In April, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz purportedly promised a group of southwest side residents that if they applied for city funding for a neighborhood watch program, they would get it. But last week, a committee charged with reviewing the funding applications rejected the group's $10,000 request.
"I was so depressed, I went home and I didn't go back for another budget meeting that night," says Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele, who represents the southwest side, including Midvale Heights and Meadowood. "A lot of people were disappointed."
Pham-Remmele, who organized a community meeting on crime last summer that drew hundreds of concerned residents, says this is the second time her district's request for funding for a neighborhood watch program has been rejected.
"It turns me off," she says of the process. "If they say one thing and do another, I give up. The mayor has an interesting way of speaking that is very slippery."
Mayoral aide George Twigg says Cieslewicz doesn't recall promising funding for a neighborhood watch - he merely told residents they could apply for it. (Lisa Subeck, who was at the meeting, disputes this, saying "The mayor did say [they] would get the funds.")
"Even if the mayor had promised them money, he doesn't control the funding," says Twigg. "He's in no position to be able to direct payments from the fund anymore."
The mayor's office used to control the Emerging Neighborhoods Fund, which distributed about $200,000 this year to local programs. But last fall, the Common Council created a nine-member committee to review the applications, which must ultimately be approved by the council.
"Ald. [Zach] Brandon made such a big deal about the mayor's 'slush' fund," says Twigg. "Now a nine-person committee makes all the decisions."
Twigg notes that Pham-Remmele is on the committee, which approved more than $48,000 in funding for a Meadowood Neighborhood Center in her district. "That's the largest single award from the fund," says Twigg. "We have to have something for the rest of the city."
Pham-Remmele criticizes the way the applications for the Emerging Neighborhoods Fund were reviewed, saying committee members didn't see them until a couple days before the meeting. "I've never seen a process that was so rushed," she complains. "People spent just a few minutes scanning applications. That's not right."
As a committee member, Pham-Remmele says she was never instructed in the criteria for judging applications. "This is sloppy," she says. "The rush and the lack of clear instruction showed [funding decisions] are considered a done deal."
She believes most of the neighborhoods that received funding have less urgent needs than her own. "If you talk about an emerging neighborhood, this is an area that needs help," she says, adding many of the programs being supported are run by established nonprofits. "They're funding a lot of things that have already been funded through the years."
Road to recovery
One group that did receive support from the city's Emerging Neighborhoods Fund is the YWCA, which got $9,000 for its new Driver's License Recovery Program.
"To have a driver's license opens up more opportunities for higher-wage jobs," says Leslie Westerfelt, the program's coordinator.
For instance, many well-paying manufacturing plants, such as the Coca-Cola plant in Windsor, aren't accessible by public transportation. The YWCA works with low-income individuals who lose their licenses because of unpaid child support or traffic tickets - not those whose licenses are revoked due to drunk driving.
Without access to a living-wage job, those individuals are unlikely ever to catch up on child support or pay off their tickets. Some people owe hundreds and even thousands of dollars. "A hole like that for someone who doesn't have a job - it seems impossible to climb out of," says Westerfelt.
Since the program began in December, Westerfelt has worked with a half-dozen clients, advocating before judges and trying to set up payment plans. But Westerfelt admits that none of her clients have gotten their licenses back yet. "This is a very time-consuming process," she says, noting judges get frustrated with clients who continue to drive despite having revoked licenses. But Westerfelt says they're forced to drive if they want to work.
"There's no reason a family should not be able to access a good job because of transportation," she says. "That's just ridiculous in this day and age."
RIP, campaign finance reform
The state Legislature held a special session to pass the Great Lakes compact and to close a $527 million budget gap. But the body quietly adjourned last month without taking up the other long-neglected issue - campaign finance reform.
"I think it was a failure of leadership, frankly," says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. "It was just quietly killed."
In November, Gov. Jim Doyle called for a special session on SB-1, which would ban fundraising during the budget, force groups running issue ads to disclose their donors, and provide full public financing of state Supreme Court races.
But Heck says Doyle only called the special session "to shut us up. His heart was not really in it."
He warns that without public financing of Supreme Court races, next year's reelection bid by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson "could be amazingly expensive, not to mention unrelentingly negative." Heck predicts the candidates and special-interest groups will spend more than $10 million on the race, which will "dwarf" this spring's $4 million-plus race between Louis Butler and Michael Gableman.
The state Senate did pass public financing of Supreme Court races in February, but it was never brought up for a vote in the GOP-led Assembly. Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston) didn't push for a vote on the full reform bill during the special session because it was unlikely the Assembly would do anything, says his aide, Carrie Lynch.
"If they wouldn't do anything with the small bits, there was no way they were going to consider taking up a massive overhaul of campaign finance," says Lynch.
She also blames an apathetic public and groups like Heck's Common Cause for letting the issue die. Lynch says the advocacy groups "barely even acknowledged" the Senate's passage of judicial reform. "We tried," she says, "and nobody seemed to care."
Garbage in, garbage out
Believe it or not, Madison's lakes are being trashed less often these days. Volunteers are finding fewer cigarette butts, old cans, floating plastic.
"Over the last 30 years, the amount of garbage we're pulling out of the lakes is going down," says Dane County Supv. Brett Hulsey. "That indicates there's less going in."
Hulsey credits the annual "Take a Stake in the Lakes" campaign, which kicks off next week. Residents can help clean garbage from the shorelines on June 14 and June 21. And they can celebrate "Paddle to Work Day" on June 19. "With $4 a gallon gas, everyone should probably be paddling to work," jokes Hulsey, who usually swims to work on that day.
He notes that the various events (see takeastakeinthelakes.com) help educate people on what it takes to keep Madison's lakes clean. "We've been telling people for 20 years - if you throw it on the street today, it's in the lake tomorrow," he says. "Once you've spent time cleaning it up, you never throw something on the ground again."