I am a professor of Communication Studies at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. I use this blog try to promote critical thinking about mainstream media, establishment politics, and popular culture.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
I've been on the city council long enough now to not be surprised by anything we do or don't do, but last night's 5-2 vote to renew the liquor license of a [to put it mildly] problematic tavern is still somewhat shocking. J. Krause says it well in his daily blog:
"Watching most of the three hour 'mini-trial' for the owner of O'Brian's bar in front of the Oshkosh Common Council last night has me thinking it might be time to reconsider the role alcohol plays in our lives around here. Hundreds of police calls last year, brawls, people found passed out lying on the floor, dozens of complaints from neighbors--and Chief Scott Greuel wouldn't even call it the 'worst of the worst' bars in town. And despite the owner's past refusal to work with police to mitigate the behavior problems at his establishment, the Common Council still voted to let him keep his liquor license."
Even better is an email I received from a citizen this morning. She says that the next time she gets a parking or speeding ticket in town, she's going to apply the council majority's reasoning and argue: "I'm not really sure if I knew the speed limit or saw the No Parking sign or not. I never signed anything that stated I fully understood the law. I deserve at least one more chance, it's actually your responsibility to inform me, it's not up to me to know what the penalties may be for breaking the law."
The council majority believe that last night's vote and discussion sent a message to all tavern owners in town that we take licensing seriously and will be watching them closely. Actually, the exact opposite message was sent. The message is that minimizing public safety issues, pleading ignorance, and accusing the police of not liking your clientele are all legitimate defenses against evidence of abusing the privilege of license ownership. After last night's vote, it's not clear to me why the police department would even bother to spend the time and resources necessary to make a case for revocation or nonrenewal.
As suggested by Councilor Tower, the Council had an opportunity last night to show that we recognize that license ownership is a privilege, not a right. We missed the opportunity. Too bad.
Earlier this evening I had the opportunity to listen to Tony Nelessen summarize the results of the visioning surveys taken in Oshkosh a few months back. Not surprisingly, the surveys reveal a preference for a city that is walkable, biker-friendly, makes maximum use of its 16 miles of waterfront, has a vibrant downtown and tree lined streets.
Nelessen said that in order for the vision to become a reality, the city's land use and zoning regulations need serious reform. For that to happen here, the City Council and City Manager must lead.
What I found most fascinating about Nelessen's presentation was his claim that the surveys suggested the possibility of developing a three-pronged Oshkosh brand: Healthy, Sustainable, Green. Certainly no other Fox Valley city is branded that way, and Nelessen claimed that Madison is probably the only city in the state that comes close. I think it's a great way to brand Oshkosh.
Moving toward a model of health, sustainability, and greenliness when almost all development since the 1950s has been the opposite will be no easy task. No doubt most elected and appointed officials--along with the Onionesque major media--will have no trouble espousing "health" as a value. The trouble is that almost every time a real opportunity comes to reject old school thinking (i.e. big boxes, TIF for retail development, etc.), council majorities, the administration, and the Onion(s) all seem to forget the health endorsement.
Nelessen said that a vision report will soon follow. He said that the city council should endorse it with a non-binding resolution. If the report is consistent with what I heard today, I would most likely support such a resolution.
The morning after the May 26th Common Council meeting, Lori and I took off for a long road trip that took us to Indianapolis; Oklahoma City; Carlsbad, NM; El Paso, TX (where we spent the most time); Albuquerque, NM; Santa Rosa, NM (home of the famous Blue Hole); Tulsa, OK; Joplin, MO; and Cuba City, MO (home of the world's largest rocking chair). Much of our time was spent driving on historic Route 66, formerly "America's Main St." before the building of the bland interstates. I was pleasantly surprised by El Paso--from reading the mainstream American press you'd think the place is overrun by the undocumented and drug criminals coming in from Juarez. To the contrary, it is a remarkably diverse city with a magnificent landscape and fabulous weather. The main problem with El Paso (which is the same problem with about 99% of American cities) is that it is not very pedestrian friendly. They have a car-friendly culture featuring lots of ugly strip malls. Sound familiar?
We did not get back into town until very late on Saturday night, and I'm only now starting to get caught up on emails, news, etc. Thankfully I was able to find the time to get ready for last night's council meeting. Just a few reflections on it:
*In spite of the numerous attempts to discredit, malign, and mock the process used to fill the vacancy left by Paul Esslinger's election as mayor, I thought Harold Bucholtz proved last night that he was a great choice. He came prepared, asked good questions, and seemed completely citizen-centered. Most important, Harold's clearly not in any "camp" and shows signs of being a truly independent voice.
*We voted to take back the liquor licenses of The Granary and Howard Johnson's. As much as I sympathize with the owners of both places, I just don't feel we can allow inactive licenses while we have a waiting list of 27. Three councilors voted in favor of letting Howard Johnson's keep the license, but they offered no argument to support their vote so it's still a mystery.
*It took a long time, but we finally approved a set of citywide goals for city manager Rohloff. The process that got us to this point needs some refining, but I think everyone can agree that the process was more open and transparent than has ever been the case. Mr. Rohloff will be evaluated again in August, and as deputy mayor I'm responsible for facilitating that process. Suggestions are welcome.
*We voted unanimously to establish a one-time fee for recycling carts as opposed to keeping them in the Capital Improvements Budget. The consensus seems to be that the most important thing at this point is education. The Public Works Department should be moving on that soon.
*About a dozen members of the Oshkosh Cycling Club showed up to urge the city to move forward on a bike plan. Steve Barney established that the Parks Advisory Board was supposed to have a bike subcommittee, but has not had such a subcommittee in place for at least the last 13 years. I'm not sure but I get the feeling that the current council has on it a biker-friendly majority, so hopefully we can make some real progress on the issue this year.
*Burk Tower and I had somewhat of a dialogue on the issue of the powers of the mayor and when it is appropriate for a council to revisit items approved by a prior council. On the mayoral power issue, I cited this 2000 article from the Northwestern which established that while the mayor on paper is equal to the other 6 councilors, in fact s/he has traditionally taken a more activist role. Usually that role is taken for granted; Esslinger taking that role seems to result in an unusually high amount of hissy fitting from the establishment and establishment wannabees.
On the issue of revisiting issues, I took the position that that's what elections are about. Voters often choose candidates based on whether or not they will revisit a policy that they see as particularly noxious. In this case, the issue is the parking lot on Main St. I am leaning toward support for that project, but have no problem at all with it being revisited. (I am leaning toward support for it because, as many will recall, I tried to amend the 2009 budget to delay the parking lot for a year. When my amendment failed, I thought that meant that we would be going forward with the parking lot. To not go forward at this point is going to require more compelling argument than what I've heard so far.).
According to this piece in the Journal Sentinel, the city of Whitewater is using a direct mail campaign to try to attract business to the area. Kevin Brunner, Whitewater's city manager quoted in the article, applied last year to be city manager of Oshkosh.