What a glorious weekend! All of that unexpected sunshine and warmth made it exceptionally difficult to sit indoors with a laptop and hash out a proper blog post, but for you, sweet readers, I have persevered. After all, I can't well let Blaska have the only word on this site.
RTA rattles ranting writer
Speaking of Blaska, my fellow Daily Page blogger recently railed against the Dane County Board for voting to create a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in, as he said, "the dead of night." I'm curious: Do these meetings ever not run late? I'm not sure the hour at which the vote was taken has much to do with anything. Still, there have been many questions raised about the body itself and the process by which it was created.
Some of the issues seem tenuous and manufactured at best, but some of them definitely have merit. In general, I feel like the creation of a dedicated RTA is a crucial part of building a more comprehensive transportation network in Dane County. Especially for those people who don't live in urban centers, having affordable access to several different modes of travel can be incredibly important. Not only do things like commuter rail and better bus service help to decrease traffic snarls in town, but they also lessen the burden on workers for whom owning and maintaining a vehicle might be prohibitively expensive.
Think about it: If you had the option of getting to work by sitting on a train, reading or dozing or listening to music as it sped along, for maybe a couple hundred bucks a year-wouldn't you prefer to do that instead of sleepily driving yourself through congested roadways in a car that cost you thousands of dollars a year to pump gas into, pay insurance on, and get repaired? I know I would.
And that's before we even start talking about reductions in air pollution. It makes several kinds of sense for an area to maintain good public transportation options.
So I don't doubt the need for such a project. I think it's a great idea. The argument that our bus system is already enough just illustrates certain party's complete lack of understanding of the reality on the ground. The bus just doesn't cut it for a sizeable chunk of our workforce in and around Madison. Second and third shift workers have a near impossible time of trying to find a route that runs often and/or late enough to cover them.
But back to those worthwhile questions: To whom will the RTA be accountable? This latest vote only served to create the body itself, which would be made up of appointed members representing the larger cities in the county and one for the villages. There had been a call to put the creation of the RTA to a countywide referendum, but that was nixed.
Frankly, I have less of a problem with RTA members being appointed than I do with the idea of them then having carte blanche to jack up taxes to fund their work. We should make sure that there's sufficient accountability before they can take any action. As it stands, the board has pledged to put any future tax increases to a referendum. That's good, and we should have the ability to hold them to it.
It's also important that the RTA truly represent the whole of the county. There have been questions regarding the current map of jurisdiction, which apparently cuts certain cities in half. That just seems silly. There's no reason to create a Mason-Dixon Line when it comes to transportation.
All in all, this project is too important to let die or to allow it to be poorly planned and executed. Balance, baby, balance.
Alcohol License Review Committee: Does Bigger Equal Better?
The Madison City Council recently voted to add a citizen member and an alder to the ALRC. It was a move that presumably assuages both those people who'd wanted to add a permanent, voting student member and those who thought doing so would set a bad precedent for having "special interest groups" get representation on the committee.
Alder Bryon Eagon (Dist. 8) had originally proposed the student member, but changed the language to what eventually passed when he secured a promise from Mayor Cieslewicz that the first citizen appointed would be a student. That's ten points to Gryffindor for cleverness!
Honestly, the argument that students constitute a "special interest group" akin to, say, the Tavern League is pretty absurd. A large portion of the issues taken up by the ALRC have to do with downtown drinking establishments and regulations, and downtown is predominantly where students go to imbibe. They should absolutely have a voice-but I agree that the permanent seat probably wasn't the best answer. Making the new seat into a "citizen" position leaves it open to any non-Alder interested in the issues. If a student is passionate about maintaining a voice in the debate, then they should have the right to go for it-and ditto to a concerned member of the community in general.
The ALRC could use a little more student accountability. The downtown alcohol density plan, enacted under the guise of lessening crime in the area by limiting the number of establishments that could serve liquor, hasn't really worked. Most students knew it was a bad idea when it was proposed, but the committee still pushed it through. Now that the hoped for results of the plan just haven't panned out, it's definitely time to reexamine the approach to drinking downtown.
Which brings me to a related point: The alcohol density plan was enacted in 2006 and is set to expire next year. The Tavern League, with Nitty Gritty owner Marsh Shapiro acting as their mouthpiece at the ALRC, is pushing for a renewal of that plan. Max Manasevit, writing for the Badger Herald, argues that this love of limiting the number of new bars that can go in downtown on the part of the Tavern League is the result of their desire to squash any potential competition for current members. Furthermore, he (rightly, I think) points out that:
Curbing the number of bars does little to help safety. Instead, Madison should continue to punish bartenders who overserve their patrons and maintain an increased downtown police presence. When we develop a commitment to accountability for bar owners and patrons alike, crime downtown should ease up, even if State Street was allowed to flow with tequila.
The ALRC has a strange history of letting chronic offenders off far too easily. A great example is how they've treated the Kollege Klub, the site of several fairly major violations of the law. Katherine Plominski, Madison's Alcohol Policy Coordinator and ALRC member, essentially gave the Kollege Klub a slap on the wrist, ducking the intentions of the police (I wrote about this incident here). This despite all of the noise the ALRC has made over the years about wanting to crack down on problem bars. How can we hope to see improvements if no one is really held accountable?
OWI: Ongoing Wisconsinite Intoxication
Which brings us to the Senate's recent passage of a bill that would make a fourth OWI conviction into a felony. But only if the judge wants to do that. Because heaven forbid we make someone feel really bad about driving drunk, even after several offenses. The legislation leaves the first conviction as a mere traffic violation (Wisconsin, it should be noted, has the dubious distinction of being the only state where this is the case). The next two strikes as misdemeanors.
This is, simply put, ridiculous. I'm glad that lawmakers are taking up and talking about the issue. Their colleague's high-profile OWI arrests have drawn quite a bit of attention to the problem. But I don't doubt the sincerity of efforts to reform the laws that deal with drunk driving. Still, I'm baffled by the continued insistence on such light penalties.
Every time someone gets behind the wheel even tipsy, they're not just putting their own life in danger, but also the lives of everyone else on the road with them: You, me, our parents and children and friends. There is, simply put, no excuse. And sending someone away with a freakin' traffic ticket for their first (caught) offense does very little to deter future abuse.
The Assembly is currently holding up the final push to get the bill onto Gov. Doyle's desk. Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan claims that they didn't want to be rushed. "We feel it's critical to include treatment options and a stable funding source. We will sit down with the Senate in the coming days and work out the minor differences and are more than willing go into extraordinary session to get this important work done."
Treatment and funding are crucial components to really good legislation dealing with this problem. But they need to be matched by firmer penalties. We can't afford to dance around the issue any longer.
ATM disrupting the peace
Lisa Link Peace Park: A small break in the wall of storefronts that line State Street, a place to listen to folk singers on Saturdays in the summer, and a frequent gathering place of the displaced and dispossessed.
Anyone who's lived in Madison long enough well knows that Peace Park is, more often than not, populated with a fairly regular crew of homeless people. Some of them panhandle out on the sidewalk, but most just hang back, socialize, and pass the time. There are occasional scuffles and run-ins with the law, but then you see more of that at 2:00 a.m. on any given night out front of the various bars.
There's been an effort to "revitalize" the park by undertaking a redevelopment project that would involve the addition of a visitor's center, amphitheatre, game tables, landscaping, and-the most controversial fixture-an ATM.
Why is a money machine causing such a kerfuffle? Current city law dictates that no one may panhandle within a certain distance of them. Sticking the ATM in the park would mean the loss of one of the very few spaces that still allows for the activity on State Street.
I don't think giving money to panhandlers is the best use of your dollars when it comes to making a real difference. We should be contributing more to the organizations, like Operation Welcome Home, Porchlight, etc., who do the real work of lifting people up and helping to get them off the streets. But I also don't suppose shuffling those folks around, pushing them out of one (highly visible) spot and into God knows where, is the right way to do things.
I can't imagine that that's what anyone working on the project had in mind when they developed the plans. I don't doubt their good intentions. But this gussying up of the park certainly has brought up a lot of issues that have gone too long unaddressed in our fair city: namely, how we deal with our less fortunate residents, and whether or not we're really willing to face problems head-on or just sweep them under the rug and hope they go away. I really hope it's the former.
Things to watch out for
Mayor Dave and Rep. Gary Hebl want to undo some of the worst parts of the so-called Video Competition Act (you know, that thing that was supposed to make Charter offer more competitive pricing-ha!), including the reinstatement of PEG fees that would help fund things like the City Channel. Good deal. Hey Dave, what about WYOU?
There's trouble a'brewing over the proposal to build apartments on the current parking lot of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church. Some folks like the prospect of having more living space Downtown, but others are concerned over the loss of church parking and the possibility of "unsavory" elements moving in.