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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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New parks head Kevin Briski making waves
Briski's move to ax popular pool manager Bonnie Griswold draws deluge of criticism
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Kevin Briski: 'I feel horrible. It was a tough decision.'
Kevin Briski: 'I feel horrible. It was a tough decision.'

Bonnie Griswold has been employed full time and year-round as the director of Madison's Goodman pool since mid-2007. During that time, she's made a lot of friends.

"Bonnie's the best," says Shane Schwingle, the facility's lifeguard supervisor, who has worked at the pool since it opened in 2006. "If you open any Red Cross lifeguard manual in the world, her name is in there."

Griswold formerly ran the pool at MATC and worked for the Red Cross, where she helped write training manuals. She is credited, by Schwingle and others, with achieving efficiencies that have made the Goodman pool nearly self-sufficient. But on Jan. 7, she was summoned by Kevin Briski, the city's new parks superintendent, and laid off, effective immediately.

Briski, who began in June, believes there is simply not enough work to justify a year-round manager for a pool that's open just three months a year. "I feel horrible," he says. "It was a tough decision during tough economic times." He calls Griswold "capable and competent," as well as "wonderful": "She's someone we like and respect and have asked back in a seasonal position."

The plan for 2009 is to hire someone for four months, starting in May. (The pool usually opens the first week of June.) Briski says the cost will fall from about $75,000 for salary and benefits, to just $6,000 to $8,000 for a benefit-free gig "coordinating the hours."

Griswold, even before she hears how little is being offered, says she's not interested, calling it "a job set up for failure." By her lights, there's more than enough work to keep a person busy year-round. Among other things, Griswold oversaw the hiring and training of about 90 lifeguards, including those for city beaches.

"If the pool is going to continue to be safe and continue dropping its deficit, it needs a full-time person," says Griswold. She questions why the position was not changed during the budget process, suggesting it was payback: "In a nutshell, I tried to offer support for another person in the Parks Division and was perceived as too outspoken."

Briski has made several internally controversial personnel moves. One was his decision to repost the job of community services manager, after Brad Weisinger had held it for several months. Now the job is going to someone Briski knew back when he worked as a park overlord in Indiana; Briski says this person never worked for him and was a hiring committee's unanimous choice.

As for the Goodman pool, Briski says the city is fortunate to have many good lifeguards who come back year after year, thanks largely to Griswold's efforts.

But that cuts both ways. Schwingle says the lifeguards regarded Griswold as "a mom figure" and are deeply saddened by her loss; some might not come back. Lifeguard Emily Jaehnig says Griswold worked "countless hours" and did a fabulous job. "Some people just don't see how the pool could run with anyone else."

And another thing

Briski calls it "a standard business communications protocol," but it differs from past practice and other city agencies. Reporters could once get prompt information from knowledgeable and articulate front-line Parks Division staff. Now they must route their inquiries through the division's spokeswoman, Laura Whitmore.

"We're trying to organize a coordinated, correct, communications-based response," says Briski, unwittingly giving an excellent example of why reporters would rather talk to front-line staff than their bureaucratic overseers. He says the goal is to be "organized, clear and concise."

Briski and Whitmore both say reporters may still end up talking with front-line staff. But, says Whitmore, "We just need to be aware of it before it actually happens."

This spokesperson-first approach, which interferes with longstanding reporter-source relationships and complicates the delivery of "communication-based responses," a.k.a. answers, is the norm at most state agencies. Ironically, the one exception is the state Department of Natural Resources, the parallel agency to city parks, where workers are free to field media inquiries.

Most city agencies, from planning to police, similarly let employees field inquiries from the press, a practice that has served the city well. Let's hope no more of them feel the need to adopt "standard business communications protocol," a.k.a. putting obstacles in reporters' way.

Hiring decision no emergency

Dane County last week posted a job description for a new 911 Center director, a position it's known it would have to fill since Sept. 5, when embattled top dog Joe Norwick resigned.

What took so long?

Dane County Supv. Eileen Bruskewitz has a theory. She calls it "a well-planned political maneuver," since the new hire is set to be made in early April, just before the county executive election.

"In the meantime," says Bruskewitz, "the 911 Center is still in bad shape and there was a second death." Brittany Zimmermann died in April and a man was beaten to death in November, both after calls to the 911 Center failed to lead to police being dispatched.

Josh Westcott, a spokesman for County Executive Kathleen Falk, says the county went through a multi-step process of hiring a professional "headhunter" firm to aid in its search. In December, it hired the Mercer Group to do so, for $21,500.

Beyond that, Westcott disputes claims that the 911 Center is in "bad shape," calling this "easy rhetoric to kind of throw out there." He cites a recent report showing that the 640,000 calls to the center last year were answered, on average, after 1.2 rings. "And that's without the additional staff and software" that will soon be in place.

Collaborate this!

Andy Hall last week finished his distinguished career as a newspaper reporter, including 18 years at the Wisconsin State Journal, after announcing plans to start a new nonprofit entity, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

"We'll learn as we go along," says Hall of his new venture, which will be modeled after ProPublica, a New York-based public-service newsroom. Hall already has some partners, including Wisconsin Public Radio and Television and the UW-Madison School of Journalism. The center, for which he'll seek funds from foundations and individuals, will offer free content to media outlets.

"We're trying to foster the spread of a collaborative instead of competitive model of journalism," says Hall. The center's mission is to "protect the vulnerable, expose wrongdoing and seek solutions to pressing problems." (In the spirit of collaboration, we lifted this language directly from the State Journal.)

One of those problems, of course, is that many fine journalists are out of work. (The State Journal just axed five staffers and The Capital Times is asking five or six more people to voluntarily retire.) Hall, who hopes to eventually have a staff of five, has been hearing from them.

Problem solved

Former Madison Ald. Ken Golden, in an email to Isthmus, on how to fix Overture's fiscal crisis: "Let the bank foreclose on it. If a bank owns it, it qualifies for [federal bailout] money. Get $100 million to create the long-sought endowment fund to finance the center.... Also, to cut the budget, fire the director and get D'Angelo on work release for the 35 cents an hour they pay inmates. You can call that my out-of-the-box idea."

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