Travis Myren, Dane County's director of administration, makes a good point about weapons screening at the Dane County courthouse: "There's no way we can measure what sort of deterrent effect the screeners have."
In other words, no one knows what bad things might have happened but didn't because the county last year spent $402,700 on courthouse weapons screening, mostly for the salaries and bennies of 7.5 fulltime-equivalent employees.
All we know for sure are the bad things they reported happening.
Incident reports are generated whenever a situation prompts the involvement of law enforcement. (This doesn't happen in cases involving pocketknives and such, which are usually just held and returned to visitors when they leave.)
According to Myren, the screeners process an average of 800 people per day, including courthouse employees. (The system, in case you're wondering, would not detect exploding underwear, unless it contained metal.)
In 2006, the first year of screening (see "Is Courthouse Weapons Screening Worth It?," 2/1/07), five incidents were reported. In 2009, there were just three.
On Jan. 29, the electronic scanner detected a dagger in an ornate cane carried by a 59-year-old woman.
"The woman was pleasant and aware that the cane had a dagger in it," says the report. The cane was confiscated and police called, but the woman was neither detained nor cited.
That same day, less than an hour later, another woman was stopped because of concern about a scanned item in her purse. It turned out to be a spring-loaded switchblade that doubled as a cigarette lighter. The lighter no longer worked. The woman and her companion were "cooperative and pleasant." The switchblade, like the cane, was confiscated and earmarked for destruction. No citation was issued.
The only other 2009 incident took place more than eight months later, on Oct. 10. Weapons screener Sergio Malagold noted in his report that several friends and family members of a given criminal defendant repeatedly left and reentered the courthouse, and thus were repeatedly screened. No weapons were intercepted.
In mid-afternoon, a commotion erupted on the building's fourth floor after a guilty verdict was reached. "The whole floor was in total disarray," wrote Malagold, who responded to a call for backup. "I heard a lot of screaming, some pushing and a lot of profanity." Order was eventually restored.
"I feel that the weapons screening program played a critical role on this whole issue, [possibly] preventing a much worse situation," wrote Malagold. In the line of the report form that asks, "What Type of Weapon," he jotted, "None - thanks to weapons screening."
Artist fined, fighting back
Dan Hefty isn't sure what else he can do. The Madison artist received notice from the city of Madison last October that he was running an "illegal home occupation" that he needed to "cease" ("City to Artist: Knock It Off," 10/23/09).
At issue is a city zoning rule barring the use of accessory buildings like garages in home-based businesses. (Even storing lawnmowers for a landscaping business in a residential garage would be illegal.)
Hefty doesn't think he was ever in violation, since none of the art made in the garage-like structure he built behind his house was sold, and personal use of outbuildings is permitted. And, after receiving his notice, "I dissolved my art LLC and am no longer making any art for sale."
But a re-inspection on Dec. 23 led to Hefty getting a terse note from the city saying his "violation was not satisfactorily corrected," along with a $177 citation. It warned of additional citations if the unspecified violation was not corrected by Feb. 1, a day before his initial court appearance on the first citation.
City zoning administrator Matt Tucker says Hefty is considered in violation because the outbuilding contains "a piece of nonresidential-type mechanical equipment" - a fancy laser used to make etchings and cut materials.
"We have reason to believe a home-based business is occurring there," asserts Tucker. "We don't think the situation has changed from our initial inspection." He says Hefty could, with the necessary approvals, legally move the laser into his house.
Interestingly, the city is now working on a major rewrite of its zoning rules. The proposed new code would let homeowners obtain city permission to use outbuildings for home-based businesses, something the current code does not allow.
That means the city is going after Hefty for violating a rule even it regards as too inflexible and in need of change. Tucker defends this, saying "we can't not enforce" the current code, which will likely be in effect at least until fall. There's no telling if this rule change will be enacted or whether Hefty will receive an exemption.
Hefty thinks he's already in compliance, since he's not using the outbuilding for making commercial art. He plans to plead not guilty to the citation and fight further enforcement efforts.
"My wife and myself have been through enough from the city," he says. "Just let us make our art in peace."
'Objection! Assuming facts not in evidence'
An item on page 2 of Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal bills an upcoming forum on merit selection as a discussion on "whether Wisconsin should deprive its citizens [of] the opportunity to elect their state Supreme Court justices."
The phrasing casts merit selection as a net loss for democracy. That contradicts the argument made forcefully and often on the paper's editorial page, which crusades for this change.
In fact, most justices and judges are not elected, but rather are appointed by the governor to fill midterm vacancies, making these picks far more political than the merit-selection alternative. And, once appointed, few judges ever face an electoral challenge.
For instance, this April Dane County residents will vote on seven circuit court judge seats, more than a third of the total. This includes four judges (Amy Smith, Nicholas McNamara, Stephen Ehlke and Peter Anderson) who were appointed by the governor within the last few months. A grand total of none of the races is contested.
The idea of judicial elections is mostly a myth. The State Journal's editorial department knows it; it's time to notify the news department.
Madison resident John Schallen admits he was once "kind of against" mandatory recycling. But now he's become something of an evangelist, pressing businesses and others to make use of recycled products, and to proclaim this prominently.
Thus Schallen is aghast that the "Recyclopedia" distributed in December by the city does not state that it is made with recycled paper. City recycling conquistador George Dreckmann says there's a simple explanation: "Because using recycled paper is now just the normal order of business."
Dreckmann says all of paper used for the "Recyclopedia" - and any other city purpose, from office paper to tax bills - has a minimum 30% post-consumer recycled content. "It's just what we do."
Schallen also notes that the city's recycling bins do not state they are made with recycled plastic. Dreckmann says they do in fact have at least 20% recycled content.
Couldn't they be 100% recycled?
"That's a good question," says Dreckmann. "The answer is the old adult undergarment: Depends."
While the city did not have an option of buying carts with a higher recycled content, Dreckmann says it might balk if this significantly raised the cost. And he notes that 100% recycled plastic comes in only one color: black.
In other words, if the city wants to keep using green carts, it must be a bit less green. Yes, that is ironic.