Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Final Push

I know this has not been the most interesting month in terms of my limited blog entries, but the month of November has been FAR too interesting for me. With the holiday this week and a December 1 deadline bearing down for our submission to the Wisconsin Film Fest, I just wanted to make it clear that I haven't abandoned this blog, I haven't stopped responding to emails and I haven't fallen off the face of the planet.

I'm just concentrating every fiber of my being on an amped up work schedule, the final push to polish this project we've been working on for three (or four, I can't even remember any more) years and keeping myself in semi-healthy, functional non-homicidal order.

I've pushed a lot of side projects... well... even further to the side this past month to concentrate on Your Signs. Tim, the project's mastermind, and Aaron, our editor, have let it consume their lives, but it's looking and sounding better than I could ever have imagined it would prior to the editing process. We're all looking forward to having them back in the real world.

So I'm going to disappear from the blogosphere for the next week. There's no hope I as a producer and sound designer can match the effort they've put in at this point, but I'm going to do everything I can to support them in this, their hour of need. You can follow sporadic progress updates from Tim on his Myspace page. The blog posts are clearly a little harried and caffeine fueled, but then again, so is Tim these days.

Also, I'll leave you with an exerpt from the column I wrote when I worked for the paper. Know that it would make my life about eighteen times simpler to skip Thanksgiving with the family this year, but it's time that I value too much. I'll skimp on sleep instead.

From: http://portagedailyregister.com/news/local/25ed7637-11b7-55bb-8638-b224477c4d20.html

Giving Thanks For Great Cooks in the Family

A lot of my peers, both college undergraduates and recent graduates, dread this time of year.

For students, Thanksgiving serves as that lonely island of complacency shining hopefully between the pre-turkey midterm rush and the last push toward finals in December. Many recent graduates, on the other hand, approach the family-oriented holiday apprehensive of the uncomfortable questioning they surely will have to face at the dinner table: "Who do you like in the presidential race?" and "When are you going to get a job?" and "What, exactly, did you major in?"

That's not me, however, and not just because I'm already gainfully employed. I love Thanksgiving, and I love being with my family on Thanksgiving.

Now here's where your typical holiday newspaper column would delve into a hot chocolate-fueled tug-at-your-heartstrings soliloquy about how the holiday season brings out feelings of gratitude, puts life in perspective and helps people appreciate the good things they have. But I'm going to be perfectly frank.

I come for the food, and it just so happens that the family I give thanks with every Thanksgiving is comprised, largely, of kitchen prodigies.

My parents agreed to host my dad's side of the family for Thanksgiving this year, but I will be trekking up north to visit my mom's parents tonight and Sunday. Not only does that make me a good grandson, but it means I'll have sampled the culinary prowess of both sides of the family this Thanksgiving weekend.

Now my aptly-named Grandma Cook is 81 years old, and I told her when I asked to come visit this weekend that I did not want to be a bother and would be insisting on taking her and Grandpa out to eat at some point. But I have a feeling I could show up at their house completely unannounced and she would greet me with a plate of cookies.

I don't know how she does it, but it's like she's magic, and all I can do is bask in her wizardry. Luckily, the Weis side of the family is similarly gifted.

Thanksgiving with the Weises is a process that begins weeks in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday itself. My mom spearheads the whole project, working with all the organizational aptitude of a four-star general to coordinate the movement of vast quantities of mashed potatoes, string beans and gravy to arrive in a precise, timely formation on the dining room table.

Mom prepares a good deal of the oh-so-vital side dishes herself, including loaves of her infamous cranberry bread. The cranberry bread is so deeply and emotionally equated with the holidays in my mind that I check Mom's oven before I check the calendar to see if it's Thanksgiving or Christmas.

My dad and grandpa, on the other hand, lead the charge on Thanksgiving's most crucial front, the preparation of the bird. As a child, I watched them baste turkeys, I watched them grill turkeys, I watched them roast and glaze and fry turkeys, and the results have been stunning each time.

But the remarkable part is that they manage to prepare the turkey so masterfully solely in the intervals between quarters of Thanksgiving Day football. It's a skill I can only hope is inherently genetic.

And then there is Grandma Weis, my very own matron saint of flaky baked goods. This loving woman has, for 22 years, spoiled me and ruined me with her pies, to the point that someday, if I find a woman to marry, it will be with the caveat that I never will be able to say in all honesty her baking is "the best I've ever had."

Grandma Weis rolls out her full arsenal of pies for Thanksgiving Day, but the no-brainer response for which to choose has always been her apple pie. It is, in a word, "aaaawwwwgh."

"Aaaawwwwgh," by the way, is pronounced properly by letting your head loll, rolling your eyes back into your head and drooling copiously.

So yes, I went into Thanksgiving Day after a brief day-long fast with the express intent of gorging myself silly on platefuls of amazing food until I'm flat on my back in the dining room, groaning as the beagle licks food off my face. It's a plan that allows little time for rumination, and it's not until the day after Thanksgiving that I really have a chance to weigh what's important about the holiday.

Still giddy from the tryptophan, I can be honestly grateful for the good things in life. I really am blessed, in that I have a loving, supportive, healthy family I get to spend time with.

And every last one of them can cook up a storm.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I didn't need a reminder that the economy was fucked -- I've got friends who have been laid off over the past month, other friends with a degree from a World Class University that can't find decent work, if they can find anything at all. But I got a reminder this week anyway.

The past three weeks have been hell on me. Covering the Madison Halloween Celebration, the election and subsequent pandemonium, the sixteen-hour city budget sessions and the more streamlined county process, it's all been really exciting, and my brain hurts from having learned so much.

But adjusting my sleep schedule by eight hours on a bi-weekly basis has left me with a permanent case of jet lag, the approximate jet lag of travelling from Paris to Chicago, and I haven't even left the Dane County area. So when I got the call to get into work three hours earlier than I'd been assigned yesterday for a staffing meeting, I was a little too punchy to fully comprehend what was happening around me.

It's sinking in now.

Midwest Family Broadcasting announced a big staffing shake-down yesterday, a good chunk of it on our radio station. Of course, "it's the economy, stupid," and these kinds of layoffs have been particularly prevalent across all the media in the past year, but that does nothing to prevent the shell-shock and survivor's guilt that follow a bloodbath like this.

I'm going to take the departure of two of our news staff, Tim Morrissey and Erik Greenfield, pretty hard. I know the standard broadcasting procedure for dealing with layoffs on air is to omit any mention of the departed personalities and pretend like they never existed for at least a year, at which point it becomes acceptable to occasionally mention them nostalgically. But this is my space, and it's grounded in the reality of my life and what these guys meant to me.

When I joined MWF, Erik was the first person in the building I connected with. We're both relatively young for broadcasters, and we both got our starts at small-town radio stations in Wisconsin. We're also both capable of carrying on a conversation composed entirely of quotations from "The Simpsons," which generally left the other newsies utterly lost when they tried to join in our conversations.

I even look up to Erik quite a bit. He's got an amazing steel trap of a mind, and can spout off trivia like names and statistics as if he's reading them off Google, which is what most of us do.

And then there's Morrissey, who's been in broadcasting since the days when it entailed standing at the top of a tall hill and yelling. He's logged decades with MWF alone, and has worked in cities all over the country.

As the penultimate grizzled veteran news anchor, it would have been easy for Tim to kick back, enjoy his bountiful vacation time, log his hours in what we all assumed was a secure gig and let the rest of the station tear itself to pieces around him. But Tim was a mentor to everyone in that news room, to me in particular. He told me very early on he was "going to take a serious interest" in bettering me as a broadcaster, and he wasn't kidding.

Guidance, suggestions, verbal (and deserved) slaps upside the head, wry realism... Morrissey is good for all of that, and I know few people who are as adept at delivering a kernel of truth picked from a heap of bullshit as Tim Morrissey. If this is indeed the career I'll be spending my life at, he had a hand in shaping it, and if not, it was a pleasure to work with him anyway.

Both Erik and Tim are friends that I respect the hell out of, and I have no idea what I'm doing still in the news room while they've been cut loose. It boggles the mind. Another broadcasting veteran told me this morning, "You're the future of this operation."

Okay. Now what the fuck does that mean? They could have canned me and I would have been moved into a storage unit with a backpack on my shoulder and a ticket to Europe in my hand inside a week. Morrissey's got retirement to think of. E's got a house payment.

These are tough damn times.

Monday, November 17, 2008

County Budget: Hour 4

As the meeting winds down, there have not been very many more surprises. There has, however, been a sense of deja vus to some of the debates that have taken place.

A bloq of half a dozen supervisors have put forward about as many amendments looking to cut out proposed borrowing for environmental initiatives. This includes funding for geothermal heating systems, $2.3 million for a communal manure digester and right now, millions to be put toward county land purchases.

"I expect the vote on this to be similar to the last one," chairman Scott McDonell said, "if not identical."

Supervisor Kyle Richmond accused that bloq of supervisors of going after environmental projects specifically. Supervisor Eileen Bruskewitz defended their actions, saying they weren't "targeting any one group of programs, we're targeting borrowing."

The last vote on an amendment to the Dane County Conservation Fund, the one targeting $4 million in land acquisition funding, failed on an 8-27 vote.

County Budget: Hour 3

Following the conclusion of the two crowd-pleasers, the county board chambers have emptied out considerably. Two people remain seated in the galleries.

County executive Kathleen Falk's spokesman Josh Wescott commented offhand to me earlier that, ironically, the heavy firefighter presence in the room earlier may have violated the building's fire code.

The county board completed and approved its operating budget without much contentious debate, and is now rolling through county government, department by department, and amending the 2009 capital budget. The issue of whether or not to hire more communicators for the Dane County 911 Center was not broached during this time, as it was addressed in a prior committee meeting. The county opted to get in line with a consultant's report and hire nine additional communicators, instead of the originally-proposed six.

Supervisor Bob Salov also just proposed the creation of an ad hoc committee to study the need for interoperable radios in the county.

County Budget: Hour 2

Choosing to tackle both big issue votes in one fell swoop, the county board has now diverted from the operating budget to the capital budget for the sake of addressing the concerns of the firefighters and EMS personnel in attendance.

Supervisor Bob Salov introduced the motion, which would allocate $680,000 to purchase interoperable radios for fire and EMS departments throughout the county. This is on top of $12 million the county is looking to borrow in order to upgrade radio towers and other infrastructure to become interoperability-compliant.

The amendment would purchase aproximately 15 upgraded radios for every department in the county -- not enough to fully equip any of them. The county comptroller estimated the measure would increase the capital budget by 1.6 percent.

Departments nationwide are facing the same dilemma before those in Dane County following an FCC mandate issued several years ago that all emergency responders utilize interoperable radios by 2013, which are more technologically advanced and utilize a universal set of frequencies that allow different departments to work together and talk to each other in emergencies.

Small emergency departments are having trouble ponying up the cash for the upgrades however. On top of the millions it will cost the county to upgrade its infrastructure to become compliant, some county supervisors would like the county to contribute hundreds of thousands more to buy the radios in bulk and create a pool for city, village and town emergency responders to share.

"Let's let the county take that first step and then... let's get together and let's talk some more," Supervisor Ronn Ferrell said. "Here's some money, it's not all of it, but it's a portion of it. We're willing to go this far, now you have to come back to us and we have to work this out. That's the message we need to send."

Other supervisors argued beginning work on infrastructure upgrades should be the county's focus for the coming year. With the deadline to upgrade still several years off, they say there's time yet to look for other options.

"We don't need these radios at this time," Board Chair Scott McDonell said. "We need them before this shift to the new frequencies happens."

The amendment failed on a 14-22 vote.

County Budget: Hour 1

This may be one of those most well-attended local government meetings I have ever covered. The galleries on both sides of the chambers are packed full, and attendees are standing in the wings and at the back of the meeting room.
All totalled, there are at least 150 people in attendance.

"What a beautiful display of democracy we have here tonight," noted Supervisor John Hendrick, who will be chairing the operating budget deliberations.

The county supervisors, for their part, appear to be a little taken aback by the overwhelming attendance at a meeting without a public hearing for attendees to sound off. The throngs of observers are primarily fire and EMS workers lobbying for the county to fund radio upgrades mandated by the federal government, and activists in support of an amendement that would re-route funding from the Sheriff's Department to a program to support immigrants.

The firefighters' presence was no surprise to me. In fact, as I was packing up to leave the office, I heard multiple pages go out over the scanner on various jurisdictions' frequencies to encourage attendance at the meeting.

But the activists' presence was more unexpected, as it was predicated on a previously unannounced amendment to the operating budget. Supervisor Al Matano introduced it as the board's first order of business, and called it a means to "express our concern to the sheriff in a way he would hear...Nothing speaks like dollars."

Matano and several other supervisors have previously expressed displeasure with Sheriff Dave Mahoney for cooperating with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement division in turning over the identifications of illegal immigrants sheriff's deputies encounter.

The motion failed on a 6-30 vote. There was then five minutes of commotion as the activists in support left the room. Several of them joined in a chant on their way out the door, prompting Hendrick to call on the Sergeant at Arms to "enforcement some order, hopefully without calling the police and certainly not the Sheriff's department."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Badger's Eye View

Not much to say this afternoon, but thought I'd share the view from where I'm sitting.

The press box.

UPDATE: I know it's generally considered uncool for a reporter to get excited about things... there's that whole been there, seen that grizzled newshound archetype to live up to... but damnit, I was a Badger before I was a reporter, and I had fun filling in for our sports reporter today. Watching Bucky rally to beat Minnesota 35-32 and being on the field for the celebration put one helluvan exclamation point on a pretty long week.

Having met Tom Oates today, I'm pretty sure he would call me a rube if he read this...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Budget 15:41

As of 2:07 AM, the city of Madison has a working budget for the year 2009 after 15 hours and 41 minutes of discussion.

Through the amendment process, the council added $465,000 to the levy tonight, for a grand total of $165.3 million. For the average Madison homeowner, the property taxes they pay will increase 3.3 percent.

The property tax levy will be 8.29 percent higher than it was last year, but Alder Judy Compton was still encouraged, in light of prior projections that the levy could increase between 12 and 15 percent. She called the council's efforts "heroic."

The budget passed 16-4, with Alders Brenda Konkel, Satya Rhodes-Conway, Marsha Rummel and Robbie Webber dissenting.

"It's going to have a big impact on people throughout the city," Konkel said, "and there's just no way I can vote for a budget that increases the bus fares."

Alder Brian Solomon, who co-sponsored the failed amendment to prevent the bus fare increase, was displeased, but voted for the budget. He said, ultimately, it's still up to the transit commission whether or not fares will actually increase.

"We did not pass a bus fare increase," Solomon said, "We just passed a $642,000 deficit to Metro."

Alder Tim Bruer spoke at length about the 2010 budget, and the challenges he expects the board to have to overcome next year. He maintains the city comptroller's office paints a more dire picture for what's to come.

Budget Meetings: Hour 15

More nuts and bolts in what is definitely to be one of the final hours of the 2009 budgeting process. Most of the city staff and members of the public have packed it in and gone home, but the city council presses on.

The late hour is deifnitely beginning to show. The mayor stepped away from his seat during the bus debate, and has allowed Tim Bruer to fill the seat since then. But Cieslewicz has started eyeing it up again, now that Bruer's started to get on one of his topical pun rolls.

I always seem to enjoy those way more than most in attendance, but I'm a little alarmed myself at how funny I'm finding them right now. The punchiness is setting in.

Budget Meetings: Hour 14

After almost two hours of debate, the City Council voted 12-8 to go ahead with Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's plan to raise Metro bus fares from $1.50 to $2.00, thus generating $240,000 dollars to put toward the Metro reserve fund.

Along with that plan, the council also voted to do away with the city's Clean Air Action days, which have in the past encouraged people to ride the busses whenever atmospheric conditions are such that dangerous amounts of particulate matter are present in the air. Alders and the Mayor agreed that the Clean Air Action days did not significantly increase bus ridership on those days, so the council opted to pocket the $40,000 dollars anually budgeted to fund free bus fares on those days.

Among the hours of heated debate, Mayor Cieslewicz took the stand himself in defense of his plan, which generated almost half of the public comment received at the first night's budget meeting.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Budget Meetings: Hour 12

Brenda Konkel tells me she's been following along with my blog as the meeting has been proceeding. That has to be a little weird for her, if not kind of amusing... kind of like if Bret Bielema were to listen to the radio commentary in that headset he wears on Badger game days.

One of the money saving measures Mayor Dave Cieslewicz put forward in his proposed 2009 budget was to cut four positions from the streets division and, as a result, trim the city's large item trash pickup from weekly to bi-weekly.

However, members of the council voted to reinstate the $231,000 in funding, not necessarily to maintain large item trash pickup service, but to maintain the other services those staff members provide. Streets Superintendent Al Schumacher explained those staff are crucial to leaf pickup and snow cleanup, and any cuts to his department could lead to delays in snow removal in the midst of a big winter storm.

A fifteen minute recess will preceed, hands down, the hottest topic on the agenda -- the increase in bus fares from $1.50 to $2.00.

Budget Meetings: Hour 11

During a brief recess, a couple alders and staff told me they think the mayor plans to run through the entire operating budget tonight. That would be impressive, but it would also mean a late night.

Right now, the council is sinking its teeth into Amendment 25, put forward by Alders Brenda Konkel, Julia Kerr, Marsha Rummel and Brian Solomon to implement a recycling program in city parks. The program would require $50,000 a year to hire a couple of seasonal employees to maintain the recycling containers and buy up some recycling carts to stock in city parks.

Most alders seem to view the amendment favorably, and city Parks Supervisor Kevin Briski and Streets Superintendent Al Schumacher have both spoken out strongly in favor of it. But alders like Joseph Clausius contend adding the program as a budget amendment is the wrong way to go about it, and think it ought to be addressed at a later date.

In response, Alder Brian Solomon at 9:21 amended the amendment to require the program to pass through the Parks Commission and come back before the City Council before being implemented.

But Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, with his strong record on environmentalism, surprised many in the council by speaking against the recycling program. He said, having spoken with Recycling Coordinator George Dreckman, there is a lot of concern that, too often, people in parks will dump regular trash in with the recycling, causing problems down the line for waste management.

"I think there ought to be a different ethic in our parks," Mayor Cieslewicz said. "I think it ought to be, 'Don't throw it away in our parks, pack it out of our parks.' That's the more environmental ethic."

In an 11-9 vote, the motion passed, meaning Madison will begin to take the steps needed to implement a parks recycling program, hingeing on a future council vote to approve it.

In the council chambers, there are a few eyelids beginning to visibly droop.

Budget Meetings: Hour 10

Things have cooled down a little bit, and the city council is moving along through some nuts and bolts amendments to the operating budget.

The board passed an amendment to provide more $23,000 dollars in funding to the Madison Affordable Housing Trust, and overwhelmingly voted down an amendment to dissolve the Capital Revolving Fund, which makes grant money available to property owners looking to make facade improvements to certain buildings.

In spite of the mayor's enthusiastic support of the Madison sister city program, he asked the council NOT to overturn his decision to cut half its funding, and they agreed. Also, the council voted down an amendment that would have removed language from the budget warning of a massive funding cut for Madison's public access channel WYOU in the 2010 and 2011 budget years.

Perhaps most perplexingly, the council voted in favor of adding $60,000 to the budget to provide paid sick leave for hourly city employees. That they voted in favor of the funding is in itself not perplexing -- but Alder Brenda Konkel grilled a city human resources manager on the subject as part of the amendment discussions.

Apparently, the city has voted to provide similar funding for the past three or four years, but the human resources department has never actually made the money available to employees. City employees still get no paid sick time, and the money has just been replaced in the general fund.

It seems human resources directors have simply been unsure what specifications to use when administering paid sick leave to hourly employees, and rather than asking alders for guidance, have simply been avoiding the problem for at least three years.

Konkel expressed subdued outrage at this, and Alder Lauren Cnare and others pledged to take legislative action to make paid sick leave a reality for hourly city employees.

Budget Meetings: Hour 9

Alder Mark Clear, hoping to speed the evening along, moved to lump eight amendments to miscellaneous appropriations into one and place them on file.

It backfired.

An hour later, the council is embroiled in a very heated, very personal debate that occasionally focuses on the appropriations themselves, but more often than not has turned to allegations of "wastefulness," "grandstanding" and "holding the city council hostage." The debate is taking place largely along the council's invisible party lines, ironically with more "conservative" alders accusing the more "liberal" council members of making unnecessary cuts for the sake of showboating.

Those same conservative alders spent a grand total of twenty minutes on the council floor telling other alders they were wasting time.

A number of council members in the middle already seem exasperated by the debate.

"I'm disappointed with the way this evening is starting out," Alder Julia Kerr said. "We're all equals here... I really hope we would refrain from chastising one another and focus on the job."

Amendments 4, 16, 18, 22, 23, 24, 34 and 36 were placed on file at 7:01.

Budget Meetings: Hour 8

Late night last night -- the Council finally recessed at 12:34 in the AM. Things already look to be shaping up late again tonight, and it just seems like it's going to be a late night for me in particular. When I showed up, the seats in back -- the only ones near audio hookups, which we radio folks need and are usually reserved for press -- were all taken, mostly by city staffers. The mayor's spokeswoman suggested I use a folding chair as my workspace. I went out into the hallway and grabbed an eight foot table and set it up in a heavy traffic walkway instead. If I have to suffer, everybody has to suffer.

The city council dived back into its budgeting process a little late at 5:40 this evening, as a number of alders (and reporters) were delayed in their arrival by heavy fog. Immediately off the bat, the council acted on a substitute motion on Alder Brenda Konkel's proposed amendment 15, which would have deleted all funding for Madison's brand new Fire Station #12 on the west side.

Construction of the station actually began earlier this month, with an official groundbreaking ceremony held earlier this week. Konkel says she proposed the original amendment in response to a Wisconsin State Journal editorial criticizing the mayor's decision to include the station in the contentious 2009 budget, but made the motion to place it on file because she couldn't support the amendment herself.

Fire Chief Debra Amesqua, seemingly incensed by the suggestion of delaying work on the project, used the ensuing discussion to rail against the notion the city ought to delay opening the new fire station. She said the project has been years in the works, and the fire department has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing equipment and training the personnel to staff the station.

Westside Alder Paul Skidmore said waiting was not an option for a part of town where fire response times can range up to 20 minutes.

Following discussion, the board voted unanimously to "place on file" amendment 15, effectively guaranteeing the $1.3 million needed to run the new fire station in its first year. Fire officials expect to complete construction and open the new fire house next summer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Budget Meetings: Hour 6

This is becoming traumatic. One of my stalwart colleagues is clearly beginning to suffer, and I can't say I blame her. I feel the same, but it's clear the madman at the helm of this ship plans to ram her straight through the capital budget in its entirety before he yields.

Coming up on 11:30, the Council is now locked into an intense debate over whether or not to cut $1.2 million for a parking garage downtown until they reach a decision on where to place a possible hotel downtown.

Up until now, they were moving along rather briskly. The Council passed TIF-funded expansions to downtown road reconstructions that will have no impact on the overall budget. Then a spirited debate preceeded the rejection of a $250,000 cut of all the funding to be put toward the development of a Central Park. Overwhelmingly, alders wanted to continue to support the park project in its initial stages, in spite of Alder Jed Sanborn's insistence that it was a luxury that ought to be backburnered until a better budget year.

Budget Meetings: Hour 5

After shooting down a proposal for a $50,000 Neighborhood Traffic Management plan and $50,000 in pedestrian improvements for major streets sponsored by Alders Robbie Webber and Brenda Konkel, the Council is on to the flip side of the coin: the proposals to delay road improvement projects on the city's periphery.

It's already gotten personal. Alder Paul Skidmore accused some members of the council for attacking his and other residents' decisions to live on the outskirts of town, rather than the central city.

Meanwhile, City Engineer Larry Nelson made it very clear he felt the option of delaying the road projects was foolish. He said that decision would jeopardize federal funding already secured for the projects and gum up the works of "environmentally vetting" each project.

Webber, for her part, vehemently defended delaying the projects, calling them a "freight train" the council never had a chance to stop early in the process. She says, in light of the budget circumstances, this is the year "it's appropriate to delay these plans."

The latest manifestation of the age-old battle between downtown and outer neighborhoods continues...

...and goes to the outskirts at 10:18. The motion to delay the road projects failed, 5-15.

Budget Meetings: Hour 4

I can't believe this passed. For parking enforcement to have technology this advanced against us regular folks who try to park in the street... It's like they're bringing a nuke to a knife fight. Mark my words: I'm going to war with parking enforcement.

As of 8:30, public comment has ended. After a ten minute recess and pizza shared by the alders, they're on to the capital budget amendments, and the first item on the agenda is already piquing quite a great deal of interest.

Alders Mike Verveer and Robbie Webber co-sponsored an amendment that would allocate an extra $147,000 to a Vehicle Borne Photo Enforcement project that would equip two parking enforcement vehicles. They call them "auto-chalking" devices, but they're much more complicated than that.

It sounds like the system would automatically record the valve-stem position, license plate information and general car description of every vehicle on the street as the patrol moves through the city. Later, when the jeep moves down the same street, it will compare the information it gathered before to the current information, and automatically target vehicles in violation of parking laws.

Police Chief Noble Wray says the system can allow parking enforcers to issue tickets on scene or keep rolling and log the information away to issue a ticket by mail. Remarkably, he says it also recognizes and tags vehicles that have been reported stolen or had Amber Alerts issued for them.

In response to lagging ticket collection revenues, Alder Robbie Webber says it will help make parking enforcement more efficient in their jobs. She says it's easier and more accurate than manually leaning out of the jeeps and chalking tires to see how long cars are left on the street.

"This measure will absolutely pay for itself," Verveer said.

The amendment passed with only a handful of dissenters.

Budget Meetings: Hour 3

Public comment continues as we move into the third hour of the budget hearings.

Looking ahead to the Capital Budget, it's evident that the weeks since the Mayor released his budget have been a time of drawing battle lines for Madison's alders. Most of the amendments come from two diametrically-opposed factions of Alders.

Alders Robbie Webber, Brenda Konkel and Marsha Rummel all alternately have a hand in a smattering of amendments that would delay seven major road projects by a year, for a combined savings of $3.7 million in 2009.

Meanwhile, Alders Jed Sanborn, Judy Compton and Thuy Pham-Remmele are behind an amendment that strikes $100,000 worth of funding from the Renewable Energy Project. Sanborn, Pham-Remmele and Alder Libby Monsonmade a bold move to remove $250,000 from the budget that was intended to jumpstart the Central Park project between 2009 and 2011. And it was Sanborn, Pham-Remmele, Monson and Alder Michael Schumacher who got together to quash $120,000 from the municipal art fund, which has already drawn protest from several members of the public tonight.

Budget Meetings: Hour 1

Feel like an impromptu civics lesson? Feel free to follow along with my coverage of the City of Madison budget hearing process. Our radio station is launching a new project, but the material I create for it is not available to the general public yet. So I figure, why not share that coverage in a venue where it might get seen by one or two people instead of none... Enjoy!

Also, my friend Kristin Czubkowski from the Cap Times is keeping a minute by minute liveblog of the hearings, if you're die hard enough to follow along. But read MY blog first, because it will irk her somewhat if you do.

So it begins.

The city council led off its budget hearing innocuously enough this evening. Following the 22-hour, three night budget "marathon" of 2007, the council altered the rules governing the hearings a little bit. The game plan is to take all the comments from members of the public in one fell swoop tonight. Once that is out of the way, the board will make what progress it can on the capital budget, or one-time expenditures on items like equipment and facilities.

Right now, there are 28 proposed amendments to the capital budget as it was put forward by the Mayor. The council will go through those and vote them each up or down before proceeding to the operating budget, where there are 45 amendments on the table.

So far, nearly a dozen members of the public have sounded off on budget items; ranging through everything from funding for the arts to the Central Park plan to solar systems. The big topic, unsurprisingly, has been the plan to raise bus fares from $1.50 to $2.00, and the feedback has been exclusively negative.

By the look of the public seating area, we're in for plenty more speakers before the council gets their turn. Most of the alders have water bottles, coffee mugs and snacks at their stations along with the usual clutter of notes, binders and laptops. As I understand it, we'll be here until 10:30 or so, and likely the same time tomorrow night. The progress made between now and then determines how late the meeting goes Thursday night, when the board is slated to FINISH whatever is left of the 73 amendments.

Everyone's settling in for the long haul.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Turning the Corner

I don't have enough time before I have to go to work to adequately describe the emotions I'm feeling this morning, and it would take me a lifetime... generations... to come to terms with the fervor and elation I encountered on State Street last night. All I can do is try to provide a snapshot.

On my way home from work, I swung by State to just kind of get a feel for the downtown and campus reactions to Barack Obama's winning the presidency. I'll be honest as well: after spending the evening in Republican headquarters, I was looking for a few celebratory high fives as well.

I was overwhelmed by what I found.

As I arrived, a spontaneous parade was rending its way down State Street. There were thousands of people, people marching toward the capitol for no reason other than they had no where else to go, but they couldn't go home. They were too elated.

People were standing on the sidewalks chanting. People were running up to strangers and hugging them. People were waving flags, wearing them like capes, wrapping up in them like they were warm, comfortable blankets. High fives were inescapable. Everybody was grinning and laughing. Black folks and white folks were standing arm in arm and just yelling for the hell of it. I'm pretty sure most of them were strangers prior to that night.

My buddies Ben and Branton showed up on the street, and Ben burst into tears immediately. He admitted the waterworks had been going all night.

It was an exciting night for me, and for anyone who takes their love of country and progressivism seriously. For Ben, Branton and me, it marked the end of eight long years of gritting our teeth at misguided foreign policy decisions, an economy fueled by rampant greed and some of the most Paleolithic social beliefs seen in the White House for decades.

Eight years, and we were pushed to the brink. I can only imagine how it felt for the black men and women on the street. They had been waiting for last night a lot longer than eight years.

"This is the first time that the American flag has meant something to me," one young black woman named Maya said. "Today, for the first time."

She was weeping openly.

"I can remember looking up to this as a little boy," a black man, Zack, said with tears shining in his eyes under the street lights, "as a little kid, thinking it was impossible. And this...and then it happens. And it happens!"

"This is our moment," another guy yelled, darting in through a small, growing crowd of people who wanted to tell me their stories and grabbing the proffered microphone. "This is our generation's moment right here!"

He then informed me, "I'm gonna hug you now," and wrestled me into a bear hug as the crowd started to chant, "Yes we did. Yes we did."

And yeah, I guess we did.

It's going to be very easy to be very giddy for the next couple of days, but I hope that the enthusiasm I saw on State Street last night NEVER wears off. One battle is won, and soundly, but the work is only just beginning.

Last night was the night we turned the Titanic, but righting her will take a wholly different struggle. There will be no overnight transition. Our nation is in bad shape, and it will take more than the enthusiastic supporters who rallied in the streets, in the bars, in their homes last night to restore our country to what it once was, and then better it further.

That... that belief that there is no end to the quest for self-betterment... That is the America we were raised to believe in, and that's what we have to remember as a nation striking out for these next four years, and, indeed, the future of our America.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

My Favorite Holiday

Honestly, it feels more like a party than election day.

Here in Madison, nobody's somber, nobody's out to just do their civic duty. Everybody's out with a purpose, and everybody feels good. On my way to work, there was a man on ten-foot stilts dancing at the corner of East Wash and Paterson holding a sign for Obama. Outside of Fitchburg city hall, there was an accordian and tuba duet set up playing oom-pa-pa music. Every other block on Fish Hatchery road are people waving signs and balloons.

Everybody is smiling.

Happy election day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Back Off My Vote

Honestly, I'm a little sad that I voted early. If I were going to the polls tomorrow, I would be just ITCHING to take a swing at the first overzealous votary, fascist thug or state Attorney General who tried to step into my way.

Four years ago was the first time I ever got to vote in a Presidential election. As we all know, that didn't turn out so well, but at the time I cast my vote, it was honestly the most excited I had ever been about anything political.

One of my favorite sayings is that, "If you're not pissed off, you're not paying attention." In November of 2004, I was paying attention and I was very, very pissed off. I was not pleased to be mired in a fledgling quagmire we had been told was a "Mission Accomplished," I was alarmed with rising corporate irresponsibility and I was deeply concerned about the declining state of the middle class.

Four years later, not much has changed -- certainly not our President. The heinous brew that was the state of our nation in 2004 has sat for four years, and it has stewed, it's fermented and ripened like a neglected trash can.

When I cast my vote in 2004, I did it with the giddy little thrill of a middle schooler flipping the bird at his least favorite science teacher. But when I turned over my absentee ballot this year, I was solemnly satisfied and calmly defiant. I won't say I was quite confident, but I felt pretty darn good.

Suffice it to say, had anyone tried to prevent me from doing the civic duty every American should take a maniacal pleasure in, violence would have ensued.

More than the reports of our esteemed Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen and his cronies hanging around polling places like the Hamburglar trying to steal people's votes, the fact that there are people who take their right to vote as seriously as I do makes me glad Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney is assigning some of his community deputies to stop in at polling places and make sure there is no undue interference being put before voters. I sincerely hope more sheriff's offices in the state are following Mahoney's lead, because the last thing we need after the past eight years is an election day marred by disenfranchisement and violence.

Mahoney told us at the radio station that the County Clerk, Bob Ohlsen, and a number of town and village clerks asked him to have deputies check in to make sure everything was going smoothly. He said, between the state Republican Party assigning intimidating poll watchers to stand guard and the Attorney General dispatching his goon squad to do the same, many clerks are worried help will be needed to chase away potential usurpers.

"We will not be precluding people's free speech," Mahoney told Sly, "but we will not allow people to disrupt the voting process and to stand in the way and intimidate those individuals who come out and exercise their right to vote."

Mahoney said he himself does not expect there to be any serious trouble in Dane County, but his deputies will be watching out for it if there is. Personally, I love the thought of dispatching the authorities to intimidate anyone who was thinking about trying to intimidate voters.

The mental image of J. B. Van Hollen getting dragged away from an inner city polling place in cuffs is just as sweet.