- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 24

Milwaukee gun initiative is good step but more is needed

The initiative to curb gun violence in Milwaukee announced last week by state and local officials is a necessary and welcome step that may help reduce the sharp spike in homicides and shootings the city has experienced this year. Focusing on the aggressive prosecution of gun crimes, much like the successful Operation Ceasefire did when it was launched 15 years ago, this push should give authorities more of the tools they need.

The day the initiative was announced, Milwaukee matched its homicide total for all of last year with the death of a 17-year-old girl. While the total number is stunning, we should all remember that it represents 89 (as of Friday) individual tragedies with families torn at their hearts and neighborhoods devastated. Far too many victims have been children; as have far too many of the shooters. That number also should remind the entire community that curbing such violence is not just a job for authorities but for everyone, as Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Edward Flynn have repeatedly said.

The law enforcement effort - the Milwaukee Gun Violence Reduction Initiative - offers a good starting point.

Mayor Tom Barrett convened the state and local agencies earlier this year when the city began experiencing an “unacceptable level of violence.”

Attorney General Brad Schimel worked with the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee to secure additional funding for two assistant attorneys general who will join four prosecutors in a specialized unit at the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office. The state Justice Department also is funneling $50,000 in federal grant money to the Milwaukee Police Department for overtime, while the Police Department is dedicating 12 experienced detectives to the effort.

The state Department of Corrections has agreed to assign probation and parole agents directly to police districts and to expand the use of its agents for homicide visits, bar checks and workplace visits. The gun cases will be heard in a designated court. The initiative has the support of the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

It’s a good first step that may help reduce the spike in gun violence. But more is needed to address long-term issues that create an atmosphere where that violence can flourish. A Journal Sentinel Watchdog article on Sunday offered the lesson of Minneapolis, where a communitywide effort and a coordinated strategy has seen success in curbing urban violence. Milwaukee authorities should look to that effort to see what would work here and move more aggressively to adopt an across-the-board strategy beyond the gun initiative. One way to develop such a strategy could be a communitywide summit, as we have called for in the past.

There are many worthwhile individual efforts going on. One is state Sen. Nikiya Harris Dodd’s “Blueprint for a Safe Milwaukee,” which she released after holding a Unite Milwaukee Summit in March.

Another is an effort by Jon Richards, a Milwaukee attorney and former 15-year state lawmaker, who is working with Community Advocates and the city’s Health Department to create a strategic plan, the Journal Sentinel reported. Richards and others have been quietly meeting with city department heads and nonprofits for months to gather ideas.

The trick is to get them all to coordinate their efforts.

“A comprehensive plan is what I think we need,” said Dodd, a Milwaukee Democrat. “There’s not one thing that can solve (crime) and not two or three movements can solve it,” she added. “It’s going to take all of us coming together and taking what has been effective in our little corner of the city so it stretches out to more people and neighborhoods.”

She’s right. And a summit - or at least meetings by city, state and community leaders - could put that plan together more quickly.

To his credit, Barrett led the effort to create the Milwaukee Gun Violence Reduction Initiative. He should take the same leadership role in engaging the community to put together a comprehensive plan.

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Press-Gazette Media, July 25

State jobs agency review overdue

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. recently agreed to hire a consultant to review the agency’s mission, goals and procedures.

It will cost $175,000.

We don’t like to spend unneeded money to find out what we already know - that an agency in its role as a job creator gave out bad loans and didn’t follow its internal policies - but this review is needed in order to restore confidence in the WEDC.

That confidence is lagging in the wake of repeated revelations during the past several years of instances when state law wasn’t followed in handing out grant and loan awards and when the agency didn’t check up on financial recipients to make sure they were doing what they said they’d be doing - namely, creating jobs.

Supporters of the WEDC say the accusations are old news, dating back to a 2013 state audit for issues that occurred in the initial months of the agency’s creation. They are right - to a point. A recent examination by The Associated Press showed the agency’s “continued struggles to keep track of basic paperwork or push back on questionable award applications.”

In February, the AP reported, the agency considered additional incentives for Green Box, a De Pere company that received a $1.2 million loan in 2011 with the promise of creating 116 jobs by the end of 2014. As Press-Gazette Media reported last week, the company stopped making payments in 2013 and restructured the terms of its loan in 2014 before WEDC declared the company in default in March.

Yes, some of the accusations date back to the first year of the creation of the agency, which Walker created to replace the former Commerce Department with the goal of economic development, business growth and job creation.

A Legislative Audit Bureau report in 2013 showed lack of oversight and accountability for failing to keep track on what it spent on each of its programs as the WEDC loaned $80.1 million in fiscal year 2011-12.

At the time we attributed some of it to growing pains and cutting the workforce from 300 to 50. We urged the agency to correct the problems and move forward, but, as the AP reported, another state audit showed the problems of loans being granted without staff reviews persisted into June 2013.

The review that was approved is perhaps long overdue. The WEDC is a quasi public-private agency, but almost all of its money is taxpayer-funded.

That means there need to be clear rules on monitoring the money that’s awarded and there needs to be transparency.

Since the WEDC was created, many other state agencies have faced cutbacks in funding, from Walker’s first two-year budget in 2011 to his most recent spending plan approved last month, which makes the recent revelations so frustrating.

The Walker administration needs to fix this agency now. It can start by immediately implementing one of the motions that were proposed Monday but placed on the back burner: Requiring award recipients to prove they created, or retained, the jobs they said they would.

That should have been instituted last year after reports that at least two companies received WEDC aid and then laid off workers and moved those jobs out of the country.

As CEO Reed Hall told us in an interview in 2013, one of WEDC’s five guiding principles is to “measure and be accountable.”

That is the least the agency owes taxpayers and the least it can do to restore trust.

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Wisconsin State Journal, July 29

Summit should reinforce open records law

Wisconsin’s open government law should reflect the modern world, in which public officials have many more ways - including email, text messages and tweets - to communicate with colleagues and constituents.

Attorney General Brad Schimel’s summit on open government Wednesday in Madison should help identify ways to improve government transparency in the digital world.

While campaigning for attorney general last fall, Schimel told the State Journal editorial board he wanted to “bring our public record and meeting laws into this century” and “not make anything less accessible.”

The Republican attorney general repeated those noble goals late last week.

Unfortunately, Schimel’s GOP colleagues who run the state Legislature have tried to advance a very different agenda. On the eve of the July Fourth weekend, they slipped sweeping secrecy provisions into the state budget - only to drop the offensive changes because of a fierce public backlash.

Using the very open records law top lawmakers tried to gut, the State Journal last week determined Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, was the official sponsor of budget language seeking to hide reams of government documents.

Vos and others wanted to block from public view nearly all records created by lawmakers and their aides, including electronic communications and the drafting files of legislation. The broad exemptions to long-standing open records rules also would have extended to local governments and school boards.

Some lawmakers still want to form a legislative study committee to try to curtail the public’s right to know what its government is up to.

No thank you. Top lawmakers have shown they can’t be trusted with such a delicate and important task - especially when they tried to ram through transparency exemptions without any public input or discussion.

In sharp contrast, Schimel’s approach has been responsible and open. He has invited the public, media and government officials to his summit. Among the topics for discussion are public officials using video services and cellphones to participate in meetings they can’t physically attend, as well as public access to video from police cameras.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council has offered several strong suggestions to reinforce the state’s commitment to open government, which should be the main objective. This includes banning emailing, text messaging and instant messaging between members of a government body during public meetings if the chatter relates to the meeting’s business. If they can’t say something out loud to a colleague at a public meeting, they shouldn’t say anything at all.

In addition, public officials should only use government email accounts to conduct government business. And electronic communications should be kept as long as paper communications.

Schimel quickly denounced the Legislature’s attempt to repeal transparency rules July 3. He showed he won’t kowtow to his party’s leaders if they try to hide the public’s business.

Schimel should continue to defend open records as he seeks to modernize long-standing protections.

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