Monday, July 20, 2015

What you may not know: Week of July 20

I'm anticipating a quiet committee week for the Appleton Common Council, with the Human Resources, Finance and Community & Economic Development Committees and Transit Commission all canceling their regularly-scheduled meetings. There are still a couple of items of interest, however:

Parks and Recreation, Monday, 6 pm

As you may have seen in the Post Crescent over the weekend, the issue of alcohol use in city parks is becoming a concern and may need to be addressed. Chief Todd Thomas of the Appleton Police Department sent a letter to Parks and Rec committee chair Joe Martin and I (as chair of the Safety & Licensing Committee) late last week to express his concerns.

The concern, in a nutshell, is this: alcohol-related complaints at our downtown parks have skyrocketed this year, with groups congregating to drink during the day and at times harassing other park users. This issue takes up a lot of our police officers' time, has led to some events being removed from the parks and creates the impression that our downtown parks are unsafe.

This issue was at least partially exacerbated by a 2014 change to the city's park ordinances which expanded the hours (moving the start time from noon to 10 am) during which one can legally consume alcohol in the parks. That change stemmed from a five-month review of park ordinances, which included several extensive debates on allowing dogs in parks (a change we eventually opted not to make). In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the Parks and Recreation Committee when we made that change. It was largely an afterthought to a long debate on dogs, and I don't remember hearing much in favor of or against it.

Over the coming weeks I suspect we'll hear several possibilities to address this issue, including narrowing the drinking hours in parks or eliminating alcohol in parks without a permit. It's still too early for me to predict how this will go or advocate for a certain outcome. This item is information-only and no action is expected to be taken this week.

Utilities, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

Managing stormwater runoff and the associated flooding issues are one of the elements of running a city that I think a lot of people don't think about. There's a very difficult balance to maintain between spending too much on stormwater infrastructure and allowing flooding to occur, and every project we take on to reduce flooding comes at a not-insignificant financial cost.

Over the last several years the city has been working on a project to better identify properties with large amounts of impervious surfaces and use the actual square footage of that impervious space as the basis for their stormwater charges. That's a time-consuming process and it's being done in multiple phases, with the most recent implementation happening for multifamily properties.

Last week the council heard from several residents of multifamily properties upset over their new stormwater charges, and as a result Alderman Ed Baranowski submitted a resolution calling for a review of this process and its implementation.

The existing process was largely debated and put into place before my time on council, and was the subject of much discussion at that time. I suspect I'll get an opportunity to learn a lot more about it in the coming weeks.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

What you may not know: Week of July 13

I hope everyone is doing all right following Sunday and Monday's bouts with severe weather, and my thoughts go out this morning to those with damage remaining to repair and clean up. In the meantime, however, the Appleton Common Council will meet for its regularly-scheduled session on Wednesday, and here are some of the items I'll be watching:

City government structure

Last week the Human Resources Committee voted 2-2 to recommend denial of a resolution calling for city staff to research alternatives to Appleton's longstanding Mayoral structure, including the possible hiring of a City Manager or Administrator. This week that debate will move on to council.

I do appreciate one amendment made at committee, calling for a City Manager position to be considered in addition to a City Administrator if this resolution passes. If we're going to look at options, I think we'll be best served by considering all of our options.

However, I'm still not intending to support this resolution. As I wrote last week, any change to our existing structure will come at a significant annual cost and I'd prefer to see that money used elsewhere.

Parking ramp changes

We're continuing to look at changes suggested in the city's recent downtown parking study, and have already voted to eliminate meter restrictions after 6 pm. Now we'll shift our attention to parking ramps, where the first step in a significant change could occur on Wednesday.

This week the council will be asked to vote to approve a contract with Walker Parking Consultants for "professional services" related to transitioning the Green, Yellow and Red parking ramps (the ramps near the PAC, Library and Paper Valley Hotel) from a flat-fee, "pay as you enter" model to a "pay on exit" model that will charge users based on the time used.

The contract is for $46,500 and does not include the actual transition: This is the data collection and bidding preparation portion of the project, in addition to some oversight of the final contractor should we choose to proceed. No final decision on a transition to a new rate structure or the form of that rate structure will happen here.

Cell phone tower reconsideration

Two weeks ago the Common Council voted to deny a request for a Special Use Permit for a proposed new cell phone tower along West Wisconsin Avenue, citing aesthetic concerns with the large structure. This week one council member who was absent from that meeting will ask for the item to be reconsidered.

Voting down a cell phone tower request creates a pretty significant legal challenge for the city. As part of the 2013 budget the State Legislature passed significant changes to the process of cell tower siting, greatly limiting municipalities' local control over new towers. Details about the changes are available here, and the fifth and sixth pages of that document include a list of actions municipalities cannot take regarding towers. The first item on the sixth page reads "Disapprove an application based solely on aesthetic concerns."

Given that information, this debate changes a bit. State statute overrules any decisions we may make locally, and as such we have two choices:

  1. Vote to approve the Special Use Permit and allow the tower to be constructed, or
  2. Vote to deny the Special Use Permit, likely face a lawsuit we have very little chance of winning, incur legal fees, and still end up allowing the tower to be constructed.
I certainly understand the concerns about the impact of this tower, but denying this request is a clear violation of state statute and won't prevent the new structure from eventually going up. As such, I hope we'll take the responsible step and reconsider this vote.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Monday, July 6, 2015

What you may not know: Week of July 6

Hopefully everyone had a great and safe holiday, and is ready for an interesting committee week for the Appleton Common Council. Here are some of the items I'll be watching:

Human Resources, Monday, 5 pm

The City of Appleton's governmental structure is back on the table for discussion this week as the HR Committee will have their first discussion on a resolution calling for the city to consider eliminating the current mayor-council system in place of a format including a city administrator position. The resolution in play doesn't call for a change outright, but calls for the possibility to be researched and for a recommendation to come before council by October 7.

This discussion isn't new, by any means: The possibility of a change was researched at length in 1990 when council opted to stick with the current structure.

From my perspective, this issue comes down to efficiency. Hiring a city administrator could cost the city over $130,000 annually, and we'll likely continue to have a mayor at a reduced role and salary. In 2015 the mayor is receiving $94,686, so that's a significant annual cost increase. It's possible the money we're considering spending here could fund an entire additional staff person or more in another city department.

The proponents of this plan likely have a lot of work to do to demonstrate that the city would experience enough improvement under a new system to justify the cost.

Finance, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

On Tuesday the Finance Committee will take up three items that may be of minor interest:

First, the committee will be asked to reject all bids for a tennis court project at Highview Park, pushing the construction back to 2016. We had budgeted money for this project in 2015 but the bids for construction came back well above our expectations during our initial bidding process this spring, and have come back high again following an attempt to re-bid the project this summer. Assuming council approves the request to reject all bids, we'll likely budget for this project again in 2016.

Second, as I've mentioned previously, council will be asked to consider a proposed ordinance regarding remote participation for members who cannot make it to our meetings. I'm in favor of this ordinance in concept but will likely recommend a change or two to its execution before I'll be comfortable supporting it.

Finally, I wanted to mention an action item dealing with debt management. On Tuesday the committee will be asked to recommend approval of a recommendation allowing $845,330 of the city's unassigned fund balance to be used to pay down long-term debt. That figure represents 75% of the city's balance surplus, meaning we can use it to pay down debt and still hold on to three months' worth of operating expenditures to be used in case of emergency.

I know I've mentioned previously that Appleton's long term debt per capita is easily lower than any other comparable community in the state of Wisconsin, and here's another example of why that's the case. Responsibly handling our fund balances and paying down debt early helps us keep costs down for our projects and ensure low interest rates for borrowing going forward.

Board of Health, Wednesday, 7 am

Finally, the Board of Health will be up bright and early on Wednesday for the latest addition to an ongoing conversation about urban beekeeping.

I've written at length about some of the possible regulations that could be considered if beekeeping was expanded to residential property, as proposed in Alderpersons Polly Dalton and Vered Meltzer's resolution. In addition, there's an extended story in today's Post Crescent discussing the possibility with comments from one Fox Cities beekeeper discussing the benefits of implementing a change.

If the Board opts to take action on this item on Wednesday, the resolution would appear before the full council on Wednesday, July 15.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Monday, June 29, 2015

What you may not know: Week of June 29

Good morning,

This is likely to be a quiet week for the Appleton Common Council, as we have a relatively light agenda for our regularly-scheduled full council meeting on Wednesday. Here are some updates on the items I discussed in last week's post:

Bees

After a bit of discussion and information gathering, last Monday the City Plan Commission voted to refer a resolution calling for expansion of urban beekeeping to the Board of Health. That body is expected to meet on July 8 at 7 am.

I spent a lot of time last week discussing beekeeping with various interested parties, and gathered some of what I learned in this post. In addition, beekeeping is also the topic of my WHBY Viewpoint today.

City government structure

Last week the Human Resources Committee voted 2-1 to delay action on setting a mayoral salary for the 2016-2020 term to allow alderpersons time to consider the possibility of changing the city's management structure and hiring a city manager to take over some of the duties currently performed by the mayor.

As I mentioned last week, I don't support the proposed change. However, if we don't discuss it now before setting the mayor's salary, then it would be very difficult to make any changes before the office's next term is up in 2020.

Council remote participation

Last week the Finance Committee discussed but did not take action on a draft of ordinance language that could allow alderpersons to participate via speaker phone or Skype when they cannot phyiscally attend council meetings. This ordinance could solve some notable concerns about council absences but still needs some tweaking before it's ready for an up or down vote.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

More on urban beekeeping

Yesterday's post generated some discussion from folks who wanted more details regarding the possible regulations and permit process involved for the proposed expansion of urban beekeeping. I attended last night's City Plan Commission meeting to gather a bit more information.

Appleton already allows beekeeping on properties zoned Public Institution and Urban Farm, and has since 2011 and 2013, respectively. Hives are currently operating under this ordinance at Lawrence University and Riverview Gardens. You can find the policy regarding the permitting process starting on page 31 of the "CPC Agenda Packet" link on this page.

Those requirements, which would likely be the starting point for any expansion to residential properties, include the following:

  1. Beekeeping would require a one-year, annually reviewed permit from the Health Department.
  2. Part of the permit process would include notification of all property owners within 200 feet. Those property owners would have 14 days to file an objection, and any objections shall be reviewed by the Board of Health and Common Council to determine if a permit should be issued.
  3. Before bees are allowed to be introduced to a hive, the Health Department must inspect the hives to make sure the owner does not have too many hives, the hives have removable frames, a six-foot high barrier has been constructed around hives within 30 feet of property lines, there is a minimum setback between hives and property lines (30 feet in front, 10 feet on all other sides), a supply of water is available, and all hives are at least 50 feet away from other structures unless the hive owner has written permission to have them closer.
  4. All hives must be actively managed, and any hives no longer being maintained must be removed.
  5. Bees must be selected from stock bred for "gentleness and non-swarming characteristics," and beekeepers are required to take action to destroy or re-queen any hive exhibiting aggressive or swarming behavior.
Again, these requirements are only a starting point in this conversation and could be amended to better suit the situations involved in a residential setting. But this is an example of what the permitting process could look like, should council decide to move forward.

In the meantime, it will be a few more weeks before this item is discussed again. Last night the City Plan Commission referred this item to the Board of Health, which will meet on Wednesday, July 8 at 7 am. If the Board opts to take action on the item at that point, then it would appear before the Common Council on July 15.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What you may not know: Week of June 22

It's a committee week for the Appleton Common Council, and here are some of the items I'll be keeping an eye on:

City Plan Commission, Monday, 4 pm

Two weeks ago I mentioned a pending discussion on the possibility of expanding urban beekeeping in the city by allowing owners of residential property to apply for a permit to keep up to five beehives on their property. The commission was split at that time and held the item for two weeks to gather more information.

Debates like this are challenging sometimes because of the need to deal with a perception of a threat. When done correctly, urban beekeeping poses at best a minimal sting risk. However, I've been told that previous debates on this topic were dominated by constituents fearful of bees, regardless of how small the risk may be.

Getting stuck in the middle of debates like this is one of the more challenging aspects of this job. Unless we receive some evidence that urban beekeeping poses a substantial threat to neighboring properties, the Plan Commission and the council will likely have to choose between:

  1. Passing good public policy despite knowing it will upset many of our constituents, or
  2. Siding with our concerned constituents and rejecting a policy based on their (at least partially) unsubstantiated fears.
Or we could pursue a third option, I suppose: Continue to delay action. That's the safest course.

Human Resources, Monday, 5 pm

Over a month ago I wrote about a pending action item at the HR Committee calling for council to set the salaries for the mayor and city attorney's offices for their 2016-20 terms. This committee has been considering these items for some time now, but made headlines last week when one member suggested that this could be the time to review Appleton's longstanding policy of having a full-time mayor in place of a city manager.

At this time I don't plan on supporting a change to the current system. I don't see a problem with the way the city operates under the current structure and, as I noted in the post linked above, comparable cities with city managers pay their managers somewhere between $35-50,000 more annually than we're spending on a mayor. If we're going to make a change and spend that much more money, I'd need to see pretty significant proof that there's something to be gained.

With that said, if this is an option my colleagues would like to explore then this is probably as good a time as any to do it.

Finance Committee, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

Several weeks ago one member of the council asked the City Attorney's office to look at possibilities that could allow members to vote on items remotely when they are unable to attend our meetings. This week the Finance Committee will be asked to make a recommendation on one proposed ordinance that would address that concern.

Serving on the Appleton Common Council is a part-time job (in theory, at least), and from time to time we all have things come up, whether it's a personal or family medical issue, work travel, vacations, etc, that prevent us from being able to attend meetings. Our voting structure, however, creates a real issue when members are absent: State statute requires that at least eight of our 15 members vote to approve any action, regardless of how many members are present. This can create and has created situations where an item that would have passed if all 15 members were present has failed at least partially due to members absent.

The ordinance we're being asked to consider would allow members with a reasonable excuse for their absence to participate in meetings via speaker phone. That would go a long way towards solving the issue I mentioned above, but might create some new challenges. There are process issues I'd like to see resolved before I'd be comfortable supporting this.

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What you may not know: Week of June 15

Before I get to this week's updates, I wanted to take a moment to send out thoughts to everyone impacted by this week's heavy rainfall and the resulting flooding. I know many residents in the southernmost portion of the 13th district experienced a fair amount of standing water on Monday as the city set a new single-day rainfall record with 2.23 inches. To put that into perspective, the National Severe Storms Laboratory says one inch of rain is (on average) equal to about 13 inches of snow, so this storm is roughly comparable to a blizzard dishing out 29 inches of snow.

Thankfully, the sun is out today and helping our storm sewers catch up. As such, this week's regularly-scheduled council meeting (and a special meeting) will still take place on Wednesday, and most of the attention is likely to be focused on one item:

Library Land Purchase

Before taking up anything else, the council will meet in special session at 6 pm on Wednesday to discuss a possible offer to purchase the Trinity Lutheran Church/Fox Banquets properties as a step towards construction of a new Appleton Public Library. This decision is the culmination of over six years of work to determine a site where the facility can best serve the community in the years to come.

I've written countless times about the reasons why I support moving forward with a new library, and instead of repeating those points again I'll refer you to APL150.org, where many of the reasons for proceeding this way are laid out. I also cannot publicly discuss details of the sale price (to this point they've only been discussed in closed session), but I suspect the number will be acceptable to most of the project's supporters. There's likely no number that would please the people who don't think we should be moving forward with this at all.

Regardless of outcome, this discussion has a possibility to be a milestone moment for the city of Appleton. I hope we'll decide to make an investment in making Appleton a great place to live and learn for generations to come.

Trestle negotiations

In last week's update I mentioned that council would be asked to approve an agreement between the city and Canadian National Railroad calling for the railroad to donate their abandoned trestles over the Fox River. At the time I didn't have any additional details.

It turns out this agreement is similar to what has been proposed in the past: The railroad would like three rail crossings in the city closed in exchange for ownership of the trestles, and the city has already closed two of them in the years past. The agreement on the table now calls for the city to close one more crossing over the next year in exchange for near-immediate ownership of the properties.

There is a financial reason why the timetable is important: The city has received a grant for $100,000 towards the process of including these trestles in our trail system, but that grant will expire if the city hasn't taken ownership by July 5. As such, we're running out of time to reach a deal.

If this deal does pass and is accepted by the railroad, the city will have some work to do to determine which crossing will close. In the past staff has recommended closing the crossing at Locust and Lawrence Streets just south of College Avenue, but council has been unwilling to support that recommendation. Entering into this agreement would force us to take action on that intersection or find another one to close.

Other updates

Here are some quick notes on two items I mentioned last week:

  • The City Plan Commission opted to hold the resolution calling for an expansion on the types of properties allowed to keep beehives. The item will appear on their agenda again on Monday.
  • Both the Utilities and Finance Committees voted unanimously on a staff recommendation to delay a portion of the West Wisconsin Stormwater project and re-bid next year to allow time to deal with some unexpected soil issues. That item will appear on this week's council agenda.
You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.