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.

Monday, June 8, 2015

What you may not know: Week of June 8

It's a full committee week for the Appleton Common Council, and here are some of the items I'll be watching:

City Plan Commission, Monday, 4 pm

Back in 2011 the city took a step towards allowing urban beekeeping within the city limits by allowing areas zoned Public Institution, and in 2013 Urban Farm zoning was also added as an acceptable location for bees. Last week Alderpersons Dalton and Meltzer proposed a resolution calling for beekeeping to also be allowed on residential zoning with the written permission of the Health Department.

There would, of course, be limits to residents' ability to keep bees: Residential properties would be limited to five hives and the city would have some work to do to develop a permitting process to ensure beekeeping is done in a safe and reasonable way. But I'm intrigued by this possibility and will be interested to see the Commission's debate.

Finance Committee, Tuesday, 4:30 pm

For several years now the city has been attempting to work with Canadian National Railroad to repurpose some of the unused railroad trestles over the Fox River to improve our expanding trail system. That process could take a big step forward Tuesday night when the Finance Committee will be asked to recommend approval of an agreement between the city and the railroad.

As of this writing I haven't seen the full text of the agreement, so I don't know what the terms will be for any possible exchange. I know in the past the railroad has asked for closure of railroad crossings at various streets in the city, but I don't believe that's the case this time as the item is not appearing before the Municipal Services committee.

Utilities, Tuesday, 5:30 pm

Immediately after the Finance Committee on Tuesday we'll get an update on one of the city's largest stormwater projects, as the Utilities Committee will be asked to review a proposal to delay the West Wisconsin pond project for a year.

The cause of the delay appears to be some unexpected soil conditions on the site of one of the new ponds. As such, most of the expected borrowing for the project won't happen this year and the effort will be rebudgeted next year.

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 2, 2015

What you may not know: Week of June 1

My apologies for a delayed and brief update this week, but the most newsworthy items on the agenda at this week's regularly-scheduled common council meeting are all items we discussed in last week's post:

Library

Last week the Finance Committee voted 4-1 to deny a resolution calling for an advisory referendum in spring of 2016 regarding a proposed new Appleton Public Library. Last week I outlined four reasons why I wasn't supportive of the possible referendum, citing a poor proposed question, difficult timing, the unfair nature of forcing the current property owners to wait a year to learn if we're interested in purchasing their spaces and the likely increased costs resulting from the delay.

In addition to those four concerns, two more have since come to the surface:

  • Moot point. I can't go into specifics on ongoing property negotiations, but last Tuesday the mayor mentioned that at least one of the two property owners involved is motivated to get a deal done and likely would not wait the full year if we delay the project to hold a referendum. As such, by the time we were able to hold a vote the entire project could be off the table anyway.
  • Precedent. The library is not the only large scale project in the city. In the last ten years we've taken on massive stormwater projects, constructed a new police station and various other endeavors and in the next ten we're likely to look at major parking overhauls, renovation or reconstruction of facilities like Erb Pool and more. Opening the door to referendum on this project would make it very difficult for us to draw a line on when we do or don't do so in the future. 
This week the council is expected to go into closed session for an update on property negotiations. I'm hopeful we will continue to move forward on this project, instead of delaying it until next April.

Parking

Last week the Municipal Services Committee made some minor amendments to the proposed changes to downtown parking enforcement. Duke Behnke of the Post Crescent has a story today on the proposal. 

All along the proposal has called for ending parking enforcement at 6 p.m., reducing the cost of meters north of Washington Street and extending the time limit on those meters. The matter was referred back to committee two weeks ago so an exception could be added for the parking lot in front of the library, which is north of Washington Street but will continue to have two-hour meters.

I expect these changes to pass without much controversy, and they should be implemented this summer.

Expo center

Last week both the Appleton Redevelopment Authority and the Community and Economic Development Committee voted unanimously to approve retaining consulting firm Hinshaw and Culbertson for "Phase 3" of the efforts to construct a new exhibition center downtown. The city's financial commitment for this portion of the process is $240,000 to support work to build a coalition of local communities that will need to agree to raise their room taxes, working with an eventual lender on bond negotiations, developing a management agreement between the city and the hotel's new ownership and creating governance policies for the new facility.

I've called previously for this project to be set aside for a variety of reasons, and I'm still not entirely comfortable with it. However, if we're going to proceed (as council has voted to do), I'd be even more uncomfortable going forward without an experienced consultant guiding our efforts.

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, May 26, 2015

What you may not know: Week of May 26

It's an abbreviated holiday week for the Appleton Common Council, but we'll still be busy with a partial slate of committees. Here are some of the items we'll be discussing:

Finance, Tuesday, 4:30 p.m.

Our first meeting of the week will likely draw a fair amount of attention, as the Finance Committee is expected to make a recommendation regarding a resolution calling for a referendum on the proposal to build a new Appleton Public Library.

The resolution is identical in language to one the council rejected in November: In fact, a council rule had to be changed to allow this resolution to be submitted again so soon. If it passes, voters would be asked the following question: "Should at least $30 million be spent by the taxpayers of the City of Appleton to construct a new municipal library?"

Council rejected this call for a referendum last fall at least partially because that question, as written, has some issues. The resubmittal of the resolution also creates some new problems:

  • Vague answer. If this question appears on the ballot and the voters choose to vote "no," we'll never know why. There are a large number of moving parts in this project, including but not limited to the site, the cost, perceptions related to need for the facility, etc. A simple "no" vote without any further information gathered would make it very difficult for us to move forward in any coherent way. 
  • Timing. The resolution calls for a referendum to be placed on the ballot at our next scheduled election in April of 2016. That's nearly a full year the project would have to spend in limbo while we wait to see what the voters think.
  • Fairness to involved parties. The city has been involved in discussions to purchase the two properties likely to hold a future library for some time now, and both sides have a strong interest in bringing this matter to a close so they know what their future holds. Adding another wrinkle to this process would leave both of the existing property owners hanging with an uncertain future for another year.
  • Expense. In a related note, sending this project to referendum would likely increase its final cost. Ongoing work to keep the project positioned to move forward if approved would have to continue, and rising municipal interest rates would likely increase the cost of the final result. 
For those reasons and others I've previously discussed, I think going to referendum represents a bad decision. 

Municipal Services, Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.

In each of my last two posts I've mentioned several proposed changes to the way the city enforces downtown parking, including ending parking enforcement at 6 p.m., reducing the cost of meters north of Washington Street and extending the time limit on those meters. Approval of those three changes has been delayed briefly and the committee will discuss the matter again this week 

The changes are still likely to pass eventually, but the delay was needed to address some questions about how these changes will impact the parking lot in front of the library. That discussion is expected to happen tonight and the full council should see this item again next week.

Appleton Redevelopment Authority and Community and Economic Development Committee, Wednesday, 4 and 5 p.m.

Finally, this week the efforts to build an exhibition center in downtown Appleton may take another step forward as both the Redevelopment Authority and Community and Economic Development Committees will be asked to recommend approval of a new contract with the consulting firm helping us with the project, Hinshaw and Culbertson.

The new contract calls for $160,000 for our consultants to work on building the coalition of neighboring communities necessary for the room tax to fund the project, working with the eventual lender on the borrowing element, negotiating the management agreement for the facility between the city and the hotel's new owners and creating governance policies for the ARA. In addition, the city could spend another $80,000 on closing costs and bond issuance, although those payments would come from the proceeds from the borrowing.

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.