Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

Overture Center Merits City Help (Feb 2009)

[This originally appeared in the February 23rd issue of the Badger Herald.]

If tough times let you know who your real friends are, the Overture Center must be feeling very lonely right now. $28 million in the hole, with creditors calling and its trust fund gone, the Overture is running out of options. From the beginning, Madison has tried to have the best of both worlds and enjoy the use of the Overture Center while someone else owned it. By now, it is obvious that there will be a day of reckoning, yet the city has turned down each and every opportunity to get involved and prevent the crisis. Each time we do so, the future challenges mount. It is time for us to take our heads out of the sand and solve this before it gets any worse.

Some history is in order. The Overture Center is the result of a series of gifts from Jerry Frautschi. Frautschi decided Madison should have an unequaled arts facility, and that money should not be a barrier. Ultimately, he gave $205 million. All along, he was honest: This was a gift to all of us, and his involvement would end when the building was done, so it was up to us as a city to decide how to prepare for the future of the Overture. To help us, he gave more money than was needed to build it. We chose to use this as a trust fund, which would both pay off a loan for construction and defray the operating costs. The details of the trust fund are well-reported elsewhere, but the gist of it is the returns did not meet what was needed, — even after the City Council approved a 2005 refinancing — and in 2008 the trust was liquidated, leaving $28 million still to pay. Most of this debt will remain when the Overture runs out of reserves in 2011.

We as a city took Frautschi’s gift and gambled in the stock market. The first try was reasonable. However, when we lost, instead of stopping we used what was left to double-down in 2005. Not surprisingly, we lost again, but now the city leadership thinks that we can just walk away with no consequences. This is as outrageous as the Wall Street CEOs who risked and lost billions and still got bonuses while the taxpayers bailed them out. In the Overture’s case, it was the taxpayers who took the risk, and the taxpayers who have an obligation to own up to their responsibilities.

Mayor Cieslewicz deserves some credit here. He was, nearly alone, strongly opposed to the 2005 refinancing because he rightly viewed it as risky. The refinancing plan could not tolerate a faltering economy in its first few years, and it should have been obvious that with three years of Bush to go trying times were still ahead. The Mayor’s plan would have used the trust fund to pay off all of the debt and have the city own Overture free and clear. The Mayor, more than anyone else, has earned the right to say “I told you so” and leave us to pick up the pieces. Unfortunately for the Mayor, that can’t be an option for our elected leaders.

All along, the plan has been for the city or some other public body to own the Overture Center once the construction debt was paid off. The Overture Center recently presented a plan to pay off the remaining debt, which the Mayor pronounced “dead on arrival”. He was right. It was a terrible plan, but it was only a terrible plan because the city refuses to get involved. The entire city leadership calls the remaining construction debt a problem that the banks and Overture have to work out. Furthermore, the leadership insists that we really don’t have anything to worry about, because no matter what happens, Overture will remain. As one City Council candidate said, “It’s not like they can put it on a truck and move it to Chicago.”

There are real risks of not doing anything. If the banks foreclose on Overture, our “public” facility ceases to be public. If the banks own Overture, we lose our say in its future. We would likely get that say back, but under what terms? How many more times are we willing to gamble the future of the Overture?

The city can get involved without taking responsibility for all of the remaining construction debt, but we shouldn’t rule out putting taxpayer money into the solution. After all, it was our choice that the debt still exists. The city’s willingness to put money in will send a signal to other benefactors that their future donations will not go to waste and the Overture saga will finally be over. In the end, we want the city to have some role in the Overture. Every time we let someone else shape its destiny, things get worse.

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ASM Constitution delivers necessary reform

[This originally appeared in the Feb 19th issue of the Badger Herald, as part of their “ASM Constitution Bonanza” issue.]

Next week, students will have the opportunity to vote “Yes” and endorse the most serious reform effort of student government since the creation of Associated Students of Madison 15 years ago.

These constitutional reforms are the result of an unprecedented effort to listen to students. In fact, the constitutional committee took criticism from this paper for spending too much time listening to students. What the constitutional committee heard, again and again, was that you wanted to be able to elect a president of ASM. You didn’t want the public face of ASM to be selected internally. You also said that you wanted this democratically elected resident to be a full and equal participant in the government. Students want someone who can stand up for them, and have the moral backing that comes from being directly chosen by the student body. At the same time, you told us that broad student participation was critical if ASM was to have any real legitimacy. The new constitution delivers on those hopes.

When ASM was created, its organizational structure was borrowed from Wisconsin Student Public Interest Research Group. WISPIRG’s system works great for WISPIRG, and they’ve been very effective with it, but ASM is a different organization with a different focus and set of responsibilities. WISPIRG’s vibrant and organic system becomes a muddled and ineffective Politburo when it is polluted by the extra structures ASM requires. Rather than try and squeeze in yet another bureaucracy to cope with a new president, we borrowed the more familiar executive/legislative system and did away with our old system. The new system is instantly familiar to students, even if they’ve never given a thought to ASM. Although I’m sure a handful of our opponents from the International Socialist Organization will disagree, the executive/legislative systems used in all levels of government are not impediments to democracy. We have the same checks and balances that Schoolhouse Rock teaches, as well as a few new ones for the peculiarities of University of Wisconsin. The new constitution is careful to ensure that neither branch can function long without the other.

The new constitution also adds new protections for students. Under the current system student organizations that receive funding from seg fees have absolutely no protection from the whims of ASM, unless they can prove that a decision was made because the group had a particular political or philosophical viewpoint. The new constitution adds two major new safeguards for student groups. First, it guarantees that procedural changes can’t be used as a quiet backdoor to defund organizations when no one is looking. Second, the Senate and president can only give an up or down vote on the entire set of budgets. Opponents of the new constitution claim that this process gives the president an unfair advantage in the “conference committee” that resolves veto disputes. However, our opponents apparently aren’t much for math. The president only has control of one-third of the Appropriations Committee, and has no say in who Appropriations sends to the conference committee. There are many other new protections in the constitution, but one worth highlighting is future referenda must ask questions separately. For example, the 2006 Union vote would have had to be two questions, not one, and students could have voted against Union South and for Memorial Union. This is an important protection with a Natatorium and SERF referendum coming in a year or two.

The opponents of the constitution claim that the changes are a threat to grassroots work and the accessibility of the student government. This claim shows a puzzling lack of understanding of what grassroots efforts really are. Grassroots efforts do not come from the structure of an organization. I challenge anyone to show what creates a grassroots approach in the constitution that ASM has been operating under for the past 15 years. The reality is that the grassroots get their start when committed people reach out and persuade others to join them in a greater vision. Grassroots action, and a government that invites and relies on students to join it in carrying out its goals, are core values of student government at UW. Nothing in the new constitution diminishes or impedes that. So long as we keep electing students who are committed to this philosophy the grassroots have nothing to fear from a revised constitution. The president would be a fool if he or she abandons this approach, and will find themselves running a lonely and irrelevant government if they do.

In the end, both sides agree that the only way to truly complete ASM reform is to elect dedicated people who want to actively participate in the process. Above all, no matter which way the vote on the constitution goes, the next session of ASM will be expected to continue with reform efforts. Failure to meet these expectations will condemn ASM to the wilderness, most likely to perish there unnoticed. Students deserve better, and a “Yes” vote for the constitution delivers that change.

Neighborhood group involvement critical (Feb 2009)

[This originally ran in the Badger Herald on Feb 9th, 2009. Comments are off here.]

Badger Herald opinion writers, more often than not, tend to focus on national-scale issues. Even when acknowledging local issues and actions as important, they rarely have anything more to suggest than to attend the latest protest. In either case, most readers are left unsatisfied and without any idea of a next step they can take. Now, don’t get me wrong; these protests and direct actions are vital. Without ACT-UP pushing the boundaries in the 1980s, there would be no Fair Wisconsin today. Closer to home, without the sit-ins of the chancellor’s office a decade ago, we would not have the Labor License Policy Committee and the Russell Athletics contract would have been renewed. Today’s radicals will be the mainstream of tomorrow, but that doesn’t change the fact that most students are not yet ready to be radicals. Fortunately, there are local opportunities that are more approachable for a wider swath of students but still make actual results possible.

Although often casually dismissed as an instrument for change, one way for students to make a lasting and immediate difference is through their local neighborhood association. These groups have special consideration in Madison politics. The city has an entire office dedicated to maintaining a directory of neighborhood associations and determining the official neighborhood association for an area. Decision-makers pay attention to the positions these associations take. For some procedures, the city is required to consult with the neighborhood association before action can be taken. In the downtown in particular, the support or opposition of the neighborhood association can make or break a development project.

Neighborhood associations do more than just review development projects. For most students, if they think about Capitol Neighborhoods Inc. at all, it is because of CNI’s visibility on alcohol issues. The adoption of the Alcohol License Density Plan was due in no small part to CNI’s efforts, and the way it turned out is a reflection of who participated in the process. CNI can’t represent students if students don’t show up.

There are other opportunities to work together with CNI that we shouldn’t blow. For example, the robberies, muggings, and murders that concern students are equally troublesome to non-students. Downtown residents didn’t pay a half million dollars for a condo in the sky only to be trapped inside at night for fear of crime. The reason people move downtown is students imbue the downtown with a vibrancy and liveliness that makes it a great place to live. CNI certainly does not want to purge Madison of its student population. It is not, and should not be, an us-versus-them relationship between students and non-students downtown. Students need to recognize that, by definition, they are part of CNI, and can shape the actions CNI takes.

Neighborhood associations can be an important avenue for students interested in social justice issues. CNI’s Homelessness Committee is considerably less well-known among students than the Alcohol Issues committee but is just as important. Ald. Brenda Konkel, District 2, proposed a few low cost initiatives the city could take to make life just a little bit easier on the homeless. Unfortunately, her common-sense proposals were forgotten because of her call to decriminalize urinating outside when there are no public bathrooms and no other options. A few blowhard sensationalists seized on the opportunity to turn the whole set into a “golden showers” punchline. Strong support from a neighborhood association or two could have gone a long way towards legitimizing the proposals and keeping focus on the real issues. Once the protests are over, getting involved in things like TIF policy, zoning code changes and the city budget are the way to make an impact on people’s lives. These nitty-gritty details are where neighborhood groups excel.

No matter where you live in Madison, there’s probably a neighborhood association with which you can get involved. If you’re curious, the city has a map of boundaries on its website.

Downtown, a new association is emerging. State-Langdon was once part of CNI, but has struck out on its own. Students, and this paper, embraced the idea of State-Langdon leaving CNI and becoming a true campus neighborhood. It is critical that students follow through and ensure that State-Langdon matches the strength of the other downtown neighborhood associations.

State-Langdon plans to evolve into a more campus-oriented neighborhood association, and expand westward. Standing in stark contrast to State-Langdon is much of the southwest campus, which currently has the worst possible representation. The Spring Street area is represented by the South Campus Property Owner’s Association, which means the landlords are plugged in and the residents are not. Residents of this area should work with State-Langdon to take back their neighborhood from the AstroTurf group that holds sway now. State-Langdon meets in Memorial Union on the fourth Thursday of the month at 4:30 p.m., TITU.

If you live somewhere else downtown, the meeting times for your association are a Google search away. If you want to make an impact on Madison, you should get to their next meeting.