By Doug Hissom Special to Published Mar 16, 2007 at 5:13 AM

Mayor Tom Barrett received a huge boost this week in his effort to wrest control of federal job training funds from the Private Industry Council and put them under the auspices of City Hall. Gov. Jim Doyle said he would support a change that would give the city $14 million in federal funds to run job-training programs instead of the quasi-public PIC beginning July 1.

While some are suggesting that this has something to do with party politics -- PIC is controlled by appointees of Republican Milwaukee County Exec Scott Walker and headed by noted Republican Gerard Randall, while Barrett is a Democrat -- it could also be argued that PIC is simply ineffective because it has no oversight. Recent activities at PIC could suggest that the mayor and the state are on the right track, but there’s going to be quite a bit of work to do when they take over. According to a PIC insider:

  • The agency has no money left for the last quarter of its fiscal year for job training, meaning certain programs will be stagnant from April to June with possible staff lay-offs. That, of course, should lead to questions as to where the money went and the societal impact of not being able to train people who need and want jobs.
  • As of March 5, all job training of any kind was cut off.
  • Free bus tickets–desperately needed by job seekers to get to either training or their job–are no longer being issued, leaving willing workers stranded.
  • Orientation continues, but job search training -- to help people apply and obtain jobs -- has been cut off.

There is no County Board involvement or oversight as to how the $14 million in public money is spent and although there is a board of directors made up of a corporate Milwaukee roll call, getting a quorum at meetings appears to be a 50-50 proposition over the past two years, according to the PIC web site, which hasn’t posted board minutes since September. PIC also has yet to post its Workforce Investment Act plan–required by law to receive its funds. And it has yet to post a newsletter to let the public know what’s going on. With $14 million in play, PIC could at least have a jobs program teaching people Web site development, or perhaps, there really is nothing to post.

Barrett used a state grant to hire Donald Sykes -- former head of the city’s Social Development Commission (a similar operation to PIC, but run through the city) and a former administrator with the federal Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration -- to oversee his job-training program. Sykes’ credentials are well known and respected. Barrett brought him on to run what will be called the Office of Workforce Development. A $500,000 grant from the Helen Bader Foundation jump-started the program Barrett argues that 22 out of the top 25 cities in the country oversee the local federally funded jobs programs and promises that it will still have a countywide focus.

Randall, who makes $154,000 a year, has vowed to fight any switch in funding. He and the PIC board met this week and voted to encourage Walker to talk to Barrett about saving the agency.

In a rather bold move, the board discussed its options in a “closed” meeting, using the lame excuse that personnel decisions were being mulled over since all the staff jobs were on the line. Open records law clearly states that public boards can only close meetings for personnel decisions when an individual person is being discussed. We should expect a harsh reprimand for such closed-door behavior.

Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom: Milwaukee Ald. Joe Davis and several of his colleagues want to bring us all some relief from the window shaking bass that the boom cars will bring to the city en masse this summer. Trouble is, the first attempt put the onus for loud music on stereo peddlers and not those in charge of the volume.

The Davis plan would require stereo installers to be licensed by the city and be responsible to give permits to the stereo owner. If a particular car is stopped for loud music twice in a year, the stereo would be seized and the permit revoked. Stereo installers said it was simply unfair to single them out.

“What’s to stop the city from holding automakers liable for drivers who use automobiles to exceed the speed limit?” wrote Rick Mathies, executive director of the Mobile Enhancement Retailers Association.

Members of the city’s License Committee commended Davis for trying to address the issue, but tabled the matter indefinitely. After all, there are noise ordinances already on the books, they noted.

“If people were responsible, I wouldn’t have this before you,” Davis said.

Still Searching for Museum Money: What’s new at the Milwaukee Public Museum? It’s pretty much business as usual -- mounting deficits. Museum officials reported to the County Board last month that the museum operated with a $248,000 deficit in the last quarter from September through December 2006. While it compares to a $400,000 deficit at the same time last year, it appears the museum still isn’t ready to start treading water. The museum also has yet to start a capital fund-raising campaign for 2007.

Officials attribute the losses to a lack of school groups, the Marquette interchange reconstruction (sound familiar?) and the opening of another “cultural institution.” Could they be referring to Michael Cudahy’s ballyhooed opening of his Pier Wisconsin building featuring the Discovery World Museum?

The museum is hobbled, however, since it continues to look for someone to fill the all-important job of director of corporate communications, which is the person the goes begging for money to corporate Milwaukee. That job opening has been advertised for over a month now. Perhaps there are some folks leery about signing on with a sinking ship.

Blocked Signals on Wi-Fi: There was a noticeable absence last week as Milwaukee aldermen listened to a litany of excuses as to why the city’s much-touted, and much-delayed wireless Internet system has yet to get going -- Midwest Fiber Networks, the local company that’s in charge of putting it in and getting it running, was AWOL.

Instead, the city’s chief information officer for technology, Randy Gschwind, took the heat from the aldermen. After several aborted attempts in 2006 at getting the system going, the city was finally promised in September by Midwest Fiber that a Wi-Fi demonstration area would be ready by January.

Well, it’s March and aldermen at a meeting of the Common Council committee chairs last week wanted to know what was going on. Gschwind said July was now a reasonable target. The demonstration area is from 10th to 47th streets and from Canal to Vliet.

“I admit to some wide-eyed optimism,” Gschwind said. He went on to blame bureaucratic tie-ups as part of the reason. He also said that putting antennas on city light poles proved more difficult than first predicted.

Ald. Bob Bauman quickly snapped back that a task force was formed in 2005 so that bureaucratic delays would not be an excuse. “Either this company is incompetent or there’s a serious bureaucratic logjam,” he said, noting that the rules of putting antennas on city light poles haven’t changed in a year and a half either.

“Perhaps we overestimated the ability of a small company to go through all of these steps with great ease,” admitted Gschwind.

When it was first announced in 2005 that Midwest Fiber was going to do the job of wiring the city and get it done in 18 months, questions were raised as to the company’s financial and technical abilities to do the job.

Some aldermen were visibly upset with the recent report, suggesting that maybe the city should have bid the job out in the first place instead of giving it to the local firm that promised the world. When first broached with the idea in fall 2005, Mayor Tom Barrett promised that Milwaukee would be the first city in the country with complete Wi-Fi service. 

“Remember, the city isn’t paying for any of this,” offered Gschwind, forgetting about that economic principle known as “opportunity cost.”

Other cities getting into the Wi-Fi race are using reputable national network carriers such as Google, Charter and Earthlink. The idea of citywide Wi-Fi is to offer residents low-cost access to the Internet. For a monthly fee, residents could conceivably access the Internet from anywhere in the city. If Milwaukee Wi-Fi becomes reality, residents will also have access to various free Web sites as well.

Given the troubles of just getting a testing area going, the March 2008 promise is most assuredly on its way to the delete key since the test area is going to be some seven months behind schedule. And given that other, smaller, cities are still experiencing problems in covering the landscape with Wi-Fi, it could be some time before this Milwaukee Wi-Fi experiment comes online.

Park Problem Could Lead to Class Warfare: It’s all too ironic that after Miller Park was tested for having faulty connections to Milwaukee sewers, which have allowed human waste to run directly into the Menomonee River, the major culprits were found to be connections from luxury boxes. The symbol of the rich crapping on the hoi polloi is too blatant to ignore.

But it’s no laughing matter, this stream of human feces in the streams. We all know it’s a health issue, or an unhealthy one. The bottom line is that someone was overcome by pipe phobia during inspection time and crapped out on the job. .

Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper for the Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers, says it was the state Department of Commerce that was in charge of inspecting the sewer laterals so that they went to the sewer and not directly to the public waterway, since it was sort of a state project.

So how does this bode for the rest of the businesses in the Menomonee Valley and whether testing should be done on their discharges?

"Often contractors don’t follow the plans provided to them, or don’t have them provided to them to be able to do their jobs correctly," offers Nenn. "The good thing about Miller Park is that we know of the problem and it can be easily fixed. At other locations with similar problems -- 79th St. and Mt. Vernon for example -- the city has done past testing and has been unable to find a source for the problem."

Stadium district officials say that they can find the problem and fix it by the April 2 opening day. It’s obvious stadium operators had not planned on this smelly situation since there is no money budgeted for such repairs, according to the 2007 maintenance budget.  No word from the stadium folks that they’ll declare the culprit toilets “out of order” if they aren’t fixed in time. Word at press time is that they may use portable toilets.

Is Hillary Anti-American?
As New York Sen. Hillary Clinton stumps around the country espousing her vision of what the U.S. would be like with her at the helm of the White House, she, like all candidates must now have, has closing theme music to rile up the crowd in a feel-good manner. Her song? “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” a 1974 ditty by Bachman Turner-Overdrive -- a Canadian band.

McGee Got Served: The Sheriff’s Department finally resorted to the age-old trick of serving a summons -- catch ‘em at their work. A sheriff’s deputy served Milwaukee Ald. Michael McGee with a temporary restraining order and a hearing summons at City Hall last week.

The department had been trying to serve McGee at his house -- which they found empty and for sale -- and at the offices of WNOV, where McGee Jr. shares airtime with his dad, the senior McGee. Sheriff’s deputies were told that McGee wasn’t at the station, even though he could be heard live on the air.

McGee recall leader Leon Todd sought a restraining order against Junior after he said on the radio that Todd should be “hung” and gave out Todd’s phone number over the air. Since then, Todd says he’s been getting threatening phone calls. A Milwaukee County court commissioner ruled this week that a four-year restraining order against McGee was appropriate.

Meanwhile, McGee Jr. borrowed a chapter from the book on Deep South elections, promising free food and beverages for those who showed up at his campaign office after voting absentee this week. About 100 people showed up with McGee at City Hall raring to vote, but found that because of all the chaos in setting up the election, the ballots weren’t ready. McGee faces seven opponents in the April 3 primary.

Clarification: It was incorrectly reported here last week that Todd sought restraining orders against McGee Jr. and McGee Sr. He only went after McGee Jr.

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.