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Govt-and-politics
State racial disparities task force members hope it's not 'a dog and pony show'

Strong

MADISON — Wayne Strong was brought to tears as families of those killed by police shared their stories on Nov. 12 with Wisconsin's Task Force on Racial Disparities, created by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

“Hearing those stories really, really resonated with me,” said Strong, a Racine native and retired Madison Police Department lieutenant.

Strong was himself in an officer-involved shooting, one of four officers involved in what was ruled a “suicide by cop” in 2003. His family has also felt the pain of gun violence: his nephew was murdered, shot in his bed, during a break-in in Racine in 2007.

He’s also witnessed the mistreatment of arrestees in the Twin Cities, although decades before George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned Floyd’s neck with his knee. Strong’s first job in law enforcement after graduating with a criminal justice degree from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire was with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, which includes Minneapolis. At the Hennepin County Jail, Strong said he remembers seeing “Very violent, brutal beating up of inmates, especially inmates of color” by members of the local police force.” That was in 1986, he said.

All of that, he said, contributes to why Strong thinks there needs to be significant change in the U.S. criminal justice system. And why he’s trying to take part in that change.

Wittke

Strong is one of 32 people appointed to the Task Force on Racial Disparities, the Wisconsin Legislature’s response to ongoing racial injustice discussions following the shooting of Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha Police Officer Rusten Sheskey. It is comprised of community activists, law enforcement officers, faith leaders, racial justice advocates and tribal leaders — “a whole cross-section of expertise,” as state Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Wind Point, called it.

“People want to see movement. They want to see change,” Strong said. “People are tired of seeing people being shot, unarmed Black men being shot. It’s a theme across the country, unarmed Black men being shot.”

Will it work?

During one of the first meetings of the task force, which had its first partially virtual/partially in-person gathering in October, Strong remembers someone else saying “I don’t want to be part of a dog and pony show.”

That’s been a real concern of the task force. When Vos announced the task force in August, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said it was “late to the party,” referring to the ongoing movement against racial injustice. Although his words weren’t as cutting, Gov. Tony Evers also expressed dismay when a package of nine criminal justice bills — which included banning chokeholds, more training for cops and prohibiting no-knock warrants — were not immediately taken up by the Legislature.

Strong said he remembers a task force put together more than a decade ago by then-Gov. Jim Doyle, led by then-Madison Police Chief Noble Wray and then-state Sen. Spencer Coggs, a Democrat who is now treasurer for the City of Milwaukee. Although it had made some of the same recommendations coming up now, such as expanded oversight of law enforcement and expanding aid to public defenders, little action came from it, he said.

“They came up with some recommendations, and the recommendations ended up sitting on a shelf,” Strong said.

Regarding the “dog and pony show” statement this time around, Strong said “I surely hope that isn’t the case. I don’t think it is … We’ll make a difference. I hope we will.”

Don’t expect action quickly

State Rep. Bob Wittke, R-Wind Point, said he hopes something — whether it’s a new law package, budget items or both — can be included in the upcoming legislative session.

“Everybody wants to see, coming out of this, real change,” Wittke said. “The goal is to start the next session with something tangible … the No. 1 priority is to get something done and to get it done right. A speed factor isn’t necessarily the first priority.”

There’s already a number of ideas on the table, resulting from Evers’ proposals and a similar, albeit less progressive, Republican-sponsored package.

One of the more controversial topics at hand is qualified immunity. Although Strong wouldn’t go so far as saying qualified immunity (as it applies to law enforcement) should be immediately abolished, he said several times during a Thursday phone interview that legal principle needs to be “looked at.”

“If an officer shoots a person under any circumstance, it (qualified immunity) basically says that, as a defense after a use of force, officers can say ‘I feared for my safety,’ ” Strong explained. “I’m not saying we need to end it or not. I think we certainly need to look more closely at it.”

He pointed to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed Black man, by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., After it was announced that Wilson wouldn’t be charged in the shooting, Wilson said “I just did my job” in an interview with ABC News.

Strong took issue with that kind of thinking. “If you really did your job,” Strong said, “then you (Wilson) would have gone home and Michael Brown would have gone home, too.”

Education, housing also being looked at

Policing isn’t the only thing the Task Force is looking at. It’s been split into two segments: one focusing on law enforcement, and the other on education and housing. The second group is being led by Wittke, who is co-leading with state Rep. Kalan Haywood, D-Milwaukee.

For that side, “the canvas is kind of blank right now for us,” Wittke said, considering education and housing have taken less focus and have fewer tangible proposals on the floor as compared to legislative changes waiting in the wings regarding law enforcement.

Wittke, former president of the Racine Unified School Board, pointed to three things that most need to be looked at:

According to Wisconsin schools’ 2018-19 standardized test scores, fewer than 40% of students were rated as proficient or advanced

  • in English Language Arts. “We have to find ways to improve that,” Wittke said.
  • “There are different housing issues that have been brought up by members of the group,” Wittke said.

According to the United Health Foundation

  • , 34% Black Wisconsinites have “severe housing problems” despite making up only 6% of the state’s population while white Wisconsinites make up 83% of the state’s population but less than 13% of those with “severe housing problems.”
  • “The ability to link workers with an ability to get where the employers are,” Wittke said was identified as another major issue his section of the task force is looking at. “I’ve talked with a number of different people who have been incarcerated who want to come back in society and be productive. There are employers who look to us (the government) to find ways to get them in the workforce.”

“The goal of the Task Force,” Wittke said, “is to identify areas of agreement, common areas we can all put into Legislation or some other action the state government could take, that there are things we believe will be able to go all the way through both houses.”

More than 60 images from demonstrations in Racine on June 2, 2020
More than 60 images from demonstrations in Racine on June 2, 2020
“People are tired of seeing people being shot, unarmed Black men being shot. It’s a theme across the country, unarmed Black men being shot.” Wayne Strong, Racine native and retired police lieutenant

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HISTORIC THEATER
Panel says no to historic landmark designation for The Park theater

RACINE — Time is running out for The Park.

Built on the edge of West Racine in 1928, then known as the Capitol Theater, the building originally hosted vaudeville acts and silent movies. Musician Les Paul played on the stage when he was 14 years old and was known as Red Hot Red.

These days, the building is the subject of a hotly contested debate between the city, who issued an order to raze the dilapidated structure, and a group of passionate city residents who believe it can and should be saved.

Hearing testimony from both sides, the Planning, Heritage, and Design Commission voted on Wednesday to recommend the city deny a historic landmark designation for the 92-year-old building.

John Apple, the owner of the building, requested the historic landmark designation, which supporters need as a first step to saving the building.

Many of the speakers at the virtual meeting spoke passionately in favor of saving the old theater. They have a plan and a passion for old buildings, but the difficulty has really been in raising the money. People are reluctant to donate funds to save a building that is under a raze order.

The issue of the landmark designation will now be decided by the City Council.

The debate

Jung

The Park is located in the 9th District, represented by Trevor Jung on the City Council, who spoke in favor of the historic landmark designation.

“When I hear my neighbors, my friends, my colleagues who care about the neighborhood, who work really hard to make sure that West Racine is a successful, thriving business district, I want them to know they have an advocate in this seat on the City Council and the commission,” Jung said.

Jung said he believed if supporters of The Park were successful in their attempts to restore the historic building, it could be a project that spurs other investments in the area.

“I’m excited about the energy behind this project,” Jung said. “I’m excited about the galvanization of the neighborhood to make sure something like this occurs.”

Commissioner Christina Hefel, in contrast, spoke against the landmark designation. She quoted a friend who uses a phrase she thought apropos in this case: demolition through neglect.

“This is an underserved building that is now a major responsibility for the city,” Hefel said. “If something were to happen, and somebody were to be hurt, that would be on us.”

“We have a duty to come together and help this city and citizens of Racine make smart choices,” Hefel added. “This is not an easy choice, but it’s the safest choice.”

Fischer

Kathleen Fischer, the city’s interim city administrator, outlined the liabilities the city faced as a result of The Park’s dilapidated condition.

If the city were to fail to act, having been informed of the health and safety concerns associated with the building, and if someone were hurt as a result, that is a liability for the city.

Additionally, if the city were to incur ownership in some way, say through a foreclosure process due to unpaid back taxes, the liabilities attached to the condition of the building would be transferred to the city immediately.

Peete

For Commissioner Sam Peete, the liability for the city was the primary issue.

“Everything has been cleared up and I really can’t see any way out of the situation because of all the new information that was just shared,” Peete said in response to Fisher’s remarks.

“Because it sounds like we could be holding the liability for months getting it through the various processes,” Peete said. “So when I look at it that way, I don’t feel we should take a risk.”

Concerned citizens

The Friends of the Capitol Theater disagree with the characterization that the building is unsafe and argue there is no imminent threat to the public. And they’ve brought receipts.

The Friends spent six months preparing a report that included both a fundraising plan as well as a timetable for stabilizing and restoring the building.

While preparing the report, the Friends engaged a number of professionals, including Steve Mar-Pohl of Insight Architecture Consulting, who has a specialty in historic preservation.

“We have restored buildings in much worse condition,” Mar-Pohl told the commission.

Mar-Pohl inspected The Park, brought in contractors, and even flew a drone around the building for additional inspection.

“The building, in our opinion, is not in imminent danger of collapse,” Mar-Pohl later added. “We did confirm that with our contracting partners.”

Mar-Pohl, who said he has 30 years of experience, said while there were issues related to the building, back taxes and other issues, the structure itself could be stabilized fairly easily and made ready for restoration.

“The building is in rough shape, but it is very, very restorable,” he said.

In their plan, the Friends of the Capitol note the building is capable of generating money toward its own restoration. They planned to prioritize the restoration of the apartments on the second floor in order to raise money to offset some of the other costs of the building.

Additionally, the building has the potential for two storefronts, which could also generate funds.

Saving The Park

The Park would need a lot of love to save it — green love, that is.

It would take more than $1 million to stabilize it, pay the back taxes of $190,000, and the concerned citizens speaking in favor of saving it do not technically own it. Someone would have to buy it.

The building was purchased by Apple in 2006 and has primarily been used for storage.

In previous reporting, Apple is quoted saying he loves old things.

A peek inside the front windows of The Park and pedestrians can see a collection of barber chairs, a historic cash register, an old safe and many other old items.

However, the issues impacting The Park cannot be seen by peeking in the windows.

According to Ken Plaski, the city’s chief building inspector, the old theater was in such gross disrepair that it is now a hazard to public safety and community health.

The roof has partially collapsed, allowing birds to move into the building, so some of the floors have years of bird waste piled up. The building also has plumbing and electrical issues as well as structural cracks.

There is some concern the marquee or some masonry might fly off in a storm and hit a car or pedestrian.

“Events like that do happen,” Plaski said. “There are probably two or three a year in Racine because of the large number of masonry buildings we have, the freeze and thaw cycles, and the lack of maintenance to the old buildings.”

The Park has been on the list of the city’s problem buildings for more than three years.

In August 2017, the Building Department issued Apple a list of 12 violations of city building codes, which were not addressed. In June 2018, the city issued a raze order.

Apple attempted to prevent the city from razing the building through the courts, but his petition to the courts was late and he lost that battle. The raze order remains in effect.

In photos: A look at Uptown's Majestic Theater
In photos: A look at Uptown's Majestic Theater

Local
GATEWAY TECHNICAL COLLEGE
Most Gateway Technical College classes to end semester virtually

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to tick upward in southeastern Wisconsin, officials at Gateway Technical College have announced plans of reverting most classes virtually after Thanksgiving weekend.

The announcement, discussed between college administrators and the District Board late last week, means most students will finish out the last several weeks of the fall semester without stepping foot onto any of the campuses.

“We will have some labs continuing, as well as clinicals and those types of experiences. Internships also will continue,” Zina Haywood, executive vice president and provost for academic and campus affairs, told the board at their monthly meeting. “But we are moving pretty much anything that is lecture-based to virtual.”

Unlike the abrupt transition this spring, Haywood said college staffers were able to plan well in advance of the recent announcement as various contingency plans were put in place.

“We’ve notified programs … to try and front load as much of it as you can because we didn’t know what the end of our semester would be like,” Haywood said. “Our faculty took that to heart. Because of this, a lot of our experiences don’t have to happen on campus.”

Enrollment drop likely in spring

There remain a number of unknowns with Gateway’s spring semester, which begins in January, but GTC President Bryan Albrecht said planning is progressing to the extent possible.

While Gateway’s “finances remain strong,” Albrecht said in a dashboard report to the board, the college is grappling with a potential 14-percent enrollment decline in the spring.

“It’s kind of holding at that pattern,” he said. “We are in the process of beginning our spring enrollment, and a lot of efforts are being put forward on that front. It’s always a challenge because we’re not having face-to-face activities on campus as heavily as we would have in a normal year.”

Project borrowing, budget security

In other matters, the Gateway District Board approved resolutions to take out promissory notes for two separate issues — an expansion of the Racine campus and standard contingency borrowing to cover finances, if necessary, through January as tax income funnels in.

The college is taking out $1.5 million in general obligation bonds to help fund the expansion of the Lincoln Building in Racine. The $7 million project has been touted as an opportunity to provide new, state-of-the-art instruction and training activities for students.

A second resolution gives college administrators the authority to temporarily borrow up to $5 million in promissory notes, should funds be needed to cover financial shortfalls.

Sharon Johnson, chief financial officer, said the request for temporary borrowing is standard protocol because of the timing of when property tax revenue will reach the college. Gateway’s fiscal year began July 1, but tax revenue does not begin funneling into the financial office until after the new year.

For at least nine years, Johnson said Gateway has been able to work within its parameters and not tap into the $5 million to make ends meet.

“We do our best to manage our cash through the middle of January,” Johnson said. “But just to be cautionary, we like to have this in place.”

COLLECTION: Virtual learning in the Kenosha area during COVID-19
COLLECTION: Virtual learning in the Kenosha area during COVID-19