaping - to the city early this year. And the mayor hopes to put money in his 2009 budget for park construction.
The city has sought federal funds to relocate the tracks from the middle to the edge of the park. But only about $3.5 million has been raised thus far.
"Clearly it would be a better park if we got the train tracks out of there," says Bill Barker, chair of the Central Park task force. "But do you wait and do nothing until you've got everything ready to go? Or do you start making tangible improvements?"
Barker says that by starting now, the city could spur more public support: "This park won't happen unless people fall in love with the place and want it to happen."
Initially, the park-planning process was overseen by the nonprofit Urban Open Space Foundation (now called Center for Resilient Cities). Barker says the foundation alienated potential players, including the city's Parks Division and Madison Gas & Electric, which owns a piece of property needed for the park.
"There was a lot of bad blood," he admits. "When you have a process that's this complicated, it's inevitable that some people are going to get crossways with each other."
Barker says the foundation is no longer in charge, and much of the animosity is gone.
"Everyone kind of agreed to put their hatchets away and work together," he says. "We've made a lot of progress. I'm very optimistic at this point."
Making a big to-do list
Central Park is not the only item on Mayor Cieslewicz's agenda for 2008. Among his other goals: finishing an economic development plan, updating building codes, and finalizing plans to redevelop the Garver Feed Mill.
"That one's a little bit dicey," he says of the former factory, noting there are many stakeholders, including Olbrich Botanical Gardens. "It's going to be very tricky."
The mayor says the mill is "a great old building, but it's deteriorating as we speak. I don't want to sit around for another five years while we discuss what to do with it."
This year, Cieslewicz has to hire new managers for the Parks Division and the Water Utility. And he must decide whether to keep Community Services - now run by interim manager Enis Ragland - as a separate department, or fold it into Planning and Development.
A dozen applicants are seeking the Water Utility position, and Cieslewicz hopes to hire someone by April. Chief among the new manager's duties will be improving the city's water quality.
The city allocated $2 million last year for a filter on Well 29 on the east side to address high levels of manganese. "We may discuss adding new filters," says Cieslewicz, adding that flushing the city's other wells is not enough. "We can't deliver crystal-clear water unless we talk about more filters."
County eyes alcohol initiative
Yes, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk is spending weekends in Iowa, campaigning for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. No, she doesn't expect a post in a new Clinton administration if Hillary wins.
"It's safer not to work on campaigns if you want a job later," she laughs, noting that Clinton's rivals might not appreciate her helping the former first lady. "This isn't the safe thing to do."
But Falk is up for re-election in 2009, and some are speculating she may not seek a fourth term. Falk says she hasn't thought about it: "I don't need to decide yet. I've got a long time for that."
In 2008, Falk expects to focus on improving lake quality and preserving farmland. But her big initiative, the details of which are still being worked out, will be aimed at stemming alcohol abuse.
"I'm really interested in trying to do more to end the human misery from the misuse of alcohol," says Falk, whose father was an alcoholic.
The county has already taken some steps, like setting up an alternative jail program for substance abusers that focuses on services, not incarceration. But Falk says, "We still need to do more."
Falk is also disturbed by a recent study that ranked Dane County third in the nation (among counties with populations of 250,000 or more) for jailing people of color. She says people are spending too much time in jail "not because of their sentences, but because of the time spent in the system before they have their day in court."
The statewide average wait for a court date is 86 days; in Dane County, it's 135 days.
Falk says the county will continue implementing recommendations from a criminal justice audit last summer to speed up the system. District Attorney Brian Blanchard has resisted some changes, but Falk is determined: "We continue to work with Brian. Hopefully, he will do his part."
Legislature may do little
Not much will happen in the state Legislature this year, predicts state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison): "You're not going to see lots of activity because we have split houses."
Democrats (who control the state Senate) will reintroduce their "Healthy Wisconsin" plan, guaranteeing universal health care for all state residents, while Republicans (who control the Assembly) will likely again bring up health savings accounts.
The Legislature will also debate campaign finance reforms, including full public financing for Supreme Court races and a ban on fund-raising during the budget.
But Pocan is most optimistic about some smaller bills. He thinks the "Compassionate Care" bill, which requires hospitals to give emergency contraceptives to rape victims if they request it, has support. And he hopes the two parties can agree on a bill forcing insurance companies to cover early-intervention programs for autistic kids.
"We're hoping we can pull some Republicans in," he says. "The problem is, a lot of people on the other side of the aisle worship at the altar of the free market. They don't think we should mandate the insurance companies."
Pocan says much more will be possible next year if the Democrats take control of the Assembly this fall: "We have a whole lot of stuff we'd like to do if we get a majority."