Why Small Local Government Matters

One of the many hats I wear is that of Chairperson of the Goose Lake Watershed District (GLWD).  The GLWD is a small governmental body which has 5 members, 3 of whom are elected by the 157 property owners in the watershed district, 1 is appointed by the Town of Jackson, and one is appointed by Adams County.  We have the power of taxation and those taxes bring in about $18,000/year.  Those funds are used for the care and maintenance of Goose Lake, including combating invasive species, weed control, aeration, and beach maintenance.

The GLWD was formed about 4 years ago when it became clear that neither voluntary efforts nor other, larger governmental units, were maintaining the necessary environmental quality of Goose Lake.  Last summer, after watching the GLWD’s initial success, I decided to put my hat in the ring when a vacancy opened up, and I was unanimously elected Chair at the annual meeting.

The GLWD operates remarkably free of partisan politics, as we all have the same goal in mind, improving the quality of Goose Lake for all to enjoy.  One of our biggest challenges involves how to deal with the privately owned Gilligan’s Island which has a deteriorating boardwalk and bridge leading from the mainland to the island.  It presents unique challenges because there are 17 co-owners of the island and it cannot be sold without all owners agreeing to its sale.

To deal with this challenge, the GLWD sent a survey to the island owners and discovered that they were also frustrated by the island’s deteriorating condition.  After the survey results were in, the GLWD invited the island owners to a meeting to discuss how the GLWD could potentially buy the island and fix or remove the deteriorating boardwalk and bridge.  While this process is far from concluded, these initial cooperative steps show promising signs as we agreed to put together a committee to develop a plan to improve the island.

At its last meeting, after much investigation, the GLWD also signed a contract to buy a used lake weed cutter, which over time will allow us to maintain the lake in better condition for less money.

While the GLWD is strictly non-partisan, it does not mean that it does not express its views to the Wisconsin legislature.  Earlier in the Wisconsin state budget process, we wrote our legislators and sought restoration of state funds for lake conservation staff. Our State Senator, Luther Olsen, sits on the Joint Finance (budget) committee, and agreed with our position, and successfully restored that funding.

At our last meeting, we agreed to write Gov. Scott Walker to request that he veto the policy provision which is in the budget recently passed by the legislature that eliminates the right of citizens and Lake Districts such as GLWD to challenge high capacity well permits.  I just sent that letter to Governor Walker and I hope it influences his decision in favor of vetoing this non-budgetary anti-environmental provision.

The GLWD is an excellent example of how a few dedicated citizens can have an important impact at the local level.  Policymakers would be wise to support the success of local governmental units, rather than limiting their ability to succeed through unnecessary restrictions.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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Fighting the School to Prison Pipeline (Update)

In April, I posted this TV story about my client, a 14 year old boy with disabilities in 8th grade in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, who was given a concussion and black eye when he was slammed to the school floor by a school based police officer, without provocation.  Prior to that TV story airing, on behalf of my clients, I wrote the Sun Prairie Mayor and Police Chief asking them to investigate the incident, discipline the police officer, and enter into good faith negotiations to compensate my client for this act of police brutality.  We proceeded with the TV story because the City of Sun Prairie refused to investigate the incident, discipline the officer, or enter into good faith negotiations to resolve the matter quickly and quietly.

My clients and I decided to allow Sun Prairie some time to reconsider its intransigence after the TV story aired, but sadly, to date, Sun Prairie remains firmly committed to refusing to conduct an independent investigation, discipline the police officer or enter into good faith negotiations to compensate my client for the violation of his Constitutional rights to be free from unwarranted police brutality.  This leaves us with only one conclusion.  The City of Sun Prairie and its police department apparently believe that it is ok for its police officers to give concussions to their young residents without provocation.  Accordingly, yesterday, on my client’s behalf, I filed a federal civil rights lawsuit to bring this matter to the courts.  The Wisconsin State Journal covered the story in today’s paper.

My clients and I hope that filing this lawsuit will finally force Sun Prairie to retain attorneys who will recognize that it would be better to use this case as an opportunity to address problems in its police department’s interaction with teenage students rather than engaging in a protracted battle in court.  However, at this point, whether or not Sun Prairie will change its tune remains to be seen.  Until then, both my clients and I are ready, willing and able to assert my young client’s right to be free from unprovoked and unwarranted police brutality while attending school.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Using Special Education Law to Fight Capital Punishment

In an earlier post, I discussed how I used special education law to disrupt the school to prison pipeline by serving as a special education law expert in a juvenile delinquency case.  My testimony in that case resulted in the court throwing out the competency evaluation conducted by a psychologist who refused to review the child’s special education records.  The next evaluator reviewed those records and determined that the child was not competent to stand trial.

After that case, I received an unexpected request to serve as an expert in a capital punishment case outside of Wisconsin (as Wisconsin does not have capital punishment). The defendant has disabilities and received special education while in school. The defense attorney believed that the defendant may have been denied his rights under special education law, and requested that I review 9 years of educational records and write a report if I found that his rights were violated.

I have now completed my analysis of this case and found a large number of violations of special education rights which may have resulted in him making a very bad choice after he was out of school.  These violations included:

  • Failure to evaluate the child for possible emotional disabilities even though the school psychologist and other staff mentioned that he needed counseling due to the tragic death of his mother as a young child, and his abandonment by his father;
  • Failure to provide him the counseling that he needed;
  • Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) which repeatedly used vague, non-measurable goals, resulting in his continuing to fall further and further behind academically;
  • Failure to provide any transition to adulthood services;
  • When he began experiencing an increased number of discipline problems, no effort was made to examine whether these problems were due to special education needs, and the only result was unlawful lengthy suspensions;
  • Despite failing to graduate high school, he was not afforded the opportunity to continue his education through age 21, as special education law requires.

While it is impossible to know if the tragic events leading to his death sentence could have been avoided if he had received all of his special education rights, if one believes that education in general, and special education in particular, has any value at all, one must at least seriously consider the possibility that the outcome for him and the victims of his crime, would have been much better had he received counseling in school, an appropriate education, and remained in school until he earned his high school diploma, with appropriate transition services to lead to a successful transition to adulthood.

This is clearly unique work.  I have found nothing else written about connecting the lack of appropriate special education to mitigating a death sentence.  The defense attorney is pleased enough with the work I have done thus far in this first capital punishment case that she just sent me a contract for a second case.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.