This spring, in response to national protests over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the U.S., announced it would end the practice of publishing mugshot galleries which disproportionately target people of color who have not yet been found guilty of a crime. Gannett said that mugshot galleries presented without context may feed into negative stereotypes and are of limited news value.
Unfortunately, the Journal Times is not owned by Gannett. In a city which has been ranked as the second worst to live for African Americans in the U.S., the Journal Times publishes mugshot galleries almost daily as of late. Of the five Wisconsin newspapers owned by parent company Lee Enterprises, the Journal Times is the only one that still does.
Mugshot galleries generate pageviews to satisfy advertisers. The long lasting damage they cause is real. Most importantly, mugshot galleries are not a replacement for news stories which inform and keep communities safe.
It is time for the Journal Times to take responsibility and join the rest of our state’s newspapers and end this practice.
A recent Journal Times article touted the opening of Tivoli Green “market rate” apartments in Mount Pleasant.
According to the article, the approximately $60 million investment was generated by “private investors” and two lending banks.
Missing from the list of project funders was the $9.8 million in cash incentives from TID funds that were provided by the Village of Mount Pleasant. Funds that were “negotiated” after developer Wangard threatened to abandon the project.
TID funds are like a credit card used to help create development in a defined area, most often in the form of roads and utility infrastructure. They are not meant to offset direct investment costs of private developers like Wangard.
In their hurry to rush through a housing project, Mount Pleasant continued its practice of funding private development with public dollars.
The immediate benefit of most development is to generate property tax revenue. But Tivoli Green must first pay back the TID before it will ever generate revenue that pays for municipal services like the road repairs the village needs — services the village now says will require a countywide sales tax to help cover.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent and borrowed to benefit private corporations and developers in Mount Pleasant and the village credit card is maxed-out.
It’s time for you to pay for their mistakes, it’s a shame the JT doesn’t tell their readers the full story.
On May 13, 2019. I filed a formal complaint with the Mount Pleasant Police and Fire Commission against South Shore Fire Chief Robert Stedman demanding an investigation into his alleged role in the creation of the "Let's Make A Better Mt. Pleasant" website.
I have it on good authority that Mr. Stedman's actions, if true, do not technically violate the Village Personnel Handbook which leaves open the possibility the Police and Fire Commission could vacate the complaint without holding him accountable for a stunning act of malfeasance and inappropriate behavior - not just against me, but also against other residents and Village Trustees.
Below is my public statement and attached in the comments is the complaint document and PFC cover letter. These are the only comments I will be making at this time.
“For more than two years, I have been the victim of cyberstalking by a website that was created for the sole purpose to threaten, harass and intimidate me. I have always believed the creator of this website was a Mount Pleasant Village official. While the creator of the website was successful in keeping their identity a secret for many months, it was sheer coincidence that I learned last December the username of the person responsible.
In hundreds of errors logged online, one username is repeated over and over again: “fchief1951.” South Shore Fire Chief Robert Stedman maintains Yahoo, Flickr and Wordpress accounts using “fchief.” Robert Stedman was born in 1951. I believe Robert Stedman used a familiar username when creating the website thinking no one else would see it except himself.
Upon learning the username of the website’s creator, instead of finding satisfaction, I found myself gripped by growing anxiety. I began experiencing uncontrollable panic attacks, fearful that an emergency call to 911 from me, or members of my family, would go unanswered. The anxiety and panic attacks led to hospitalization and a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I believe the information put forth in my complaint to the Mount Pleasant Police and Fire Commission makes evident South Shore Fire Chief Robert Stedman’s participation in establishing, writing and maintaining this website. If true, it represents a stunning act of malfeasance by a public official in which he must be held accountable by municipal authorities.”
Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin
Recent stories featuring two well-known Mount Pleasant family farms perfectly illustrated the consequences for property owners living in the Foxconn “blighted” zone and those living outside the designated commercial park.
One hundred acres of the Kuiper family farm was recently optioned for purchase by Aurora Healthcare for the construction of a medical complex. After farming the land for generations, the Kuipers were able to leave a legacy of their own choosing by selecting a purchaser that suited them and a price they clearly favored.
Two miles away, Creuziger Farms has been forced to fight off a hostile eminent domain seizure by filing a restraining order against Mount Pleasant to stop the demolition of their home, barn and family business for road widening taking place 100 yards away.
The Creuzigers were afforded no choice. Village officials have acted to coerce them to sell land which has been in their family for generations, they maliciously denied them road access to nearly 400 acres of land, in addition to threatening their home and family business.
Both farms have enormous value and a rich history. Both families deserve to determine when, and if, they wish to sell. Both deserve to name their price or simply walk away. Only one had that choice.
The Creuzigers will be under threat of eminent domain as long as their property is designated as blighted. Village President Dave DeGroot and his lawless contractors must be held accountable for their cruel and unfair behavior this April.
On January 22, 2018, the Village Board unanimously approved a two year contract with Real Racine. At the meeting, trustees praised Real Racine’s efforts and success. Dave DeGroot stressed the value of neighboring communities working together and “not against each other for the good purpose of enhancing our quality of living.” DeGroot said, “we are happy to have them and continue to work with them.”
In the FLL meeting on Tuesday, which voted to approve the new commission ordinance, DeGroot announced a sudden and rather harsh opinion of Real Racine by saying, “up until now, our relationship is basically, they’ve said you know, shut up a write us a check.”
That’s an exact quote.
Back in the January meeting, the Village Administrator admitted the village had not scheduled Real Racine for yearly reports before the board by saying, “we will begin the process of getting you on the agenda, unfortunately, we were remiss in the past in doing that, so we’ll make sure we get in touch with you.” Dave Blank replied, “anytime you want.”
But again, on Tuesday, the story changed. The Village Administrator accused Real Racine of failing to provide annual reports - which is not just false, but in the single year they didn’t speak to the board - the Village admitted it was their own fault.
It may not be a coincidence there was no one in the room from Real Racine on Tuesday to defend their organization.
The Village President has posted a series of disparaging comments on social media about Real Racine over the last few weeks in an obvious attempt to smear them and make the village’s unpopular decision look like it’s Real Racine’s fault.
It’s embarrassing and unprofessional.
Local control has its merits, but so does competent and reliable experience. Mt. Pleasant will launch a commission in 2019 with appointed members who have no experience and no knowledge of the tourism industry. While they try to figure out what they are doing, Real Racine will have to wait to find out if they even have a relationship with Mt. Pleasant.
Real Racine doesn’t just produce a magazine and advertise county businesses. They use the funds they are allocated to create and design events which bring tourism dollars to the area. With an uncertain and/or a diminished budget, those events are gone. That’s a huge loss for the entire county. Mt. Pleasant knows this, they just don’t care.
No one asked them to do this. The village did no research, collected no input from other communities or stakeholders. It is unacceptable that officials have stooped to trash talking a 35 year old organization because they didn’t bother to do their homework first.
During a publicly noticed meeting of the Mt. Pleasant Community Development Authority (CDA) on April 17, 2018, village residents were prevented from speaking during public comment about the redevelopment plan for Foxconn, the only item on the agenda and one which affects the land and homes where these same residents live.
When the public comment period began, CDA Chairman Rob Richardson announced that no public comments would be heard regarding items listed on the meeting agenda. Richardson asked each of the dozen or more residents who had signed up to speak (by filling out forms provided by the village which said they could speak on “any item”) if they had something to say about a subject NOT on the agenda.
Visibly confused and upset, members of the public challenged Richardson’s actions, saying he could not restrict what people had to say in a publicly noticed public comment period. Richardson replied that he had been “told” he could. Chairman Richardson continued to restrict comment topics in spite of challenges by the public.
“I have never seen anything like it in a public meeting. Governmental bodies are warned not to engage in discussions during public comment about items not on the agenda,” says Kelly Gallaher, spokesperson for the local grassroots organization A Better Mt. Pleasant. “This was the exact opposite. They were trying to stop the public from commenting about things they were preparing to debate.”
A Better Mt. Pleasant wrote to Mt. Pleasant Village Administrator Maureen Murphy the following day to express concern and ask under what authority did Mr. Richardson have to restrict the topic on which the public wished to speak.
“We received a reply the next day from Chris Smith, the newly hired village attorney. He said that since governmental bodies in Wisconsin are not required to have a public comment period, the actions of the CDA Chairman were appropriate and legal.” Gallaher says, “Mr. Smith’s opinion was not just disappointing, we felt it was wholly incorrect.”
On May 9, 2018, in the next CDA meeting, the chairman did it again. When the public comment period began, Mr. Richardson and special village legal counsel, Alan Marcuvitz, announced the CDA would hear no comments regarding items listed on the meeting agenda. Any such comments would be ruled out of order.
“Chairman Richardson read through the list of people who signed up to speak and asked each of them if they had something to say about topics not on the agenda. It was a nauseating display - with the village president sitting right beside him,” Gallaher said. “They were violating the free speech of their own neighbors - again - and not a single member of the CDA spoke up in opposition.”
On behalf of A Better Mt. Pleasant, Gallaher filed a formal request for opinion with the Wisconsin Office of Open Government and collaborated with Wisconsin State Representative Peter Barca, who contacted Attorney General Brad Schimel for guidance.
On July 13, 2018 the Department of Justice forwarded their guidance to Rep. Barca, Village Attorney Smith and the Mt. Pleasant CDA.
The DOJ guidance said the actions of the CDA do not appear to comport with the policies of the open meetings law, that governmental bodies are to receive information from the public on any item during publicly noticed public comment periods, and, most importantly, governmental bodies who act to restrict topics offered by the public in public meetings may face First Amendment liability damages.
“The CDA was wrong. The village attorney was wrong,” says Gallaher. “It took months of correspondence and research, the actions of a state representative and the attorney general’s office, to tell the Village of Mt. Pleasant what any reasonable person already knew - they were illegally and inappropriately trying to censor the public. They failed at every level of public responsibility and duty.”
On Monday, July 16, 2018, Kelly Gallaher filed a formal municipal complaint with the village on behalf of A Better Mt. Pleasant.
“The DOJ guidance made it very clear it is unlikely the actions of Mt. Pleasant would be upheld in a court of law or by the Attorney General, but village officials were cautioned against restricting public comment about agenda items during a publicly noticed comment period,” Gallaher continued. “We expect a formal apology to the residents who had the right to speak and were denied. We also expect change.”
“Mt. Pleasant has an embarrassing history of violating state policies on meeting notifications, failing to approve and publish minutes of official actions, and operating with little to no accountability. This behavior must end. We are absolutely willing to take this village to court in order to bring about real institutional change.” Gallaher concludes, “it’s their choice, they can continue to be an embarrassing example of how local government should not work or they can learn to be better.”
Department of Justice Guidance - July 2018
CDA Municipal Complaint - July 2018
Press Release: Mt. Pleasant Village Officials Threaten and Censor Foxconn Area Residents
Press Release: Village of Mt. Pleasant to certify blight resolution in illegal meeting
Real Racine Executive Director, Dave Blank, had a rough night on Monday at Village Hall. After being forced to sit through 3 hours of invoices and permits, the Village Board gave him about 2 minutes to make his case and convince them to continue funding the former Racine County Visitors and Convention Bureau - now called Real Racine.
Considering that Mt. Pleasant’s hotels fund the majority of Real Racine’s annual budget with their coveted room tax - the stakes for his organization were high. Blank used his time to make it clear Real Racine would be grateful for a reduction from 75% to 70% of room tax contributions - as opposed to nothing at all.
Blank had another hour to go as the Village Board convened into closed session to discuss the contract. When they reappeared 60 minutes later, they voted - unanimously - to give Real Racine nothing.
And just like that, the Village Board voted to destabilize the marketing and tourism engine for the entire region - a measure which had been first discussed literally just a few days before in committee. That’s how much time they gave in deciding to gut an organization with whom they have maintained a relationship with for decades.
A bit of background on how these taxes work - and why they go to Real Racine.
Wisconsin law says that if you collect hotel room taxes, a minimum of 70% of taxes collected MUST go towards tourism efforts. The rules are pretty clear - you can’t just collect that money and spend it on random things. Everything gets reported.
This is why it is common to find region or county based tourism bureaus. They pool together funds and create tourism and marketing strategies for the entire area. They also make sure they are spending that money appropriately.
For Racine County, the Visitors and Convention Bureau was able to capitalize on the attractions and nightlife in the city with the shopping and hotels in the villages. This is how regions work. Each has something to offer.
Mt. Pleasant gives Real Racine a lot of money - about $700,000 a year - because they have the majority of hotels. If you combine that with the 25% they don’t fork over to them - an extra million bucks is pretty enticing. But the village can’t just use that money to lower your taxes (as if that would ever happen). They must form their own tourism bureau - you know, like the one they just bailed on.
The village says they want to carve out their own identity - apparently forgetting every single thing they learned in Wingspread seminars on “Resilient Communities” which was designed to teach local officials the importance of learning to work together with neighboring communities. The point is not to create islands.
So, with a decision to effectively crush Real Racine and create their own duplicate tourism bureau just for Mt. Pleasant, Dave DeGroot went in the exact opposite of the direction communities are being encouraged to explore and support - at the expense of the efforts Real Racine makes on behalf of smaller communities in Racine County who can’t contribute as much cash.
A few additional things to think about:
The first time consideration of ending the contract with Real Racine came up was on June 5th in committee. Why wasn’t this ordinance change read in and given time to be discussed and to weigh feedback from the public?
Just 6 months ago, it was announced that these types of items would be given time over multiple meetings for deliberation. That happened once.
The contract between the village and Real Racine said they had to provide 6 months notice to amend or cancel - the village simply mismanaged its time and was forced to make a decision now.
I have to wonder how many hotels and attractions in Mt. Pleasant currently being marketed by Real Racine were given the opportunity to weigh in on this rushed decision? I would guess none. Wouldn’t that seem to be the first thing one might do?
Village officials have long resented the attention Real Racine pays to the City of Racine and have felt neglected. Racine has the majority of attractions and Mt. Pleasant the majority of hotels - there is no argument.
However, if as a village who contributes the majority of funds to a vendor like Real Racine and can’t get that vendor to listen and comply - you need to find something else to do. It’s a failure of leadership, negotiation and follow-through. Dave DeGroot took his marbles and went home and the rest of the community will suffer. It was a selfish and weak decision.
This is not the way mature government works. Mature governments understand their responsibilities to the larger community, to businesses and people, and to the agreements they have made.
It is my hope this contract can be revisited. That grown-ups will come to table who are able to see something bigger and more beneficial to the entire community we are a part of.
In January, with weeks of village minutes not reviewed or published, I brought this ongoing problem before the Mount Pleasant Village Board. Spending millions of dollars with no public record of its activities proved to be embarrassing. The village caught up and has been far more conscientious since then.
With the announcement of the Foxconn development, numerous contracts and invoices are approved at each Village Board meeting. None of the supporting documents, which are forwarded to trustees, have ever been made available to the public. I began making open records requests in March for trustee packets and posted them online so residents could see the same information the trustees saw. A few weeks later, Mount Pleasant began posting the trustee packets on its website.
Months ago, village leaders promised to host public information meetings about the Foxconn project. None were scheduled. Several residents and I hosted our own public information forum at Village Hall. That night at our forum, the village announced its first Foxconn forum in late May.
In April, I began broadcasting village meetings live on A Better Mount Pleasant’s Facebook page with hundreds of people watching the posted meetings. Just this week, the village announced it would broadcast all village meetings on Facebook.
Accountability and transparency are possible. We are fortunate to have a village administrator like Maureen Murphy, who has listened and responded to requests to make Mount Pleasant better.
Under Wisconsin law, all motions and roll call votes of each meeting of a governmental body shall be recorded, preserved and open to public inspection. These are usually called the minutes. They are the official and permanent record of what happened.
Municipalities like Racine, Sturtevant and Caledonia, and nearly everywhere else, review and approve the minutes at the very next meeting. This way, any corrections are fresh in the minds of public officials and residents can have quick access to records of local government activities. Minutes should be presented and approved in “a reasonable amount of time.”
Not in Mount Pleasant, where rules and ethics go to die. On Feb. 12, the Village Board approved the minutes of seven board meetings, all at once, dating back to early December of 2017. The last time they approved minutes was for 11 meetings, which dated back to July.
During this time, village trustees spent tens of millions of dollars purchasing property, hiring consultants, and paying Foxconn invoices with no public record of their actions.
Does this seem reasonable to you?
The public’s ability to know and oversee what their government is doing is essential. Foxconn is real. The money being promised is real. The homes people are being asked to leave are real. The village must make timely and consistent public disclosure a priority. The stakes could not be higher. It is no time for amateurs.
Several weeks ago, newly elected village trustee, Ram Bhatia called and asked me to meet him for a cup of coffee. He said he wanted to know more about me. It was a pleasant surprise and I agreed to meet later that day.
During our conversation, Ram wanted to know why the village board was so divided? What made them so adversarial towards each other? I told him the divisiveness between trustee factions went back many years. It was not a new phenomenon.
I told Ram, in my experience, there are always alliances and factions between members of even non-partisan governmental bodies. This is true on the common council in Racine. It is true on the school board too. Sometimes members cross over and join up with the “other side” on issues, but politics is a team sport - like it or not - and Ram is now a politician.
Ram told me he was not on a team. He considered himself to be an independent thinker. He said his decision to join up with the other candidates running for trustee seats was a strategy, not an alliance. Just because he hosted fundraisers with Clausen, Eastman and Leonard, sent out mailings with his name along with theirs and blanketed the village with team “End the Stalemate” yard signs - didn’t mean he was going to vote the way they did.
I said the only way to know if he was telling the truth was to see how he voted.
The conversation shifted to me. Ram said that he attended many village meetings where I spoke during public comments. He was very interested in my comments about the hate website “Let’s Make a Better Mt. Pleasant” which I believe is written by Village President, Dave DeGroot - and has been renewed until 2020 according to the domain host.
I suspect Ram may have thought I was embarrassing myself.
Ram asked if I was so sure the website is written by DeGroot, why I didn’t do something about it? I explained the complaints to the domain host, the Sheriff’s investigation, the conversations with the District Attorney and other elected officials - local and state - who also had conversations with DeGroot about his late night activities.
I told Ram, my strategy to publicly read the childish and abusive things DeGroot wrote about me during public comments in public meetings has been the only thing which has ever paused his behavior.
Ram seemed to think my strategy was bad for the village’s reputation. I think he was talking to the wrong party.
Having seen me also address the board of trustees on a range of policy issues, Ram wondered what I wanted out of my activities? To him, I appeared so... he couldn’t out his finger on the word he wanted to say. So I offered up the word “angry.” Yes, he said. Why was I so angry?
I spoke about how other local municipalities and elected officials I knew didn’t act the way they did in Mt. Pleasant. In my opinion, some trustees in the village were more interested in hiring and granting favors to their friends than being accountable to residents. I said several trustees don’t understand public policy and treat village hall like a clubhouse instead of a publicly funded municipality.
Ram listened politely and said he had a meeting to go to which turned out to be a semi-private commencement of construction ceremony - which (ironically) the village improperly noticed.
Ram left giving me one last thought: we must work together and put aside personal agendas and prejudice.
I thought about our conversation. A short while later, he gave a trustee report in which he lobbied for more positivity during public comments at the last board meeting. Ram is very big on being positive.
His first idea was having the board address certain issues stemming from public comments at the following board meeting. Most ideas and feedback provided during public comment just disappear because there is no discussion. Creating a way to follow-up is a step in the right direction.
Ram’s second idea went back to the positivity theme. Because of Foxconn, people are watching the village. He talked about village accountability and holding their feet to the fire - but with less negative and personal attacks.
Other people told me they felt like Ram was saying - yes, call us out - but be nicer. It wasn’t well received.
Ram deserves credit for his comments. This was the only time I have witnessed any trustee associated with that “team” who was willing to even absorb public comments and follow up. Generally, they look like they want to just get it over with as quickly as possible.
However, Ram is wrong about something important.
When people respond to feedback or criticism by telling you they don’t like the manner you have presented the feedback - they are basically saying they don’t want to listen to you without saying those precise words. Worse, they are blaming you for your tone, your anger, your personal agenda - whatever - to escape their own responsibility and resistance to acting.
They are avoiding having a discussion on the merits of what is being said - by having a discussion about how it was said. It’s a manipulation and a cop-out.
Everything the Village Board does is personal to someone. Special assessments, eminent domain, ordinance violations, public safety - all effect people literally where they live. Telling people to put aside their “personal agendas” is a ludicrous suggestion which no one should buy.
When the village refuses to schedule meetings when the public can best attend, disallows residents to speak about agenda items or threatens them with arrest during public comments, or uses eminent domain to pressure people sell their homes - it rightly makes people angry. When that anger is expressed during meetings or online, Village Trustees should be less concerned about the tone of that discussion and more concerned about what they are doing to cause that anger and seek a remedy.
That’s their job.
We all know the world is watching Mt. Pleasant. I have zero interest in putting on a pleasant face or a happy show if trustees (and committee members) can’t or won’t take their responsibilities to the public seriously.
Mt. Pleasant isn’t a joke because residents are angry. Mt. Pleasant is a joke because because local officials don’t listen to residents, make stupid mistakes and behave like mini-tyrants.
People in power - like politicians, often think they have the clout to dictate the terms in which they will consider your feelings in return for their actions or consideration. They use phrases like “personal agenda” and “negativity” to distract us.
Anger is a perfectly reasonable reaction to feeling tricked or manipulated. Not being particularly pleasant has gotten residents more accountability and transparency in recent weeks than ever before. Don’t let Ram or anyone else tell you it isn’t productive - it is.
If Ram Bhatia and the other trustees are really interested in forging something positive on the board, they need only look to either side on the dais during board meetings instead of out in the audience and begin there.