Friday, June 29, 2007

Music, Politics, and the Summer of Love

That's the title of the July Media Rant. The piece mentions Tom Waits' "The Day After Tomorrow." Read the rant to find out why.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Statement on Ethics and Conflict of Interest

Below is the text of a statement I delivered last night as part of "Council Member Statements" on the topic of ethics and conflict of interest. The statement set off a mini-controversy as Mr. Bain and Mr. B. Tower took offense to some of my remarks (especially the paragraph beginning with "Imagine if . . ."). Here's the statement:

At the April 10th Council meeting, Burk Tower and Bryan Bain voted "present" on two issues because they claimed that their employment at UW Oshkosh presented a potential conflict. One issue dealt with approving university run parking meters, the other was the hotel-motel room tax increase. Apparently the hotel-motel tax presented a potential conflict because monies raised from the tax might be used someday for assisting in the remodeling of Titan Stadium.I am employed at UW Oshkosh, and had I been on the Council on April 10 I would have voted on the parking meters and the hotel-motel room tax. Let me explain why:

The key state statutes relating to conflicts of interest for elected officials can be found in chapter 19. As summarized by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, chapter 19 prohibits the following conduct:

1. Use of Office for Private Gain. Public officials are prohibited from using their offices to obtain financial gain or anything of substantial value for the private benefit of themselves, their immediate families, or organizations with which they are associated.
2. Offering or Receiving Anything of Value. No person may give and no public official may receive "anything of value" if it could reasonably be expected to influence the local public official's vote, official action or judgment, or could reasonably be considered as a reward for any official action or inaction.
3. Taking Action Affecting a Matter in Which Official Has Financial Interest. Local officials may not take official action substantially affecting a matter in which the official, an immediate family member, or an organization with which the official is associated has a substantial financial interest. Nor may an official use his or her office in a way that produces or assists in the production of a substantial benefit for the official, immediate family member or organization with which the official is associated.

For someone who does not bother to read state law, “associated with an organization” sounds almost the same as “employed by an organization.” But statute 19.42(2) says that "'Associated', when used with reference to an organization, includes any organization in which an individual or a member of his or her immediate family is a director, officer or trustee, or owns or controls, directly or indirectly, and severally or in the aggregate, at least 10% of the outstanding equity or of which an individual or a member of his or her immediate family is an authorized representative or agent." Curt Wytinski, legal counsel for The League of Wisconsin Municipalities, says that "An individual is not associated with an organization merely because the individual is a member or employee of an organization or business."

Neither I nor any member of my immediate family serve in any director role at UW Oshkosh. Neither I nor any member of my immediate family are UW Oshkosh officers or trustees. Neither I nor any member of my immediate family own or control, directly or indirectly, any outstanding equity in UW Oshkosh.

Now I completely understand the argument that elected officials should be concerned about the appearance of conflict as much as actual conflicts. I have said in the past and believe today that elected officials should act according to the highest ethical standards.

But for me personally—Mr. Tower and Mr. Bain obviously have to make their own judgments—for me personally to say that I am not going to vote on parking meters, or a hotel – motel tax increase, or a potential condominium development supported by some university administrators – to say I am not going to vote on these matters because I am employed by UW Oshkosh would provide the appearance of being ethical while releasing me from the pressure to make what are sometimes tough votes. And in fact it is in tough votes that a councilor most shows his or her ethical fiber.

Imagine if I voted for a Leach band shell bathroom bid waiving scheme that was hatched on the golf course by a city councilor and his construction company ceo buddy. Imagine if I voted to place a pier in Miller’s Bay only 24 hours after it passed the Parks Board with limited discussion. Imagine if I went into a secret meeting regarding the Five Rivers Resort proposal in spite of receiving credible warnings from citizens that the meeting was unnecessary, inappropriate, and probably illegal. Imagine voting for or supporting all of that, but then turn around and say to you that as a university employee I’m not going to vote on university parking meters because I’m concerned with ethics. You would rightly say that my non-vote on the university matters provides the appearance of ethical behavior while my votes on bid waiving, pier placement, and secret meetings suggest an individual who is ethically challenged.

All elected officials sometimes face votes that present an actual conflict of interest or at least the appearance of conflict. When conflict occasions arise, elected officials owe the citizens an explanation of why they choose to vote or not vote. Simply saying, “because the university is my employer” does not cut it as an explanation and, worse, creates the inaccurate impression that employment by the university is by itself enough to force a vote of “present.”

There may be times when I, like every other member of the Council up here, will come to the conclusion that even though it is legal for me to vote on a matter, the appearance of conflict is great enough that I will decide to vote “present.” If and when such situations arise, I will try as best I can to explain the reasons for my non-vote.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Major Blow For McCain-Feingold

In a 5-4 ruling relased today, the Supreme Court effectively gutted the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, with the majority arguing that government attempts to ban certain election season ads financed by soft money not regulated by federal laws represents an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech. In essence, the Court's ruling means that corporations and unions can fund "issue ads" through conduit groups like Wisconsin Right to Life (the group that was involved in the Court case) without the public having to know who paid for the ads as long as the ads never directly say to vote for or against a candidate. This means that during election seasons we are going to see a resurgence of the "call Senator Smith and tell him you think he needs to start listening to the people" garbage ads.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Sam Alito, both part of the majority to kill McCain-Feingold, made the incredible argument that the garbage ads mentioned above "are not the equivalent of explicit campaign ads" and thus not covered by the Court's 2003 upholding of McCain -Feingold.

In his dissent, Justice David Souter argued that the Court majority effectively overruled the 2003 decision.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Oshkosh's "Hospitable" Taxes

The Institute for Wisconsin's Future (IWF) has just released an excellent and valuable report, "Hospitable Taxes: How Property Taxes Subsidize Wisconsin's 'Non-Profit' Hospital Industry." Hiding under the veneer of being "charitable" organizations, not-for-profit hospitals benefit from municipal services while paying no taxes to support them. In Wisconsin, 95% of hospitals have a non-profit designation, compared to a national average of 60%.

According to data obtained from the IWF report, Oshkosh's Mercy Medical Center is valued at $108,100,000. If paying property taxes, $837,775 would be owed to the city and $572,930 to Winnebago County. The hospital's annual revenue is $108,553,678.

Aurora Medical Center in Oshkosh is valued at $75,800,000. If paying property taxes, $587,450 would be owed to the city and $401,740 to the county. Aurora's annual revenue is $50,435,794.

The report notes that the process of a municipality trying to change the tax-exempt status of a hospital is time-consuming and costly. As a result, some municipalities have worked with hospitals to get them to participate in a PILOT ("Payment in Lieu of Taxes") program. Essentially, a PILOT program is a system of voluntary taxation.

In Oshkosh and Winnebago County we will be facing another difficult budget year. Hopefully the IWF report can serve as the spark necessary to get the Common Council, city administration, and Winnebago county officials to begin to look for ways to increase the hospitals' contribution to paying for the cost of city and county services.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Wind Power Display

On Friday, June 22 from 11:00 - 11:30 a.m., Wisconsin Environment will be conducting a wind power display at Opera House Square in Oshkosh.

For more information, contact Lauren Joy at 608-256-9144 or email

Friday, June 15, 2007

Convention Center Not Right For Taxpayers?

UW Oshkosh Economics professor and former common councilor Kevin McGee has an opinion piece in this morning's Oshkosh Northwestern arguing that no tax dollars should be used to fund an expansion of the Oshkosh convention center. The way McGee sees it, the expansion ought to be paid for by private hotels since more convention traffic means more business for them.

The Common Council will be having a workshop on this matter and will be asked to vote on it in the not too distant future. Do you have an opinion on what to do with the convention center? You can leave comments hear or email me at You can also call me at 235-1116.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Cranky Pat's Situation

By now the basic features of the Cranky Pat's situation in Oshkosh are familiar to all who follow such matters. Absent some action last night by the Common Council, Cranky Pat's (along with Kodiak Jacks and a few others) would have lost their license to operate and liquor license on July 1st if the taxes on the buildings in which they rent space remained unpaid. In order to keep Cranky Pat's open, the Council had essentially two options:

1. Act as a judicial body and listen to an appeal by the Cranky Pat's owners as to why they should continue to be licensed even though the taxes on the premises remain unpaid.
2. Pass an ordinance that would amend the city code so that tenants could have a license issued even if their landlord has not paid taxes by the deadline.

The Council last night passed option #2 by a vote of 7-0[June 14th Correction: Councilor King voted "Present" because the law firm at which she is employed represents clients that are tenants and landlords] , but the way we got there was interesting, to say the least. Here's what happened:

*In order to pass resolution 07-163 (which would amend the city codes and which was sponsored by Esslinger and McHugh) and have it go into effect by July 1st, the Council had to waive the rules because ordinance changes normally get two readings. The vote to waive the rules lost on a 4-3 vote (Bain, King, Burk Tower and Frank Tower voting not to waive the rules) [June 14 Correction: Mayor Frank Tower actually voted to waive the rules, but the motion still failed because a motion to waive requires 5 votes], meaning that the resolution would have to come back at the June 26th meeting. Even if the resolution were to pass on June 26th, however, it would not go into effect until July 2nd and thus would be of limited value to Cranky Pat's and others in their situation.

*Those who voted against waiving the rules had a preference for the appeal process laid out in the city codes and supported most visibly by Mayor Tower. Under that scenario, Cranky Pat's would appeal to the Council to overturn the decision of Director of Finance Ed Nokes to deny the request for issuance of a license.

*During Council Member statements, a discussion of how the appeal process would work was held. I inquired as to how the Council could vote in favor of Cranky Pat's appeal since to do so would be, in essence, a vote to break our own clearly stated law. As much as I like Cranky Pat's and Kodiak Jack's, to knowingly vote to break the law in a case like this would seem to be a violation of our oath of office. Mr. Bain asked an excellent question, which was whether or not such a vote would be similar to voting to waive a bid and thus acceptable. City attorney Kraft said that waiving a bid is a legislative action, whereas in hearing an appeal the Council is acting as a judicial body.

*After a healthy discussion of our options, Councilor King moved to reconsider her vote not to waive the rules on the Esslinger/McHugh resolution. The reconsideration passed by a 7-0 vote, and then the resolution passed (also 7-0) [June 14th Correction: Councilor King voted "Present"]. This means that Cranky Pat's, Kodiak Jack's and others in a similar situation will not go out of business due to the failure of their landlord to pay his or her taxes.

I voted for the resolution even though I appreciate the arguments against it. Cheryl Hentz lays out those arguments very clearly here. In the long run, I could not see how closing Cranky Pat's and Kodiak Jack's would make it more likely for their deadbeat landlords to pay their taxes. Moreover, the loss of jobs and economic activity represented by the closing of these establishments would be substantial and difficult to justify.

Ultimately, I simply felt that that law which in essence blaims the tenant for the actions of the landlord is bad law that should be changed. Not all cities make the issue of the tax status of the landlord a factor in determining whether or not to issue licenses; Marshfield, for example, is concerned only with whether or not the applicant for the license has met his or her obligations. The Esslinger/McHugh resolution, I believe, moves us closer to making the status of the applicant the key factor in making the decision and I think that's healthy.

Cheryl makes one statement in her post that I agree with completely: "And the city should once and for all stop doing business with business owners who don't pay their taxes when owed."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Economic Development Exemption to State Imposed Limit on Liquor Licenses Proposed

This press release was just received from Rep. Gordon Hintz. Looks like a good bill that would save us much time and grief at the local government level.

For More Information Contact:

Senator Jim Sullivan (608) 266-2512
Representative Mark Gottlieb (608) 267-2369
Senator Glenn Grothman (608) 266-7513
Representative Gordon Hintz (608) 266-2254

Economic Development Exemption to State-Imposed Limit on Liquor Licenses Proposed

Local Communities Should Decide What’s Best For Their Development

Madison – A bipartisan group of legislators from around the state offered a bill today to create an economic development exemption to the state-imposed limit on the number of liquor licenses a municipality may issue. Numerous communities around the state, such as Delafield, De Pere, Green Lake, Lake Geneva, Monona, Oconomowoc, Oshkosh, Ripon, Saukville, Slinger, and West Allis are at or near their quota limit and have no liquor licenses available to issue.

“This exemption will provide local officials in West Allis and others around the state with the flexibility they need for redevelopment and economic growth in their communities,” said Senator Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa). Senator Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) added, “It seems hard to believe that in 2007 you can’t sell an old-fashioned in your restaurant because of one arrogant special interest group.”

Municipalities are unable to accommodate restaurants seeking to anchor mixed-use developments in their community because no liquor licenses are available. These communities are foregoing potential economic development opportunities that are vital to their community's redevelopment and growth.

“Communities like Saukville host large numbers of visitors which the current quota system does not account for. This legislation will give those communities a valuable tool to attract family-friendly restaurants, create good jobs and expand their tax base,” said Representative Mark Gottlieb (R- Port Washington). “Lifting the license quota on restaurants will remove an unnecessary restriction to development and provide communities like Oshkosh with more local control and increased opportunities for new business growth,” said Representative Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh).

The legislation will exempt full-service restaurants from the limit on the number of liquor licenses that a municipality can issue. The bill defines a full-service restaurant as establishments where meals are prepared, served, and sold for consumption on the premises and in which the sale of alcohol beverages accounts for 50 percent or less of the restaurant's gross receipts. The local community will maintain the authority to issue, or not issue, "Class B" liquor licenses that best meet the needs of their communities.

The League of Wisconsin Municipalities and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association support this legislation.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Conspicuous By Our Absence

The New York Times reports today that "Forty-two states reported higher than expected revenues this year, allowing lawmakers to set aside money for long-term projects, reduce taxes or set up a rainy day fund. " Not surprisingly and depressingly, Wisconsin is not one of the forty-two. We are conspicuous by our absence.

Wisconsin, the "progressive" state, has no extra cash, no rainy day fund, and a structural deficit.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Palmeri on Friday WPR "Week in Review"

Tomorrow on Wisconsin Public Radio's "Week in Review" from 8-9 a.m. I'll once again be the "left" guy while UW Madison law professor Ann Althouse represents the "right."

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

FDR's D-Day Prayer + Ike's Order of the Day

On this June 6th anniversary of D-Day, I wouldn't at all be surprised if Bush and Petraeus try to exploit the remarks of FDR and Eisenhower to bolster their misadventure in Iraq. Shameful.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Gordon and Gregg

I've now attended two of 54th District State Representative Gordon Hintz's budget forums. The latest, held last night at Oshkosh City Hall, put the focus on the state's shared revenue program. What I pulled from the presentation was that while the state budget (which is supposed to be passed by the legislature and signed by the governor by the end of June but will probably carry over into the fall) will not abandon municipalities, it does continue the now long-term trend of forcing cities to rely more on local property taxes and fees to maintain a core set of services. The state budget also continues the abusive practice of robbing municipalities of local control by placing them under state imposed levy limits.

Representative Hintz has received praise for holding these forums, and it's much deserved. He does an excellent job of explaining the state budget process while encouraging feedback and dialogue. Unlike his predecessor Gregg Underheim, who never really seemed interested in working with local government officials in any meaningful way, Gordon clearly wants to establish open lines of communication between his office, the Common Council, School Board, and County Board of Supervisors.

Having said all of that, I must also say that there is something Underheim-ish in Gordon's budget forums that I find frustrating. Republican Underheim served as 54th district rep for 19 years before being defeated by Hintz in 2006 [June 13 Update: Many thanks to Bill Wingren for emailing to remind me that Hintz actually defeated Julie Pung-Leschke in 2006!], and during that time I probably heard him speak about the budget about a dozen times. His general themes were always the same: the state spends the bulk of its general taxpayer fund on five items (K-12 aids, medical costs, shared revenue, the UW system, corrections), any increase in one of these areas could not come without a decrease in another, and increases in the state income or sales tax as a possible solution to our budget woes are off the table. One always left an Underheim presentation feeling kind of demobilized; the governor and legislative leaders were going to do what they wanted to anyway so the best we could hope for from Gregg was that he at least explain their shenanigans to us and hopefully do what he could to make their actions less harmful for the district.

Gordon certainly "feels our pain" more than Gregg, and he looks genuinely sad while explaining to local officials how the state government will screw them once again this year. And while Underheim was blind towards and sometimes even an apologist for the well-connected special interest cesspool of influence peddling masquerading as a "budget process," I have to believe that Gordon knows that the system is rotten to the core. But one never gets the feeling that Gordon is really going to fight hard to change that system, evidenced most clearly by his refusal to take a leadership role in support of Rep. Cory Mason's effort to open the closed partisan caucuses. It's hard to imagine how we the people will get our budget back as long as partisans are able to dissect it behind closed doors whenever they see fit.

Gordon Hintz is smart, articulate, policy wonkish, and accessible. Those are great qualities which will make it very difficult for the Republicans, Greens, or anyone else to defeat him in '08. Unfortunately, those qualities count for little in the contemporary Wisconsin legislature, where state reps are expected to be loyal to their party leadership above all else. Yes, I know that Gordon's Democratic supporters can provide a list of 85 million things he's done to defy the party leadership and reform the system since November of '06, but more dispassionate observers know that Gordon, like Gregg Underheim, is many things but maverick is not one of them. He could prove me wrong today by joining Cory Mason and Dean Kaufert in sponsoring AB-273 which would open the closed partisan caucuses.

Friday, June 01, 2007

On Faces and Hands: A Tribute to Doug Boone

My June Media Rants column for the Valley Scene is a tribute to the late local peace activist Doug Boone. I type this post having just found out that Greg Olsen, a UW Oshkosh Instructor of Sociology and great supporter of progressive causes, yesterday passed away at the age of 55. He was one of the friendliest human beings I have ever met and will be greatly missed on our campus. I don't know if Greg and Doug were well aquainted with each other, but they shared a deep commitment to social justice and peace. Much of what I say about Doug in this piece could also be said about Greg:

On Faces and Hands: A Tribute to Doug Boone

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the June, 2007 issue of The Valley Scene

Doug Boone, Oshkosh Waterfest correspondent for the Scene and long time peace and social justice activist, passed away in late May. I’m going to put the media ranting on hold this month and instead share my personal recollections of Doug.

In the grand, historic social movement toward building a just and peaceful planet, there have always been two kinds of participants. The first are the “Faces.” These are the recognized leaders whose names we know and who typically take or are given credit for showing us the way. They are often elected officials, ministers, professional organizers, writers, high profile academics and public intellectuals, filmmakers and even entertainers. They are great at talking the talk even if they don’t always walk the walk. They are the people about whom doctoral dissertations are written, whose birthdays are observed, and whose lifework becomes the stuff of legend.

In contrast to the Faces, the second category of social movement participants I call the Hands, as in “get their hands dirty.” These are the activists who do the work. These are the people who write the letters, knock on the doors, make the phone calls, and stand up to bullies. The Hands don’t always talk the talk too good, but they always walk the walk. The Faces may talk eloquently on the TV about what needs to be done, but Hands walking hand in hand is what ultimately sustains any movement.

A few years ago the great intellectual and political activist Noam Chomsky was asked if he thought Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most important figure in the Civil Rights movement. Chomsky said that King’s work should not be minimized, but the only reason we know him is because grassroots activists associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other organizations created a context in which a King could arise. In other words, King became the Face of a movement that millions of Hands who we will never know gave their blood, sweat, and tears to create.

Doug Boone enjoyed mingling with the Faces, but he was a Hand. He probably won’t have a doctoral dissertation written about him, his birthday of November 7th will not be a national holiday, and school children won’t see his name on multiple choice tests. Yet Doug would not have cared about any of that. “Forget about me,” I can imagine him saying. “Go out and be the hard working Hands needed to make this country live up to its promise.”

I first met Doug in 1996 when I ran for State Assembly in Oshkosh as a Democrat. At the time I was brash enough to think that I could be the Face of opposition to Tommy Thompson’s and the Republicans’ so-called “reform” of welfare and introduction of big money politics to Wisconsin. I had many conversations with Doug at the time and came to admire his passion for democracy and social justice. I debated incumbent Gregg Underheim 4 times that year, and will never forget how Doug and other Hands in attendance created a raucous environment like what one might see in the British Parliament during the Prime Minister’s question time.

By 2000 I had come to the conclusion that the Democrats were as much of a problem in Madison and Washington as the GOP, and in 2004 I ran for the same State Assembly seat as a Green. Some Dems went apoplectic and could not accept my choice. Doug did not work for my campaign that year, but told me that he respected the fact that I was willing to do what I thought was right.

2004 was also a presidential election year, and I can’t imagine that anyone worked harder than Doug Boone to remove George W. Bush from office. Though not uncritical of John Kerry, Doug saw in the Bush Administration a real fascist threat. Born in 1952, Doug was keenly aware of the McCarthyite hysteria of that time and believed that post 9/11 America had seen a resurgence of that kind of intolerance and ignorance.

I think Doug Boone’s legacy has to be his activism against the Iraq War. As a Vietnam vet himself, he recognized more than most the futility of ill-defined wars. He carried peace signs at Opera House Square Park in Oshkosh, Houdini Plaza in Appleton, and numerous other places. Doug and his signs became a fixture on 9th Ave. and Georgia St. in Oshkosh, reaching thousands of drivers over many months. He told me that by the second year of the war the occasional swearing that came his way had been replaced almost entirely by honking horns of support and thumbs up signs.
In 2005 and 2006 Doug alone collected thousands of signatures against the Iraq War. I watched him petition and stood in awe as he frequently debated war supporters and challenged them to come up with arguments in support of their position.

As bad as we all might want to be the Face of a movement, Doug showed us the power of the Hands. If you want to honor his memory, do something today that will make a positive difference for your community.