At a gas station in South Dakota, while on a family vacation in the mid-1990s, Paul Underwood met a fellow traveler driving a Pinzgauer, an antique Austrian-built light truck. Fascinated, he struck up a conversation. In 2002, he bought one himself, from a company called Cold War Remarketing in Littleton, Colo.
"It's just a really practical vehicle," says Underwood, whose 1976 Pinzgauer looks like a cross between a Chevy Suburban and a military convoy truck. "Just phenomenally well-designed." (A bit heavier than a pickup truck, it gets up to 15 miles per gallon.)
Underwood, 48, who lives on the edge of Dane County near Blue Mounds, registered the vehicle with the state and drove it for five years. And then, last September, out of the blue, he got a notice from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation revoking his vehicle registration, claiming it had been issued by "mistake."
WisDOT says it waved the black flag at 29 Pinzgauers because it cannot confirm they meet federal safety standards. (Once they are 25 years old, the vehicles may be legally imported without federal inspection. But the state claims the independent authority to regulate registration and use.)
"We don't know that these Pinzgauers are unsafe," says Paul Nilsen, assistant general counsel for WisDOT. "But our longstanding practice is to deny registration unless they meet these standards."
Nilsen says WisDOT hopes to create a way to certify Pinzgauers as roadworthy so they can be registered. But a state appellate court decision holds that the agency must engage a formal rulemaking process before it can change its interpretation of a longstanding policy. Under the "best-case scenario," that will take until early next year.
"He's flat-out wrong," says Underwood, whose battles with WisDOT are chronicled at www.wisconsin-pinzgauers.org. "There's no reason to wait until 2009."
Underwood argues that if the state cannot alter its interpretation of a longstanding policy without a formal rulemaking process, it shouldn't have been able to change its mind about licensing Pinzgauers. He believes WisDOT has overstepped its legal authority, possibly to set a precedent of requiring inspections for other vehicles, "which is beyond the scope of current laws."
Tanya Hein, an aide to state Rep. Karl Van Roy (R-Green Bay), shares this concern. She's arranged meetings on the issue and asked the Legislative Council to research whether WisDOT can make Pinzgauer owners prove their roadworthiness.
"That's the question: Is this a power grab, or do they have the power?" asks Hein, who wonders if the agency's new authority would extend to other antique and military vehicles.
Patrick Robb, president and CEO of Cold War Remarketing, says that, so far as he knows, Wisconsin is alone in its refusal to register antique Pinzgauers. He's sold more than 1,000 of them, all over the world. "I have customers in almost all 50 states," he says, adding that the brand is "far superior to any of its competitors on the road" with regard to safety.
Underwood notes that he could sell his vehicle to his cousin in Illinois and "borrow it forever," sidestepping the ban. But he wants WisDOT to admit it's wrong. "They took the registration away in error, or to set a precedent," he says. "I'm not going to let them set that precedent."
New park chief terminally successful
A Google search on Kevin Briski, Madison's newly hired parks superintendent, turns up an interesting letter, dated Jan. 18, 2002. It refers to a request for "a copy of the termination agreement" between the city of East Chicago, Ind., and Briski, who served as parks director there from early 1998 to early 2001.
Briski, who'll start his new job in June, says it ain't so: "I was not terminated. I resigned my position to take a another opportunity," as parks czar in Flint, Mich. He's also held similar jobs in Munster, Ind., and Escambia County, Fla.
Anthony Copeland, the head of a citizens' group that made the request, confirms that Briski left of his own accord and on good terms; the group was just seeking details of his departure. But he suspects Briski had become frustrated by the difficulty of implementing his agenda.
"Briski came in, he was going to do all of these wonderful things," says Copeland, a firefighter who went on to become an East Chicago councilperson and mayoral candidate. "Well, none of those things happened."
Briski disputes this, saying his tenure in East Chicago was marked by accomplishments. And while newspaper accounts mention protests over the closing of a public pool and a neighborhood park "in disarray," he calls his experience there "one of the best of my life."
Letters of reference back Briski up. The East Chicago mayor and Parks Board both lauded his accomplishments, saying he "created a sense of pride" over the city's parks, which folks felt "never looked so good."
One more issue: Although many of Madison's rank-and-file parks employees hoped the superintendent job would go to parks planning supervisor Si Widstrand, the team charged with interviewing finalists certified Widstrand and Briski as being equally qualified. Says member Susan Schmitz, "They were both excellent candidates."
The State Journal's gain
The Wisconsin State Journal gained between 9,000 and 10,000 new daily subscribers when The Capital Times stopped publishing as a daily and gave its subscribers the option of switching.
"About 85% of the people converted," says Capital Newspapers circulation director Phil Stoddard, referring to the approximately 12,000 Cap Times subscribers who did not already get the State Journal. That paper now has about 103,000 daily (Monday-Friday) and 139,000 Sunday subscribers.
Stoddard also confirms that the newspaper carriers now delivering the Cap Times weekly and 77 Square along with the State Journal do not receive additional compensation.
One State Journal carrier called Isthmus to complain: "The concept of working for no pay went out with the Emancipation Proclamation." But Stoddard calls the weeklies "supplements" (although carriers are told not to insert the Wednesday Cap Times into the State Journal) and says he's heard no complaints. State Journal carriers, he notes, "picked up extra readers and are making more money than they did before."
In response to a request from city officials, Madison streets guru Al Schumacher recently tallied some of the numbers from Madison's record-breaking winter.
Total 2007-08 snowfall: 101.4", compared to the average of 48.8" and previous record of 76.1".
Number of full-scale plowings: 14, compared to the average of five.
Number of days it snowed between Dec. 1 and Feb. 29: 48 out of 91.
Amount of road salt used by city crews: 17,945 tons, about twice the 9,000-ton average. Also 15,626 tons of sand, compared to the average 6,000.
Amount of cold mix used so far in 2008 to fill potholes: 994 tons, up from an average of 350 tons.
Now you know.