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Dane County Executive race: Falk dodges as Mistele fires
Debate exposes deep divisions between the candidates

Nancy Mistele thinks Kathleen Falk has got it all wrong. Rather than fund programs to prevent alcohol abuse, as Falk has done, Mistele says people have to "look to ourselves and our parents, because we can't expect government to fix every problem for us."

Mistele made this remark Wednesday night, at a county executive candidate debate in Fitchburg. She said alcohol abusers are better handled by family members, who can "support them in making good decisions for themselves, and take care of a problem that is only in their hands."

Several audience members criticized this stance as contrary to the Mistele campaign's central theme of public safety. But Mistele held her ground: "The effects of alcohol are a very serious problem, but I also think it's a problem that is a personal-responsibility issue."

The debate also focused on problems at the county's 911 Center, transportation, and balancing the environment with development.

Each candidate responded to questions posed by the Dane County Public Affairs Council, which sponsored the debate at Fitchburg City Hall. Questions from the audience were allowed afterward.

About 150 people attended. The Dane County Public Affairs Council, after polling its members, will endorse one of the candidates.

Mistele, 55, was elected to three terms on the Madison school board, beginning in 1992. She left when she moved out of the district in 1996. She lives in the town of Westport and serves as chief financial officer for Aztec Builders, which she owns with her husband, Tom. Mistele ran for state Senate as a Republican in 1994, when she was on the school board, and again in 1998.

Falk, 57, is seeking an unprecedented fourth four-year term in the April 7 election. She lives in Madison. She ran as a Democrat for governor in 2002 and state attorney general in 2006.

The most pointed questions were asked by the public. One audience member quizzed the candidates on the difference between wetlands and swamp. Falk said there was no difference, but stressed that county purchases of wetlands were not only investments in the environment, they were the cheapest, most effective means of flood control.

Mistele twice quoted Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and argued that wetlands -- or swamps -- don't need to be protected, since no one would ever build there anyway. What's needed instead, she said, is to prevent "Dane County's ability to go after your property" and encourage development. Mistele said she expects to be endorsed by the Madison Area Builders Association.

Falk countered that Dane County is by far the fastest growing county in the state, and said she has endorsements from several developers.

On the issue of public transport, Falk said she favored commuter rail but not light rail. Mistele is against both, and wants a sort of Beltline Highway on the north side of Lake Mendota.

"We have to look at how people travel today," as opposed to the future, she said. "And that doesn't mean commuter rail. That means highways and byways."

Falk was taken to task regarding road repair and specific intersections. That's what happens when you have a debate and let ordinary people raise concerns.

Clearly the biggest issue at Wednesday's debate was the county's 911 Center. In April 2008, 21-year-old UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmerman was killed after her call to the 911 Center was mishandled. The dispatcher, Falk and county are facing a wrongful death suit brought by the Zimmerman family.

Mistele said changes should have been made in 2004, when a consultant recommended hiring additional staff. She promised, if elected, to " fix the problems at the 911 Center immediately." She added that this would also boost economic development, because new businesses will "know their employees can be safe."

Falk defended her hiring of the center's former director, Joe Norwick, who resigned in September. She also pointed to improvements made to the 911 Center, including a larger budget, added staff and new high-tech dispatch equipment. She said these improvements go beyond the recommendations made in the 2004 report.

Asked if she would resign if the Zimmerman family lawsuit is successful, Falk said, "No, I took responsibility on behalf of the county," and that she would continue to make changes to the 911 Center as necessary, with the sheriff, police, 911 board and County Board.

Mistele argued that not enough has been done.

"Our priority is public safety," she said. "That is where the dollars should go. That is were the dollars should have gone for many, many years."

Falk has made prevention of alcohol abuse a priority. At the debate, she said half of the inmates at the county jail were there for alcohol-related offenses, and that a self-reporting survey found that a third of 7th and 8th graders drank.

Mistele's retort, which she repeated several times, was that the county was overreaching: "The effects of alcohol are a very serious problem, but I also think it's a problem that is a personal responsibility issue."

This drew some harsh responses from those in attendance. While organizers requested that the audience stay silent throughout the debate, Stefi Harris, a retired Madison substitute teacher who lives in Mount Horeb, drew a round of applause from many -- the only applause of the debate -- when she angrily challenged Mistele.

"You're saying that alcohol abuse is a very private matter," said Harris. "We all know that drunk driving is the number-one killer, the number-one safety issue on our roads. So I don't think you really understand the issues. I think you're using this safety thing just to make a case for yourself with regard to 911. And that's not right, to use the murder of a young woman for your own personal advantage, for your own political advantage."

Mistele responded that she believed her grandfather was a founding member of Alcoholics Anonymous in Wisconsin (a claim difficult to verify, for obvious reasons), but that "the real question is what are the priorities of county government. We have other things we need to get done. The safety of all of us depends on the 911 Center."

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