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Monument Square could get makeover; 2019 public art project announced

RACINE — Monument Square will be redesigned this year for a likely makeover next year, and a traffic-calming study is also planned for Downtown.

Those are among the highlights of the presentation that Kelly Kruse, executive director of Downtown Racine Corp., gave at the DRC’s annual meeting Thursday evening at the Johnson Building, 555 Main St.

Kruse also announced at the annual meeting that this year’s Downtown public art project will be benches, each one flanked by two planters.

The current city budget contains $50,000 for the Monument Square redesign, she said, and the City Development Department is preparing to issue a request for proposals that will go out in the next month or so.

Kruse said both Roger Brooks, a downtown and tourism specialist who studied Downtown Racine, and Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., with its Main Street program, “recognized that the way it’s designed now, it’s not as functioning as it could be.”

“We would like to see a permanent stage, more trees and green space, multiple seating areas and public bathrooms,” Kruse said. “These are just a few of the ways we could enhance Monument Square and make it more functional and enjoyable for year-round programming.”

Earlier, she also mentioned possibilities such as better lighting, grassy areas for people to sit so DRC could show movies at night, and perhaps a splash pad that could then turn into the ice rink.

Downtown traffic study

The city budget this year contains $150,000 for a Downtown traffic and parking study, said Kruse, who also referred to it as a “traffic calming” study.

The last two studies of Downtown Racine both concluded that, “Our Main Street (traffic) moves way too fast,” she said.

“Slowing down traffic will have a dramatic impact on Downtown,” Kruse said. “It will be safer for everyone, increase the pedestrian experience, improve the walkability of our Downtown and help control noise, which will allow for optimal outdoor dining, all of which are key to a healthy and vibrant Downtown.”

Earlier Kruse said those who do the study may recommend things such as angle parking, adding a bike lane or perhaps changing Wisconsin and Lake avenues to two-way thoroughfares. The recommendations, she hopes, will be implemented in 2020.

“A lot of it should just be restriping,” Kruse added, “so there’s really not going to be a lot of construction.”

The plan is to have finalized recommendations in hand for both the Monument Square and traffic studies by the end of September, she said, so that findings and cost estimates will be in hand when the 2020 city budget is written.

Benches and more news

Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin will build the benches for this year’s public art project and planters and receive a percentage of the money taken in, Kruse said.

“(Jeff Gustin, the executive director) said it’s therapy for them; it’s all the veterans who are living in those tiny houses who are building them.”

Every bench will have to feature something about Racine’s past, present or future, Kruse said.

“Starting tonight, (Thursday, Jan. 24) we’ll actually have the sponsorship and call for artists forms available on our website,”, Kruse said.

Other announcements Kruse made at DRC’s annual meeting included:

  • As part of the city’s “way-finding” signage initiative, Downtown now has 21 taller ones that are designed to be read from vehicles and six shorter, pedestrian signs.
  • “Wayfinding is not only functional, but it has a very positive economic impact,” Kruse said. “By making it easier for people to find Downtown from I-94 and other directions, as well as navigating Downtown with ease when here, tourists are more likely to visit our Downtown and spend more time and money in our community.”
  • DRC will add a 5K run prior to the St. Patrick’s Day parade, on March 16.
  • DRC will hold a Wine Walk sometime in May. Details have not been finalized, but there will be a fee to participate. That fee will get each participant a wine-oriented gift package with a bottle of wine and a small wine glass with logo. Participants will visit numerous participating businesses and receive a small sample of wine at each. DRC hopes to involve at least 20 businesses.
  • The times for Music on the Monument and Saturday Sounds will be changed this year. Music on the Monument has always been held midday Fridays, and Saturday Sounds was on Saturday afternoons. This year, both events will be held from 4-6:30 p.m. on those same days.

Open records
What's in the secret emails? Documents lay out basis of Weidner case

RACINE — What is in the previously sealed Alderman Sandy Weidner emails that the City of Racine has been fighting against releasing for a year?

That question has been partly answered this week after Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz’s office approved the public release of several documents related to the open records case of Weidner.

A previously sealed document, filed by Weidner’s defense on April 4, 2018, summarizes 18 emails involved in the case, the City Attorney’s basis for classifying them under attorney-client privilege, and why the defense believed they did not qualify.

The sealed emails included correspondence about everything from the city’s Redevelopment Authority to a case involving a bar’s liquor license. It also included an email sent to a former Journal Times reporter about scheduling for a public meeting, a PowerPoint presentation reportedly given at a public meeting, and details about development projects including the proposed arena project.

That document was available at the Racine County Courthouse on Wednesday; however, was later taken down on Thursday.

Summary of content of the emails

Below are descriptions of the 18 emails as summarized by Weidner’s defense. It references a log the city filed with its arguments for why Weidner’s shared correspondences fall under attorney-client privilege and are confidential.

That document from the city was not available. Under the summary of the emails, Weidner’s defense quoted or summarized the city’s alleged arguments, many of which claim the emails included the City Attorney’s Office’s, “confidential legal processes and thoughts.”

In many cases, Weidner’s defense argued she had requested, received and shared public information, not legal advice.

Correspondence One

“Email from alderperson regarding a constituent’s claim for garage damages and asking for an explanation of the ‘claims process and the usual time of completion from submission to decision.’”

Weidner’s defense argued that the alderperson was asking the City Attorney’s office for information.

Correspondence Two

“Email giving Common Council and City officials ‘preliminary notice of a Petition for Direct Legislation seeking changes in the marijuana ordinances.”

Due to the timing of this case, this email is probably referring to the Racine Green Party’s petition to set the forfeiture for marijuana possession under 25 grams at $1, although it is unclear.

Weidner’s defense argued the email, “is merely a preliminary notice, and basic summary of, the Petition and explanation of the process, not advice as to the substance or viability of the Petition.”

Correspondence Three

“Email chain regarding retention of outside counsel on a development project.”

Weidner’s defense wrote that the initial inquiry was addressed to former City Administrator Tom Friedel pertaining to her skepticism about the city’s hiring decision and that the response from the City Attorney’s office did not provide legal advice.

It is not clear which development project is being referenced.

Correspondence Four

“Email transmitting the Wisconsin Open Meeting Law in response to request for statutes and ordinances regarding when ‘a City committee, board authority, or Council may go into closed session.’”

Weidner’s defense wrote that in the Ethic Board submission, City Attorney Scott Letteney said she was, “requesting information regarding a specific point of state law,” and that in the log filed by the city in Weidner’s case, it was described as a “request for legal advice and legal authority.”

Correspondence Five

“Email attaching the resolution creating the Redevelopment Authority.”

According to the defense, the city argued the email reflected the “confidential legal processes and thoughts” of the City Attorney’s Office; Weidner’s defense said the office provided the resolution which is a public document.

Correspondence Six

“Email attaching a copy of the statute regarding the creation and authority of the redevelopment authorities and a paper on redevelopment authorities published by the University of Wisconsin extension.”

Allegedly the alderperson was seeking information on the authority of the RDA, which Weidner’s defense argued is not a request for legal advice.

Correspondence Seven

“Email chain responding to alderperson’s inquiry requesting a copy of the services agreement with S.B. Friedman, the list of services costs and projects, as well as copies of billing and identity of payor account.”

The City of Racine contracted SB Friedman Development Advisors, a real estate consultant based in Chicago, for the proposed arena that ultimately never went forward.

Weidner’s defense argued that information classified as open records.

Correspondence Eight

“Assistant City Attorney transmitting nuisance ordinances.”

Weidner’s defense argued the email was a request for information, not legal advice.

Correspondence Nine

“Email and memorandum describing procedures for filling mayoral vacancy.”

Weidner’s defense argued the email was a request for information, not legal advice.

Correspondence 10

“Alderperson’s request whether a specified contract would need Council approval. (Continuation of correspondence seven.)”

Weidner, referred to as Ald. C in the document, asked the City attorney’s office whether an agreement for $25,000 would require bids and council approval and whether the contractor could be offered an additional amount less than $25,000 without council approval.

According to her defense, the City Attorney responded citing applicable Racine ordinances.

“The type of question asked by Ald. C (Weidner) is routinely asked of the City Attorney in many other open contexts (i.e., Common Council meetings),” wrote her defense. “Considering the nature and context of the request, it cannot be said that she was making a confidential request for ‘legal advice’ (and this is confirmed by her subsequent sharing of the information.”

Correspondence 11

“Email from City Attorney transmitting ordinances regarding procurement of professional services.”

Again, Weidner’s defense argued that what was shared was information, not legal advice.

Correspondence 12

“Email to Common Council and other City official providing a ‘general outline’ of a tentative settlement agreement with a local business in a liquor license dispute.”

This could be referring to the city’s $1.3 million settlement with several minority bar owners in 2015. The bar owners accused the city of conspiring to close down minority-owned bars in Downtown Racine.

$1.3 million deal reached in bars lawsuit

RACINE — Seven former minority tavern owners will share a $1.3 million payout with their attorneys in a settlement agreement in the city bars lawsuit approved Tuesday night by the City Council.

The city argued the email provided, “confidential legal advice regarding an active liquor license due process hearing and the potential settlement thereof.”

Weidner’s defense wrote the court ruled in Journal Sentinel Inc. v Shorewood School Board that such documents are considered open records.

Correspondence 13

“Email attaching the resolution creating the Redevelopment Authority.”

Same as Correspondence Five.

Correspondence 14

“Email where the City Attorney ‘address (es) several possible scenarios for the scheduling of a Special Mayoral Election.”

Weidner’s defense alleges that Letteney referenced his email and “in fact reiterates its contents in open session during a presentation of almost 25 minutes.”

Correspondence 15

“Email attaching PowerPoint presentations made to the Committee of the Whole on June 29, 2017.”

Weidner’s defense alleges the presentation was presented at an open meeting on June 29, 2017 and was also available on the city’s website.

Correspondence 16

“An email and attached letter from a non-City attorney to City Attorney Letteney and Ald. C (Weidner).”

The city argued the attached letter, “contained confidential health information regarding a city employee,” that Weidner allegedly passed along to Jim Spodick, an longtime critic of the city.

“(G)iven this background, it presents a tremendous danger and risk to the City for Mr. Spodick to have access to confidential and/or privileged communications between the City and its counsel,” the city wrote, which Weidner’s defense quoted and called hyperbole.

Weidner’s defense stated that the letter does not contain confidential health information. Weidner’s defense also stated, “City hyperbole aside, the Mason letter is obviously not privileged.” It is unclear exactly what the “Mason letter” is referring to.

Correspondence 17

“Email chain between City Attorney and Ald. C (Weidner) regarding scheduling of matters before the Committee of the Whole.”

The defense quotes the city saying the emails regard, “the City Attorney’s legal processes in determining when to schedule certain agenda items based on City ordinances,” and then forwarded said information to former Journal Times reporter Patrick Leary.

The defense argued that Weidner had emailed the City Attorney on July 24, 2017 to “express her preference that a certain matter be given more authority” and was not seeking legal advice. According to the defense, the reply contained dates and times for future Committee of the Whole meetings and that a guest speaker had been invited to a certain meeting.

Correspondence 18

“Email from Ald. C (Weidner) regarding an establishment and its liquor license (copied to several constituents outside City government).”

The city allegedly argued the email was privileged because it, “pertains to information that she previously learned via privileged communications, namely those about revisions to City ordinances made by the City Attorney’s Office and about the City’s action toward an establishment’s liquor license.”

Her defense argued Weidner’s intention was to address a constituents’ concerns and that she disclosed “no confidential, privileged or other protected information.”

Union Grove High School shows appreciation for referees

UNION GROVE — A gift bag with snacks and gum, along with a “thank you” note, can help save high school athletics.

At least that’s what students and faculty at Union Grove High School are hoping.

For the last several weeks, the referees for winter sports have been getting gift bags from Union Grove High School as a sign of appreciation for their efforts.

“We do need them to be able to play the game that we love,” said Anne Sireno, volleyball coach and physical education teacher. “It’s hard to get officials. It’s hard to get them to come do the game.”

Sireno, along with physical education teacher Emily Paskiewicz, helped organize the Student Athlete Leadership Team (SALT), which helps provide volunteer opportunities to student athletes.

Union Grove has had to cancel several games over the last few years because there was no one to officiate the games.

Recently, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association made a statement urging parents to be more respectful toward officials.

In December, Sireno and Paskiewicz took some students to a WIAA Sportsmanship Summit in Stevens Point, where they learned there is a shortage of officials across the state.

“We also think officials get the bad end of the stick,” Sireno said. “A lot of people yell at them, so we’re doing this sportsmanship movement.”

Putting the bags together

At that summit, they heard that some schools were giving gift bags to referees to show their appreciation for officiating their game and they decided to try that at Union Grove.

“We have brought it up to our students that we need to make sure that we’re nice to the officials and that our parents are nice to the officials so that we keep having officials so that the kids could still do the sports that they love,” Paskiewicz said.

Athletic Director David Pettit said “people don’t understand what goes into officiating and feel that it’s OK to scream and holler at them.

“We’ve been trying to get people to understand that there’s not that many people going into the officiating business,” Pettit said. “Therefore we probably need to start treating them better as fans and appreciate them more. And again, they’re not making a lot of money.”

The student athletes for girls and boys basketball, along with wrestling were each tasked with writing two hand written notes to the officials that go beyond a simple “thanks for officiating.”

“That’s kind of the best part,” Sireno said. “They get a note from a student saying ‘Thanks for all you do’… without them there wouldn’t be a game.”

Currently, the gift bags are funded with money from the teachers and students, and consists of snacks, gum and a bottle of water. In the past, officials only got water.

Sophomore swimmer Ashley Maier said the initiative is already having an impact.

“Everyone now is treating them more fairly and not yelling back at them as much as they used to,” Maier said.

Principal Tom Hermann said he’s received several emails and calls for officials, some from outside the state, thanking the school for what they’re going.

“We have people in this building that we want to train up to be leaders, they have leadership potential,” Hermann said. “But we need to do something. We needed to do something that was more forthright in terms of helping them grow as leaders.”

Pettit said the school wants to make sure the officials know they are appreciated.

“We just want to make Union Grove a place where officials want to come and feel comfortable with and give our kids the opportunities they deserve,” Pettit said.

Union Grove also hopes that more schools do similar acts to show the officials they’re appreciated.

“I really hope other schools follow the trend because it’s something really special that I think is needed,” Paskiewicz said. “A lot of officials take away time from their family and their friends and their own lives to come out and let us still do the sports that we do, and they definitely need to have some gratitude toward them because there’s not that many of them out there.”

Coaching, officiating class

Starting in the fall, Union Grove will be offering a class to students called “Sports Education Leadership” to teach kids how to become coaches, officials, how to use the scoreboard and announce games.

“It will also, I think, bring some more respect toward their coach and toward the officials because they’re going to understand how hard it is to make those calls and pick who’s going to play and trying to make playing time evenly,” Paskiewicz said.

The class will focus on football, basketball, volleyball and softball.

Paskiewicz said the school will also provide opportunities for students who want to get a job officiating or working as an announcer at games. The WIAA does allow for high school students to apply to become officials.

“It will also, I think, bring some more respect toward their coach and toward the officials, because they’re going to understand how hard it is to make those calls and pick who’s going to play and trying to make playing time evenly,” Paskiewicz said.

“We have brought it up to our students that we need to make sure that we’re nice to the officials and that our parents are nice to the officials so that we keep having officials so that the kids could still do the sports that they love.” — physical education teacher Emily Paskiewicz