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Water chief walked a tightrope
Emails also show rising frustration within mayor's office
Denig-Chakroff was under scrutiny, until the end
Denig-Chakroff was under scrutiny, until the end

Janet Piraino, chief of staff to Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, was not happy. "We have yet to receive an update and need one ASAP," she wrote in a Jan. 29 email to David Denig-Chakroff, general manager of Madison's Water Utility. "And frankly, David, I'm not the one who should have to remind you of this."

The missing update, part of the corrective action plan for a chlorine-tainted city well, was promptly provided. "Thanks," replied Piraino, "this is great."

Such was the yin and yang of Denig-Chakroff's 11th and final year heading the Water Utility. According to hundreds of emails reviewed by Isthmus, the mayor's office closely scrutinized his performance and frequently offered advice in the months before his negotiated resignation, effective Sept. 21. But there was never a major blowout, and at times the office praised Denig-Chakroff for a job well done.

Many emails involve press releases issued in response to various problems. Says mayoral aide George Twigg, "We were really working with him to try and get his outreach skills up a bit."

Some exchanges reflect rising frustration among the mayor's staff. "This is not a treat," Piraino wrote Twigg in April, apprising him of a new problem, in which chlorine was accidentally not added. (Piraino then asked city-county health czar Tom Schlenker for a statement to include in the press release; he obligingly opined that this "unfortunate" incident "probably presented no health risks.")

In May, after another mishap, Cieslewicz directed Denig-Chakroff to form a study team to create "standard protocols" for responding to water-quality concerns.

In July, Denig-Chakroff was told of a Common Council meeting at which "serious concerns were raised" about some unauthorized spending. Denig-Chakroff, then on vacation, had seen this via the Internet: "Very frustrating, yelling at the screen the answers and nobody could hear me."

Piraino subsequently advised that he needed better answers: "'Because we've always done it that way' isn't going to cut it with the council or the [Water Utility] board."

But the biggest surprise turned up by Isthmus' request for 2007 communications between the mayor's office and Denig-Chakroff may be that there is apparently no paper trail of negotiations that led to his departure, which included $130,000 in walking-away money.

Denig-Chakroff says the idea of resigning came up in a meeting with the mayor, Piraino and City Engineer Larry Nelson: "We just talked about what would be best for the utility, for the city and for me." Details were then hashed out between the City Attorney's Office and Denig-Chakroff's lawyer.

As Denig-Chakroff sees it, the intense scrutiny was part of the problem. "These things happen," he says of missed reports and other problems. But "every little thing that didn't go quite as anticipated became an issue."

A penny (not) saved...

Carlo Esqueda was just trying to save taxpayers a few bucks. Dane County's newly elected clerk of courts didn't see why the county's 17 circuit court judges needed fancy, leather-bound calendar books that cost about $100 each. So instead of buying new books for 2009 (court dates are often set far in advance), he ordered spiral-bound calendars from Dane County Printing and Services for $23 a pop. Total savings: more than $1,000.

But wait. Esqueda confirms there was "a very negative response from the judiciary" when the new calendars arrived. The chief judge, Bill Foust, used his authority under state Supreme Court rules to "direct" Esqueda to buy the more expensive books. Total loss for the spiral-bound calendars that will now go to waste: more than $300.

"I respect the authority of the chief judge and have complied with the order, though under protest," says Esqueda.

Foust says the books get "very heavy use" and that "everybody who handled and saw one of these calendars reacted the same way: 'This is flimsy, and won't last six months.'"

That said, Foust is now giving one of the new calendars a try, just to see. Esqueda says it would be a "simple matter" to repair books that start to fall apart.

Another question is why judges need calendars at all. One judge, Angela Bartell, already does without, entering hearing dates directly into the electronic system, which must be done anyway. Foust says the paper calendar offers quicker access to relevant information and is easier to use. Moreover, he admits, "Some people are wedded to their ways."

Which way should we park?

Last week, after a 90-day trial, the last of two kinds of parking systems being tried out in Madison were uprooted, and the old meters returned.

Parking Utility Manager Bill Knobeloch has just begun analyzing feedback from the so-called Pay and Display system, in which parkers buy a receipt to place on their dash. But he's already pored over the 81 responses from the trial of the other system, Pay by Space, where parkers enter their stall number into a terminal.

"The majority of responses were positive, which kind of surprised me," says Knobeloch, who suspected those who took the time to reply would be more likely to grouse. The most common complaint was over the need to "memorize" stall numbers all the way from one's car to the pay station. Yep, we really are a bright bunch.

Knobeloch acknowledges that 81 responses from about 150,000 total transactions represents a "very small" share, but puts the best spin on it: "I guess the other 149,900 transactions went okay."

From what he's seen so far, Knobeloch says the main gripe over Pay and Display is the need to walk back to one's car with a printed receipt. Yep, we really are an active bunch.

Knobeloch thinks customers, overall, prefer Pay for Space, to avoid all that excess walking. And he guesses parking enforcement officers, whose feedback he's still awaiting, will agree, to avoid having to read receipts through snow-and-ice-covered windshields in winter.

Data from the trials will be presented to the Transit and Parking Commission. The city's 2008 capital budget includes $100,000 for new terminals, which would buy about 10 Pay and Display or 15 Pay for Space. Or the idea of a new system could be scrapped altogether. Says Knobeloch, "It hasn't been decided if we should go with this."

You read it here first - maybe last

The Madison Police Department has tapped a detective to conduct an internal investigation related to charges that one of its officers sexually assaulted the partner of another officer while attending a wedding last year in Illinois.

The allegations, which the accused officer denies, did not arise until sometime afterward. The investigation may focus on the conduct of other officers responding to the allegation, since the MPD would not directly investigate an alleged crime committed in another jurisdiction.

Sources within the department declined comment. A tipster to Isthmus says authorities in Illinois were not notified of the allegations and that Chief Noble Wray ordered all involved not to discuss the case: "A cover-up, perhaps?" Says Wray, "It is our policy not to comment on any internal investigations. I am not confirming anything and I am not commenting on it."

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