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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Overcast
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Whose center is it, anyway?
Neighborhood reps booted from board overseeing Warner Park facility
on
Benford: 'I'm going to fight this like crazy.'
Benford: 'I'm going to fight this like crazy.'

A huge fight is brewing over who controls the Warner Park Community and Recreation Center. In July, the Madison Park Commission voted unanimously to strip voting rights from three members of the advisory committee that oversees the seven-year-old center's operation. Representatives from the Northside Planning Council, North/Eastside Senior Coalition and Madison School and Community Recreation will no longer be allowed to vote.

Bill Barker, president of the Park Commission, says the three groups have a conflict of interest. "They have to be able to put the organization's perspective to the side and focus on the greater issues," he says. "I don't think they're able to do that."

Barker says the Northside Planning Council in particular was "trying to control the committee," though he declines to give specific examples. Instead, he grouses that planning councils in general are "contributing to the Balkanization of the city. More and more you hear about the south side, the north side, the east side. This is just Madison."

Jim Powell of the Northside Planning Council says the park commissioners' decision to remove their representative "came as a surprise, frankly, because things had seemed to be going well at the center." He says the commissioners are upset because, over the years, the three groups have had run-ins with the center's facility manager, Brad Weisinger. In 2003, says Powell, the planning council objected to Weisinger's plan to close a childcare room. And the senior coalition, which rents space at Warner Park, had a disagreement with Weisinger over its lease.

But changing the advisory committee's makeup because of these disputes "doesn't make any sense," says Powell. "It's been a committee where the people on it have challenged the city to really excel. I think there's just a difference of opinion on how to do that."

According to City Attorney Mike May, the park commissioners cannot unilaterally change the structure of the center's advisory committee. That means, he says, that the matter must go to the Common Council for approval. And that may kick the controversy into high gear.

"I'm going to fight this like crazy," says Ald. Brian Benford, whose district includes Warner Park. He rejects Barker's belief that the three groups have a conflict of interest. "Their sole interest is in improving the lives of people," he says. "They've never come and said we need a Jacuzzi down the hall or lush office space." He adds that Barker is "well intended, but it was boneheaded to do this."

Ald. Paul Skidmore, a member of the Park Commission, defends the decision to exclude the three members. He says the city intended the Warner Park facility to be "a recreation center, not a neighborhood center." He says critics are upset with Weisinger "because he's following city park procedure and not what they want him to do."

Powell says the park commissioners don't value input from the neighborhood groups who helped build the center: "From our perspective, the Park Commission is clearly telling groups such as ourselves to just go away." He thinks that's a mistake, since the same groups are needed to raise money for other projects.

"There's a big push now for the pool and to expand the center," he says. "For [the Park Commission] to be telling the groups that raised money to go away sounds counterproductive."

Everybody in the pool campaign

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's capital budget, released this week, includes $1.25 million for a second city pool at Warner Park, to be built in 2010. But some eager north-side residents are way ahead of him.

The nonprofit Circle of Friends has raised $65,000 for the pool so far. And while the city is considering a $5 million outdoor facility, the group has already talked with a designer about both an indoor and an outdoor pool, which would cost a cool $15 million.

"If you have just an outdoor pool, you can use it maybe 80 days a year," says Scott Zuberbier, treasurer for Circle of Friends. "An indoor pool can be used year-round. That's why we're trying to get an indoor and outdoor pool, to generate more revenue so it can be self-sustaining."

The group will approach some major donors this fall, hoping to find one on the order of the Goodman brothers, who gave $2.8 million for Madison's first public pool. The city of Madison is doing its own search for a major donor, but Zuberbier says the north-siders won't hinder the city's efforts.

"If we have two groups looking instead of just one, then we're twice as likely to find someone," he says. "The city's got tight resources, so we're helping them."

Seeking relief

This February, Dane County refinanced some of its debt, which under state levy limits allows it to hike taxes an extra $1.6 million for 2007. County Supv. John Hendrick wants to make sure this money is raised, and that it goes where it's needed most: cash-strapped agencies with whom the county contracts to provide human services.

"Agencies have had no increase in funding for the last four years," he says. "It's gotten to the point where it's cutting into services."

Hendrick introduced a resolution requiring the county to earmark that money for human services. Last week, the county's Personnel and Finance Committee amended the resolution to allocate only half the money to human service agencies. Supv. Donna Vogel, who authored the change, says some funds could go to other programs, like drug and alcohol treatment for inmates. "We've got needs in lots of areas of the county," she says.

The County Board will vote on the amended resolution this Thursday. But Topf Wells, chief of staff to Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, says it's too early in the budget process to dedicate funds to specific needs.

"We're still in the midst of negotiating health insurance contracts," he says. "Literally, depending on how that goes, we could see a swing of a couple million dollars in the budget. There's just a lot in play that has to be resolved first."

Lost in MySpace

Ben Masel admits he probably won't defeat Sen. Herb Kohl in Tuesday's Democratic primary. But that hasn't stopped the longtime marijuana activist from campaigning ' on MySpace.com. Masel proudly notes that he has more than 1,000 "friends" linked to his page (myspace.com/ben_masel), including "Stony Stoned" and "Hooch."

"It's a pretty good tool for a no-budget candidate like me," says Masel. "Since I'm running against someone who's got a gazillion dollars." Masel has raised $804 ' mostly from $1 contributions ' compared with Kohl, who has a nearly $2 million war chest and no serious challenger this fall.

Masel has been using his campaign to raise awareness of issues regarding privacy and the Internet. In July, the House of Representatives voted to block access to chat rooms and social networking sites ' like MySpace.com ' in schools and public libraries. Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin voted for the bill.

"That was my biggest disappointment with Tammy this year," sighs Masel. He recently attended a rally at Kohl's office, urging him to vote against the bill this fall.

Masel says he has a (fat) chance of winning Dane County, and maybe Bayfield, Ashland and Waupaca. But he acknowledges he hasn't done much campaigning around the state: "I've been spending too much time on MySpace."

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