Tuesday, November 21st, 2017

Scrima’s muddy waters


While it’s tempting to stand athwart a pipeline and yell “stop!” (to steal a phrase), there is also a maxim that missed: “Where there is no alternative there is no…” Problem. Mayor Jeff Scrima has continued to stand athwart building a pipeline to Lake Michigan out of an inordinate fear that someday Milwaukee will contaminate his precious bodily fluids with the desire to support light-rail direct to a federal housing development in Waukesha.

How is he stopping the application, you may ask. After all, the Common Council (with Scrima’s blessing, I hasten to add) voted 15-1 to apply for Great Lakes Water. Yet the mayor has backed away from his earlier support for the application, informing the state Department of Natural Resources that Waukesha is continuing to pursue other options for water. As long as there is the possibility of other options, the DNR and the Great Lakes states will not consider an application for diversion. The application cannot go forward even if the Common Council (also elected representatives of the city) vote over and over again to re-affirm their belief that Waukesha must have a pipeline to Lake Michigan, whether it’s through Milwaukee, Oak Creek or Racine.

Despite all of the science supporting the decision, despite the Common Council’s near-unanimous support for Great Lakes water, despite a poll indicating public support for Great Lakes water and general distrust of the mayor’s knowledge of the situation, despite the public criticism and the general appearance of foolishness, Mayor Scrima continues to hold firm, as evidenced by this article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, his op-ed piece in the Waukesha Freeman, and his letter to the DNR.

It’s worth noting that none of the alternatives proposed by the mayor have any merit, and that they have all been studied before being discarded. Shallow wells to the west will not only prove more costly but will also directly affect the local surface water features. You think the Vernon Marsh needs protecting now, wait until a half dozen more straws are stuck in the ground nearby.

That’s if the local communities don’t put up a legal challenge. Don’t think for a moment that all eyes are not on the Town of Waukesha where two Town Supervisors, Robert Tallinger Sr. and Stephen Smart are up for recall on July 13th because of their votes concerning land that will be used for City of Waukesha wells. (Not that I have any sympathy for them. Both of them should be recalled for their role in the Walgreens affair: Smart for breaking his word about not voting because of a conflict of interest, and Tallinger for going along with Smart.)

The wells are for emergency use, according to plan, and not even full-time use. Imagine the outrage over wells that would be used to dilute the water from the aquifer full-time.

Meanwhile the mayor hopes to spring water from a rock like Moses and fill up the local quarries as reservoirs. Never mind that they are in use currently, the water discharged feeds the Fox River, the water is contaminated, the cost is too high, and the water would be in even greater danger of other contaminations.

But the mayor assures us that so long as rain falls from the sky (yes, he actually said that), Waukesha will have water. It’s crackpotism on the scale of announcing that he knows the real conspiracy behind who killed Kennedy, and it’s convenient that the mayor sees conspiracies among those who would support a diversion of Lake Michigan water to Waukesha. Let’s see, so far we have former Mayor Larry Nelson, the Milwaukee Common Council, SEWRPC, Dan Warren, Dan Vrakas, Dan Duchniak, Waukesha County Director of Parks and Land Use Dale Shaver, Lori Luther, the Sustainable Water Supply Coalition, the entire Waukesha Common Council, the Waukesha County Board, the Waukesha Freeman, every business interest in Waukesha, business interests outside of Waukesha, construction and engineering companies, Mother Goose, the Milwaukee 7, Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines and the opinion writers at the Waukesha Freeman. After today, include Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Patrick McIlheran and the Journal Sentinel editorial board. I wonder who among them stole the strawberries?

The mayor’s behavior is putting the city in a difficult spot.

The mayor’s supporters argue that the mayor was elected to stop Waukesha from getting Lake Michigan water. This is not the case. The mayor originally campaigned on such a platform but then backed away from it during the course of the election to the point where, when he took office, he endorsed the Council’s decision to pursue Lake Michigan water. In muddying the waters (pun intended) he prevented a clear mandate for himself on the issue.

However, it’s worth noting that in many ways the election was symptomatic of the general anti-incumbency mood of the electorate, especially anti-Democratic incumbents. Scrima’s predecessor was widely seen as an anomaly, a Democratic mayor in the heart of Waukesha. Even then, Scrima’s vote total in the City of Waukesha was less than Republican Mark Gundrum who defeated Democrat Richard Congdon for judge. If anything, the water issue and Scrima’s erratic behavior during the campaign ate into his vote totals. Scrima was saved from even lower vote totals by the questions concerning Mayor Larry Nelson’s professionalism, specifically his attire. (Imagine if the election were held today on the issue of professionalism.) While one can’t ignore the margins by which Scrima won, he has certainly misread his mandate. As the Spring City Chronicle put it so well, the desire for Scrima was a desire for less drama, not more.

Still, mandate or no, the DNR elevated Scrima’s fruitless search for alternative water sources to the point where his approval is now necessary for the process of seeking approval for Lake Michigan water to continue. It is highly unlikely Scrima will change his mind, and it may be too late if he did. But as long as Scrima is mayor, it’s highly unlikely the DNR and the Great Lakes States will consider Waukesha’s water application.

The city is left with few choices.

It can abandon any hope of getting Lake Michigan water. This is really no option.

The Common Council can remove Scrima from office. That choice is difficult and dangerous. It’s not as if Scrima has committed a crime. Even phasing out the position of mayor would likely take too long. The public is not far enough along yet to put up with removing Scrima from office. Much more education of the public needs to be done.

We could have a recall election. This can’t even begin until April when Scrima will have been in office for one year. By then, Scrima could do even more damage to the possibility of getting Lake Michigan water. However, it would give the aldermen and business leaders a chance to educate the public about the water issue and how Scrima is just wrong on the issue.

Another possibility is pushing the issue to referendum. That would require the aldermen to actually get out into the community and explain their vote for the Great Lakes Water application. If the recent poll is correct, then the aldermen already have a head start. If the recent poll’s results were faulty, then the aldermen should be out there anyway convincing the public. By reaching out to the public, the aldermen would get the public’s buy-in at the same time they would send a clear message to the DNR of Waukesha’s commitment to seeking Lake Michigan water. The downside of the approach is that if the referendum fails, it would preclude any possibility of ever getting Lake Michigan water. The reward, a clear mandate for Lake Michigan water, might not outweigh the risk, especially if Scrima were to ignore the results and continue to speak out against Lake Michigan water. (Although if he lost a referendum fight, how long could he continue in office?) The upside is that Waukesha could settle the matter quickly. There is even time to get the measure on the September primary ballot.

“Something” must be done soon. The city’s water commission estimates we only have an 18 month cushion to solve this crisis. That’s not a lot of time for government work. Unfortunately the adults are not in charge, Scrima is.

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