Politics can be a lonely business. But for Madison Ald. Thuy Pham-Remmele, the last couple of weeks have been lonelier than usual.
In April she was kicked off her prized committee, the Community Development Block Grant Commission, by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. Then she had to endure the further indignity of seeing her colleagues trying to appease her behind the scenes after she'd threatened to quit (see here).
"I didn't think it was necessary. The damage was done. And I wouldn't like for the mayor to have to consider putting me in somebody's place," Pham-Remmele says. "That's not what I would want to happen. I don't want someone to bargain on my behalf. It's kind of insulting."
Council President Tim Bruer drafted a resolution to ask the mayor to reconsider his appointments. But on Tuesday night the measure was put on file - basically killed - without debate. That's just fine with Pham-Remmele: "I don't want to see it reappear."
Now in her second term on the council, Pham-Remmele garnered praise in her district for championing public safety and convening a public hearing on crime. But she has not endeared herself to her colleagues.
"No one wants to listen to what might come out of her mouth," writes former Ald. Brenda Konkel on her blog, "except that it might be mildly entertaining and have a certain incredibility/horror factor."
Off the record, other council members also peg Pham-Remmele as a bit of an oddball. "She says some outrageous things," says one.
Pham-Remmele admits she feels alienated. "People talk about the spirit of collegiality. I don't see it in this council," she says. "I look at the entire city as a family. But it's very political. It's very territorial."
Though she toyed with the idea of resigning, Pham-Remmele seems inclined to stick it out for her constituents: "Sometimes you don't like to do something, but you do it, and you do it the best you can. I hope I can go on. I hope I can tolerate this. I am not going to behave in any way bizarre. But for me to stay on is quite a challenge."
Konkel still at it
Perhaps the best-read local political blog - for its insight, outrage and humor - is "This Side of Town..." written by Brenda Konkel, who until a few weeks ago was also the most outspoken member of the Madison Common Council.
Konkel was ousted on April 4 by Bridget Maniaci after serving four terms, but continues to blog on city issues. She often breaks news and dishes gossip about council workings.
Konkel says her new status as outsider might give her more liberty. "I've always been pretty blunt with people," she says. "Maybe now I don't have to be as careful about relationships as I have in the past."
Konkel still gets plenty of scoops about what the council is doing and keeps a watchful eye on its workings. She was at Tuesday night's meeting and plans to go to many more.
"Local government is where you can really impact what happens just by showing up," Konkel says. Plus she gets a better feel for what's happening when she's there, rather than watching on TV. "You can see who is not in the room and who is whispering to each other and who the mayor is talking to."
She fears that the recent action by City Attorney Michael May to void a council resolution ("Alders clash with Madison city attorney over property tax exemption," 5/1/09) shows a weakened council. But she also sees hopeful signs.
"I was pleased to see several council members speak up [at the April 21 meeting]," she says. "I know in the past some council members have said they rely on me asking questions and giving them cover."
Does Konkel see anyone filling her role of in-house critic? "Satya [Rhodes-Conway] will continue to ask a lot of questions. I think Shiva [Bidar-Sielaff] will be the person who says, 'Wait a minute, this doesn't sound right.' Marsha [Rummel] will be the voice of the far left."
And what does she make of her successor so far? Too soon to tell. She wishes Maniaci, who was appointed to the Landmarks Commission, had more interest in saving old homes. "I'm also concerned about whether she's going to challenge the police budget in any way," Konkel says of Maniaci, who was supported by the police union. "But who knows? Maybe she'll be more independent than we think."
One thing's for sure: Brenda Konkel will be watching.
Nonprofits to state: 'No way, we can't pay!'
Nonprofit housing agencies plan to step up their pressure on the state Legislature to preserve their exemptions from property taxation ("Alders clash with Madison city attorney over property tax exemption," 4/30/2009).
Next Tuesday at noon, they plan a protest "tent city" on the Capitol Square, to symbolize the people who could lose housing if these groups are taxed. Dean Loumos, head of Housing Initiatives, says some people may stay in the tents until the crisis is resolved: "We really want to impress upon the legislators a sense of urgency."
The Madison City Attorney's Office is being blamed for the crisis, having successfully argued in court that nonprofits must use their rent money only for maintenance or construction debt - or pay property taxes. Housing providers say this might force hundreds of poor - many of them disabled or mentally ill - to live on the streets.
"I'd like to get at least 500 people [at the protest]," says Loumos. "I'm going to set up a tent. Not sure if I'm going to stay overnight."
Don't fear the county
A resolution aimed at keeping Dane County accessible to immigrants was tabled because it was seen as challenging the sheriff's authority.
"I think people perceived that it was in opposition to the sheriff," says County Supv. John Hendrick, who introduced the proposal - and who used the sheriff's office as an example of where problems were happening. "I knew there would be opposition, with the sheriff leading the opposition. So, I'm not surprised by it."
The proposal called on county agencies not to ask or report people's immigration status, unless required by law. The Public Protection and Judiciary Committee tabled it Tuesday. Hendrick admits the board "cannot force [the sheriff] to do anything."
Hendrick says illegal immigrants have ended up being deported for minor crimes like public drunkenness or not having a driver's license. Families have been broken up, and some people are afraid to call the police when they need help. He doesn't want to see that happen with other county services.
"I hope people aren't afraid to approach other areas of county government," he says. "We don't want people being afraid to approach the health department. That doesn't do them any good, and it doesn't do us any good."
Quick and easy
When it comes to voting, Wisconsinites are content, according to a recent survey by UW Prof. Barry Burden for the state Government Accountability Board.
"The main message was that voters were pretty happy," Burden says. "They were confident their vote was counted correctly, and they were able to vote quickly."
In Wisconsin, 75% of voters cast their ballot in less than 10 minutes, slightly better than the national average.
Burden has a few theories about why this is so. Paper ballots are used throughout the state ("electronic voting machines take longer"), and voters can register on the day of the election. "If there's a problem, they can simply re-register," he says. "That eliminates provisional ballots."