By Doug Hissom Special to Published Oct 15, 2010 at 1:09 PM

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Warnings surrounding the beleaguered Milwaukee Police radio system came home to roost last week when the system totally failed for 30 minutes, leaving police to use cell phones, laptop computers and maybe even smoke signals to talk to each other.

Warnings have been broadcast for years that the OpenSky radio system was fraught with bugs that make it hard to work. That means of course, cops can't talk to each other or to central command, which is what happened last week.

It's no secret that the $18 million radio system, OpenSky, doesn't really work well. Flags were raised aplenty when the city was heading toward the OpenSky plan in 2003. The main problem, which is rather crucial, is that the system will have dead spots around the city, and, perhaps more importantly, it does not communicate with other law enforcement and emergency personnel from other cities since OpenSky is a unique, proprietary system.

That factor was key when the state awarded millions to the county Sheriff's Department for emergency 911 cell phone tracking software. In 2003, the city was told that Motorola makes a more reliable, and more compatible package. The Sheriff's Department uses Motorola.

In 2003 the city's purchasing department was also accused of writing the bid specifications so that only OpenSky could meet the requirements. Police Chief Ed Flynn has vowed the radios will talk to each other someday.

OpenSky's parent company is now Harris Communications.

Ald. Bob Donovan, chair of the Common Council's Public Safety Committee, has finally started to ask some of the obvious questions, since the project is not only 7 years in the making, but also $3 million over budget with more money likely going towards plugging the holes as well if the city continues this route.

Donovan wants the powers that be in City Hall to hand over all correspondence – including emails – from current and former top-level city officials pertaining to the troubled digital police radio system.

"If I regret anything in regard to this $18 million boondoggle, it's that I didn't ask for these records sooner," he said.

He says his quest is threefold:

  • To determine if the safety of officers and citizens is and has always been the top concern in implementing the OpenSky system.
  • To determine if the system will ever work the way it is supposed to.
  • With regard to the system -- what mistakes were made in the past, who made them, and what steps are being taken to ensure they don't happen again?

He also wants the move to put the Fire Department on the same radio system stopped. Steps are being taken to test the system in lieu of plans to have crews "go live" with it early next year.

"In my estimation, the system should not have been rolled out for the police department until every bug had been worked out," he said. "I'll be damned if we're going to make the same mistake with the fire department."

Donovan has the political cover to make waves since he is elected. A police sergeant earlier this year was suspended 20 days without pay for sending a text to 33 police supervisors telling them they should cease all traffic stops until the system actually works.

Harris execs say one of its employees was responsible for the error last week and Donovan wants to know if that employee was disciplined.

County Exec Scott Walker's campaign minions tried to make it an issue in the race between Mayor Tom Barrett and Walker for the statehouse. The camp took the easy approach and blamed Barrett for the radio woes. No matter that Barrett was not mayor when the vendor was awarded the controversial bid nor was Ed Flynn police chief either.

The city was warned that the radio system hasn't worked in nearly every place it was set up, including in the state of New York, which abruptly cancelled its deal with OpenSky, causing the state to eat billions of dollars in the failed venture. But the mayor in Milwaukee at the time the contract was awarded was John Norquist, and the people in charge of deciding who got the job have since quietly departed. They were also the same ones who decided it was a good idea to buy faulty parking meters.

Pennsylvania's Lancaster County canceled its OpenSky radio system after eating $14 million, even though the state of Pennsylvania is still trying to get the system to work after 13 years and $368 million worth of effort. Sacramento ate $6 million before punting on the system.

Barrett's stuck with trying to wipe egg off the collective face of City Hall for this mess, but imagine how the political football would bounce if the the city decided to cancel its deal for OpenSky and tell taxpayers that nearly $20 million was just flushed down the drain.

Ridding the paper trail: Politicians can do some of their best work when tending to bread and butter issues that pertain to enhancing our quality of life. One of the boldest moves on that front happened this week after Milwaukee Ald. Tony Zielinski took on the media empire known as Journal Sentinel.

While the daily's circulation may be declining, the paper is also known now for those shoppers in black plastic bags being strewn about on door steps across the metro area. They pretty much amount to litter since the under-paid delivery people can only toss them in the vicinity of the household's doorstep and the shoppers are left to blow in the wind.

Responding to hordes of citizen complaints, Zielinski went to the source to ask the paper to cease and desist. With a little arm twisting and a few threats, Zielinski announced that the debris will be kept off our porches, sidewalks and front lawns.

"After making it clear that citations will be flowing to the Journal Sentinel if unwanted deliveries were continued there finally has been a resolution," he said. "Instead of littering people's stoops and yards the Journal Sentinel will start mailing the ads."

Pitching polls: Conservative radio squawkers have been touting GOP U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson's double-digit poll lead from week's past, however recent surveys suggest that this is going to be a close one between himself and Russ Feingold.

A Rasmussen poll this week has Johnson leading Feingold by seven points, down from the 12 points it was reporting two weeks ago. The Feingold camp says its latest poll has the two even at 48-48. Reuters this week had Johnson leading by seven.

The race is getting national attention since Feingold is known on the national circuit as a maverick and just four years ago was being mentioned as presidential fodder. MSNBC this week said Feingold is in "a fight for his life" against the "Tea-Party backed Ron Johnson. ... Feingold's going to have a tough time."

Feingold has never won by a landslide in his three U.S. Senate victories, with his largest margin six years ago when he got 55 percent of the vote. In his first re-election campaign, Feingold barely squeaked by conservative Mark Neumann, who outspent Feingold due to Feingold's pledge to eschew special interest money. He changed his mind on that six years later.

Neumann's campaign also made strong use of Wisconsin Synod Lutheran churches around the state to bring out ultra conservatives to the polls.

Feingold asked Johnson in a recent debate to ask outside special interests to stop running TV ads on his behalf. Johnson says it's their right to free speech.

Down by the river: The Milwaukee Riverwalk will complete its final destination next year, terminating at the North Avenue Dam after an extension of the walk is complete from Juneau Avenue to the dam. It's pretty much the only part of the walk that travels along mainly residential areas. The cost of the walk is usually shared by the city and adjacent property owners, but in this case the business improvement district in the area will chip in. The walk will be nearly two miles long after the addition is finished.

Correction: The $1.75 million awarded to the family of Michel E. Bell Jr. was a settlement between the Bell family and the City of Kenosha after the family sued the city in federal court following Bell's killing by Kenosha police. The deal was reached before the case was heard by a jury.

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.