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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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Madison's ethical lapses
The city needs to get serious about enforcing its rules
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A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter to the city of Madison's Ethics Board raising concerns about ethics violations in city hall. These include Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's special-interest junket to Europe; alders serving on boards of nonprofits that are funded by the city; and lobbyists buying drinks for alders.

Sadly, no action seems imminent. I think that's as troubling as the concerns that prompted my letter.

In this case, I wrote the Ethics Board instead of filing complaints because I wanted to raise issues, educate alders and lobbyists, and help change the culture in city hall. I also didn't want to become the center of attention, as has happened with past complaints.

But now it seems as though the issues I raised may not get addressed.

Since then, several people have volunteered to file the complaints if I wrote them, feeling they didn't have enough information to do so on their own. That's another problem, because those who care about these issues don't have easy access to information.

The fact is, for all its claims about being squeaky clean, Madison is a place where ethics violations are common, and routinely tolerated.

Recently I was chagrined to realize that I, too, have violated the lobbying law. I should have known better, as should the alders involved and staff members in the room. But no one said a thing.

My violations are that I bought a granola bar for a hungry alder one day. I also bought a beer for an alder and gave one a ride home.

These are admittedly minor violations, but the problem is that none of us realized they were violations at the time. We have since talked about the need to be more careful, given that I am no longer a member of the Common Council but a lobbyist for the Tenant Resource Center.

Of much greater consequence is the mayor's trip to Amsterdam and Germany. The biking industry, a billion-dollar industry in Wisconsin, paid for the trip, presumably because it is getting something in return. More biking means bigger profits.

To make matters worse, one of the claimed public benefits of the trip, the red bike boxes that have appeared on city streets, were already proposed in the Platinum Bike Plan that the city approved.

So I don't see what the city gained, except that the mayor got a free trip to Europe to hang out with lobbyists for groups like the Edgewater, Foley & Lardner, Downtown Madison Inc., Home Savings Bank, Vandewalle & Associates, Erdman Holdings and Erdman Energy Enterprises, Veridian, Urban Land Interests, Trek Bicycles and the UW.

Other incidents include two alders who serve on the boards of nonprofits funded by the city of Madison. Neither has disclosed this or abstained when voting on funding. And nobody has said a thing.

A city department head used his position to attend a Plan Commission meeting, question developers and speak against a development in his own neighborhood that he did not like. A member of a housing committee made a motion that would directly benefit a housing group he represents as an attorney.

Additionally, some ethics rules seem randomly enforced.

During the Edgewater debate, a Landmarks Commission member who belonged to a community group that opposed the development was told she could not vote. But then a member of the Urban Design Commission was allowed to vote even though he chaired Downtown Madison Inc.'s government affairs committee, which supported the development.

The problem, as I see it, is this: Ethics in city hall have slipped, and there is not a culture of self-policing. Absent that, the system relies on people filing complaints. But the players most likely to know about the violations are the elected officials and the lobbyists, neither of whom are inclined to file complaints.

I think it's time to find a new way to handle these issues. We need a system where people who see problems can file a simple form of inquiry, or the Ethics Board must take a more active role in enforcing the law.

Madison has had a good clean record when it comes to ethics and open government, and I'd like to see it stay that way. But that will only happen if these types of ethics violations are taken seriously.

Brenda Konkel, who served on the Madison Common Council from 2001 to 2009, is executive director of the Tenant Resource Center. She blogs at forwardlookout.com/brenda-konkel.

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