By James Rowen Special to Published Oct 22, 2009 at 3:20 PM

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Thursday, Oct. 22 is exactly a year to the day that officials from the Federal Highway Administration came to Milwaukee and held a public hearing of sorts at the Downtown Transit Center where citizens could tell the officials whether the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission was doing a good job.

SEWRPC covers a seven-county territory: The Pewaukee-based agency is 100 percent public funded; Milwaukee County taxpayers are the biggest contributor to the agency's annual operating budget, and the City of Milwaukee, with a population that exceeds the residency in six of seven of those counties, has no representation on SEWRPC's unelected board.

So the public has very little direct say over the agency's management, making the every-four-year federal review a pretty big deal.

A year has passed, but the feds have yet to release their report on the comment session -- a disturbing omission I have been following on my blog, and about which I have a theory, but first a little background.

When I said "a public hearing of sorts," I was referring to the way the session unfolded.

Federal officials had announced in advance that there would be no actual public speaking allowed on Oct. 22, 2008.

Instead, people were invited to chit-chat with federal and SEWRPC officials spread across the very large conference room, drop written comments in a box, or step to the side and quietly give a private statement to a court reporter.

This was because the feds were not interested in a repeat of the 2004 quadrennial public comment session.

That was a genuine hearing, where speaker after speaker lined up at a microphone to lambast SEWRPC's spotty public outreach, minority participation and overall attention to an urban agenda.

For SEWRPC, this set-piece review had become pro forma and marginally attended. A lot of people didn't know when and where it took place, let alone what it was all about.

But the every-four-year review served as the agency's recertification to green-light certain federally-funded highway and transit projects -- which gives SEWRPC much of its clout.

So when the 2008 non-hearing got underway, and officials again went over the ground rules they unilaterally had established, people demanded the right to be heard.

In a public room, in front of public officials.


An embarrassing stand-off continued, and the feds reluctantly agreed that citizens could address the room, which included those very same officials in town ostensibly to receive public input.

And, again, that input included widespread dissatisfaction with SEWRPC.

Then the waiting game began. What would the feds say in their report, and would they recommend (read: order) that SEWRPC meet the public's objections?

The feds initially said the report would be released in March. Then May. Then they stopped taking questions about it.

Now I'm hearing that the report will be done by the end of the year.

So much for quick action and attention to public opinion.

My theory about the delay is that federal officials are trying to figure out how to justify the agency's recertification -- virtually a given -- but square that and the public's continuing criticism of SEWRPC operations with two very well-documented Federal civil rights complaints formally filed against SEWRPC last year by organizations alleging discrimination in SEWRPC hiring, committee appointee selection, and project endorsement.

Here are some details.

The complaints were filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. Here is how that group explained one of the complaints.

In other words, how can federal officials, especially after the change in administrations in Washington, give SEWRPC a pat on the head and another four years of power over jobs, land-use and housing development in our region when the ACLU of Wisconsin documented practices institutionalized at SEWRPC that routinely favor whites and suburbanites in hiring, spending, and key advisory committee memberships?

For example, the SEWRPC water supply committee created in 2005 had 33 members, all of whom were Caucasian -- and that committee began its work after the watershed 2004 public hearing.

Another example: In the wake of the 2004 hearing, SEWRPC agreed to create a justice task force to better improve outreach to disadvantaged communities.

But it took a public battle by the task force this year to force SEWRPC to add an independent contractor to the water supply study. That contractor has something of an impossible task: look into the socio-economic consequences of water transfers in the region even though the water study committee had completed its work and had already issued preliminary recommendations in favor of greater water transfers to predominately white, relatively-upper income suburbs.

So my guess is that behind the scenes there is institutional paralysis in the feds certification review because the staffers writing the report are in an odd position.

They represent an arm of the federal government, but there are two formal discrimination complaints pending elsewhere in the federal system against the very agency the reviewers are supposed to rate, and re-empower.

Which brings me back to SEWRPC:

Stronger, more diverse leadership there could have minimized or eliminated many of the agency's programs and practices, as well as the obstacles facing the federal officials charged with reviewing SEWRPC's performance.

Stronger, more diverse leadership at SEWRPC could have long ago transformed the agency into a force for inclusion and economic justice in a region long-afflicted with racial and economic segregation.

So, now it's a federal case, and both SEWRPC and the highway administration have no one to blame but themselves.

James Rowen Special to
James Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and consultant who blogs at He worked as a reporter and assistant metro editor at The Milwaukee Journal and Journal Sentinel, and held several positions with Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, including Chief of Staff. Rowen is on the board of the Institute for One Wisconsin Now, and receives funding from The Brico Fund; neither organization has control over his writing and blogging.