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Sunday, February 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 16.0° F  Light Snow Blowing Snow and Breezy
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Neighbors lose their parking places
Crackdown on 'car campers' causes collateral damage
Julie Gebrayel: 'It's just screwed everyone here.'
Julie Gebrayel: 'It's just screwed everyone here.'
Credit:Mary Langenfeld

As more than 13 inches of snow fell on Madison last week, Julie Gebrayel donned two winter coats, pulled on her extra-high boots and wrapped a scarf around her head.

Then she went out into the blizzard to move her car.

"From noon until six, I have to move my car three times," she complains. "It's ridiculous."

Gebrayel lives on the 1200 block of East Wilson Street. About a month ago, the city of Madison began a 90-day trial of limiting parking on this block to two hours at a time. The restriction is in place Monday through Saturday, from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Gebrayel, who drives a cab at night and is usually home during the day, has to go out multiple times to move her car.

"It's just screwed everyone here," she complains.

The city changed its rules to move out the homeless people who live on the street in cars or small trailers. The neighborhood has hosted these "car campers" for nearly 20 years, but tensions flared this summer when residents began complaining of noise and litter.

"There were some people who didn't follow good neighborly practices, and they ruined it for others," says Ald. Marsha Rummel. She says the loss of Willy Street's neighborhood police officer made matters worse. "When we had a police officer, she would go and visit those people."

Rummel says she resisted calls to ban overnight parking on the street because she wanted the car campers to have someplace to stay. But, in the end, she decided that changing the parking rules during the day would be good middle ground.

"Unfortunately, it had some consequences for Julie that I didn't really intend," she says, explaining that Gebrayel is the only resident who's complained. "I'm trying to figure out if I can give her a short-term solution."

Gebrayel, who says many other residents are affected, thinks the city should issue parking permits, as it does in other neighborhoods: "They need to give us stickers so we don't have to move."

But permit parking is allowed only in areas that are zoned more than 50% residential; East Wilson, which fronts Central Park and includes several businesses, is zoned industrial. Rummel is looking into a possible zoning change, but says, "That's just not something you wave your hand and have done."

The car campers, meanwhile, have left East Wilson. Rummel doesn't know where they've gone. "They're distributed throughout the neighborhood," she guesses. "Where are these people supposed to go? I don't really have the answer."

Think felons can't vote? Think again

Since Wisconsin's primary next Tuesday may be vital in deciding the Democratic presidential nominee, every vote will count. And Renee Crawford, associate director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, wants to be sure that includes eligible voters with felony convictions.

Once a felon is out of prison and off probation or parole, "your rights are automatically restored and you can vote again," she says.

Crawford says many states passed laws preventing felons from voting after the Civil War, in an attempt to disenfranchise black voters. "They basically made everything a felony," she says. "They had all kinds of unbearably harsh felony laws, but they only charged blacks with them. It was very effective and very deliberate."

Some states have since done away with the laws prohibiting those on probation or parole from voting. Maine and Vermont even allow people in prison to vote.

Crawford says Wisconsin's law prevents about 40,000 people on extended supervision - probation or parole - from voting. The ACLU wants to change the law, especially since some probation terms can last for years.

"They live and work in the state, pay taxes, raise families, but they can't vote," she says. "It really goes against American democracy altogether."

Wisconsin also has one of the worst records nationwide for incarcerating people of color. Crawford estimates the felon law prevents one in nine African Americans from voting, compared with one in 50 in the overall population. The state even sent one African American woman to prison for two years after she violated her probation by voting in the 2004 presidential election. "How insane is that?" asks Crawford.

Finally, Crawford argues that voting can help rehabilitate criminals. "At some point," she says, "the punishment has to end."

Infant's death, take two

Lynn Green, head of Dane County's Human Services Department, now admits the county made mistakes that led to the death of six-week-old Anastasia Vang last summer. A county social worker sent Vang back to her abusive mother, who eventually killed the infant.

Green, who long maintained that the county met state protocols in its handling of the case, says she doesn't dispute a state report, released last week, that found the county erred. She says the county should not have allowed a supervisor to draft a safety plan for Vang without seeing the child or talking to her family members. The supervisor then gave the plan to the social worker to implement.

"It's the social worker who is supposed to go out, interview the family, and do the assessment," says Green. "Supervisors are not supposed to make those judgments. That's a protocol the state has, and I agree it needs to be followed."

But Green says Vang's death was an "aberration" and "not reflective of the work we do."

We've got the power

Next week, Madison residents can help decide the future of the city's power plants. As part of a settlement negotiated with the Sierra Club - which sued over pollution violations at the UW's Charter Street plant - the state will hold a public hearing on the issue.

"It really engages people in a dialogue," says Sierra Club spokeswoman Jennifer Feyerherm. "How much do we want to prioritize certain fuels? Do we want coal to be part of the mix? Or biofuels?"

The state must draft a report by spring on its options for dealing with its two power plants, Charter Street and Capitol Heat and Power. It could add more pollution controls to these coal-burning plants. Or it might convert them to natural gas or biofuels. Feyerherm says the public gets to choose at least one option for the state to consider. And she hopes co-generation - combining the state's Capitol plant with Madison Gas & Electric's Blount Street plant - is on the table.

MGE is not bound by the settlement, but, says Feyerherm, "If we come up with a good proposal to take to MGE, they're willing to play the game."

The public hearing is on Feb. 21 at 101 S. Webster St., from 5 to 8 p.m.

Where there's smoking...

Four of Madison's five fire fatalities in 2007 were caused by discarded cigarettes.

"[Cigarettes are] not a common cause of fires, but are the most common cause of fire fatalities," says Lori Wirth of the Madison Fire Department, noting that when people fall asleep while smoking, "the fire is right next to you."

A bill before the Legislature would require that only "fire-safe" cigarettes, which self-extinguish, be sold in the state. But for now, Wirth advises, "If you are going to smoke, you need to make sure you have a large ashtray - don't balance your cigarette on the arm of your chair."

Or you could just quit.

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