By Doug Hissom Special to Published Feb 01, 2008 at 5:19 AM
Ever since the North Avenue dam was torn down in 1998, the city has battled with Mother Nature and the forces of water to keep the river in check. The river is winning.

After the dam was removed, the channel upstream of it was lined with a concrete mat with open pockets so dirt could settle in and plants on the shoreline could grow through. It was called state-of-the-art then and hailed as an environmentally sound way to channelize a river without being terribly unsightly. The uneven surface also created a great place for whitewater canoeing and kayak surfing. But the first big rainstorm flooded the better part of the matting downriver.

The next step called for heavier mats, better anchors and bigger rocks. That's kind of worked until now, however, as the matting has deteriorated and chunks of it are actually creating boating hazards as flotsam is piling up in the channel.

The City of Milwaukee now appears to have grown tired of being environmentally sensitive and plans to essentially throw big rocks all over a new mat in the river and on the shore to keep everything from floating away. That doesn't sit too well with folks who actually recreate on the river.

In a letter to the Department of Natural Resources, Cheryl Nenn, Riverkeeper for the Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers, urges the parties involved to keep paddlers in mind when trying to tame the river in what is turning out to be a continuous effort. (The city had to go to court over the first failure.)

"Natural round stone is far preferable to many angular pieces of rip rap, which are very painful to walk on and through," writes Nenn.

FMR recently completed the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail, which highlights various access points along the river where people can launch or take out their boats. The North Avenue stretch is of particular import, since the stretch of river downstream of the bridge has a few standing waves that can wipe out the novice paddler.

In higher water it is still an exhilarating, albeit quite fast, run until clearing the site of the old dam. But it also creates the need for a decent well-marked portage so boaters can carry around it, since wiping out in the Milwaukee River is still an unpleasant thought.

"It is preferable to have stone that is easy to traverse and that won't ‘cut up' paddlers, generally walking in wet, slippery shoes," Nenn says of the portage.

She also asked the DNR to make sure the chunks of the old matting are removed from the channel. The debris creates paddling hazards, she says.

The city also plans to again re-vegetate the area, hoping to use willows and native species. The first effort resulted in invasive species of weeds sprouting everywhere.

Of Race and Bars: Rule one when your bar license is in trouble is not to claim you didn't know what was going on or shirk responsibility over what patrons are doing outside the bar when they leave. Montal Hinton, owner of Montal's Lounge at 2525 N. Holton St., apparently didn't get that memo.

After the Milwaukee Licenses Committee saw video footage of people urinating in doorways and street-clogging melees involving bar patrons, Hinton told the panel that was considering revoking his license that he can't control what goes on outside the bar after patrons leave and that it's just a normal thing that happens.

Wrong answer.

Montal's Lounge is the site of the former Luther's, which created the same issues for the neighbors. Montal's just finished serving a 90-day suspension in December and apparently the party picked up where it left off for the tavern-goers. Neighbors promptly petitioned the Council to revoke Hinton's license.

Hinton's attorney, Andrew Arena, also tried to play the race card, saying that some of the complaints were because neighbors didn't like black people -- a seriously tough and ludicrous claim to make in Riverwest, one of the city's most integrated neighborhoods. The committee didn't buy that angle either and voted to revoke Hinton's license. The matter will be heard at the Feb. 5 Common Council meeting.

Focusing on race isn't going to work for Tamara Norwood-Thomas either. In a 36-page $2 million claim against the city, Norwood-Thomas states that she was discriminated against when the city Licenses Committee last year refused to recommend she get a tavern license for a bar/restaurant at 5950 N. 76th St.

She claims that Ald. Joe Davis -- African-American himself -- organized the neighbors around the bar to object to her license because she is black. Obviously, she could use a better lawyer. In her claim, she also asserts that a past bust for coke dealing should not have been brought up and wasn't relevant. We're sure the committee raises an eyebrow or two when convicted coke dealers want to start running bars.

Norwood-Thomas brought her claim before the Common Council's Judiciary Committee this week, which immediately turned her away, since the committee can't make judgments dealing with more than $50,000. Perhaps she should have read the fine print.

Players Come into County Exec Race: Outsiders are coming into the Milwaukee County executive's race and the practitioners are of somewhat ill repute. Political pit bull Todd Rongstad formed the Thomas Paine Democracy Network to funnel cash into an advertising campaign against current exec Scott Walker. Billboards are planned for the county with various problems plaguing the county highlighted featuring the tag line "I blame Scott Walker."

Rongstad's sordid past -- he was referred to as a "sleaze peddler" during his earlier efforts -- has mainly involved smear campaigns against Democrats while using Republican money. He was fined $5,500 in 2001 for failing to file campaign finance reports on time after receiving $145,000 from the GOP to run direct mail campaigns that were called "vile" and "extremely cruel." He was also fined $65,000 for refusing to release a list of contributors to his effort. He also lost a defamation suit when one of his campaigns went too far, according to the courts.

While some have said billboards are a cheap way to go to get the word out, they are effective for something like a county exec race. And they aren't inexpensive either, running into the tens of thousands a month depending on location.

The campaign of Walker's opponent, state Sen. Lena Taylor, has distanced itself from the ad blitz. The issue brings up the perennial campaign debate on what to do about outside expenditures, which give candidates a convenient arm's length excuse to allow independent groups to sling the mud while the candidate presumably stays clean. The outside groups also do not have the funding restrictions or reporting requirements required of the campaigns.

The Walker campaign has used the news to continue his weekly pleas for more money for his campaign.

Meanwhile, his camp has hailed his new group, "Students for Walker," a holdover from his failed gubernatorial bid. It looks mainly to be a pitch for volunteer labor, but this week's "student of the week" is Katie, from Wisconsin Lutheran College, who states, "When it comes to core fiscal values, Scott doesn't just talk the talk -- he also walks the walk! You can tell he genuinely loves this county." That's a pretty intimate statement for sure.

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.