Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Keep the guitar project transparent

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Publication:Waukesha Freeman (Conley); Date:Feb 23, 2012; Section:Opinion; Page Number:8A

Keep the guitar project transparent
Mayor obstructing legitimate questions about GuitarTown

Since the announcement earlier this year of the GuitarTown project, the community has largely been supportive of the idea of putting up 10-foot-tall guitars in downtown. Talking to the different stakeholders downtown, I have yet to talk to someone who is actually opposed to the GuitarTown idea.

There are legitimate questions about the project, and I think some people are confusing questions with opposition. But even some of those asking the toughest questions, like Nice Ash owner and Business Improvement District board member Jeff Barta, are not opposed to the GuitarTown project. They just want it done correctly.

For those of you still unfamiliar with the GuitarTown concept, the Gibson Guitar Corp. has picked a few cities to be GuitarTowns. Gibson lends its name and the city puts up a bunch of giant guitars decorated by local artists. There are smaller guitars as well. The whole thing raises money for charity and everybody is happy.

It’s actually a terrific honor to be picked, as Waukesha joins a handful of much larger cities. Of course, it’s a natural fit for Waukesha because this is the birthplace of Les Paul, and Les Paul and Gibson go together like martinis and olives.

Seven of the giant guitar bodies needed to be paid for, and the money came from Mayor Jeff Scrima’s controversial New Day in Waukesha Fund. (The New Day fund was Scrima’s way of breaking his campaign promise about his salary in a way that was palatable to some of his supporters.)

However, the money did not go directly to the vendor. It was washed through the BID’s accounts first without any approval from the BID board.

So I sent an email to Scrima asking why the money had to go through the BID instead of directly to the vendor. I also asked about a contract with Gibson. Rather than answer the simple questions, he sent me to everyone else involved instead.

That’s fine. My job is to ask questions and the mayor’s job is to break promises about transparency. It’s a full-time job for him.

So I sent my questions to some other people involved and BID Executive Director Meghan Sprager. Sprager attempted to answer my questions as best as she could, and for her trouble she got an email from the mayor telling her that she did not have to answer open records requests from me for 10 days (even though I had not sent her one) and then complained that she was slandering downtown businesses.

When the Waukesha Freeman reporter asked Scrima about his email, he told the reporter that he thought Sprager had better things to do than answer questions from “bloggers and troublemakers like Wigderson.”

I’ve been writing this column six years. In addition, my writing has appeared in many other online publications and websites. But even if I had never written a single word publicly, public officials like the mayor have a responsibility to answer to the public, especially when it appears a law may have been broken about the BID spending money it did not previously approve. They also have a responsibility to encourage other public officials to be as transparent as possible in their dealings with the public.

Instead, we have a mayor who thinks it’s his full-time job to obstruct inquiries into any activities in which he is involved. This is outrageous behavior.

It’s even more disturbing when we learn how the mayor is whipping up hysteria behind the scenes against a few downtown stakeholders that dare to question how this city is run, as we saw recently at a committee meeting discussing possible requirements for street closures.

It makes one wonder why so many of those backing the GuitarTown project had to show up for Tuesday night’s Common Council meeting. The only approval the GuitarTown project was seeking was on the consent agenda. This means that some alderman would actually have to have a real reason to discuss a project that has near-unanimous support in the community, like they’re afraid one of the fiberglass guitars is going to fall over and kill someone’s dog.

I was watching at home wondering why so many of the project’s supporters were there. If I had known that so many of them were going to show up, I might have come down myself just to collect the open records from them that I’ve asked for.

We have since learned that the New Day fund is very limited in who can receive funds from them, but few people knew that answer at the time I was asking. I have also learned from Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel that the BID could probably retroactively approve the money transfer to avoid the appearance that the law was broken. The GuitarTown steering committee chairman, Rick Congdon, said he expected they would ask the BID to do that.

However, nobody has provided an answer yet why the BID was invoiced on Dec. 20 for the guitar bodies, prior to any endorsement of the project by the BID and without the knowledge of then-BID President Shawn Reilly.

This city and the GuitarTown Project need the transparency that the mayor preaches but does not practice. The downtown could use a unifying voice, not someone like the mayor who stirs animosities for his own purposes.

We can be a better city, one that deserves the honor of the GuitarTown designation. If only we had a better mayor.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at http://www.wigderson.com and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

JAMES WIGDERSON

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