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The Undercover War Against the Parks

Sep. 13, 2016
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Once again, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has shown us exactly the wrong way for government to respond to community problems.

After recent violent protests in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, Clarke punished the community by fencing off Sherman Park and closing it to the public from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily, claiming it was a source of the violence.  

Except the park itself never was the problem. The problems took place several blocks away. Parks build community. They don’t threaten it.

Acting County Corporation Counsel Colleen Foley issued a legal opinion supporting County Executive Chris Abele’s authority to remove the fence and reinstate the park’s normal operation, saying: “There is no unlawful assembly. There is no riot. There is no unruly crowd to disperse. Nor was there ever within this park. Instead, entering week three after the riots, there is only a park community that desires a return to normalcy.” 

Abele had the fence removed and reinstated the park’s regular 10 p.m. closing, calling the fencing a “barrier standing in the way of the healing in the Sherman Park neighborhood.” 

At which point Clarke went berserk. He ordered his deputies to immediately put up another fence and threatened to arrest anyone, including Abele, who tried to reopen the park. Clarke claimed only he as sheriff had that authority. 

Nope. Circuit Judge David Hansher quickly issued a restraining order against Clarke, prohibiting the sheriff from closing the park “in the absence of any genuine, bona fide reason related to maintaining law and order and preserving the peace.”

Abele Threatens the Parks 

The sheriff’s malicious action to deprive an urban neighborhood of a well-maintained, popular community park was just a minor skirmish in what some fear is a growing undercover threat from Abele himself to Milwaukee County’s treasured, 100-year-old public parks system.

The system that puts virtually every county neighborhood within reach of free, public recreation space and acres of natural beauty is the legacy of four decades of democratic socialist influence on city and county government.

Charles Whitnall, city treasurer in Milwaukee Mayor Emil Seidel’s first democratic socialist administration in 1910, spent the next 30 years designing and nurturing into reality the vast, permanent reservation of green space the community enjoys today.

What has been handed down to us is priceless, but that doesn’t stop short-sighted advocates of privatization and tax cut politics from dreaming of putting a price tag on it anyway and turning something irreplaceable into big profits and big tax cuts. 

Gerry Broderick, retired East Side county supervisor and former chairman of the County Board’s Parks Committee, is sounding an alarm about a government-sponsored survey that appears aimed at starting to dismantle the parks system. 

Under contract with Abele’s administration and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, an Indianapolis-based consultant has sent what it calls a needs analysis survey to 4,000 randomly selected households. 

But as Broderick points out, the survey starts with a totally false premise. It’s this: “The annual budget for Milwaukee County cannot cover all the needs of the parks system.”

It then proceeds to ask respondents which parks and park services (pools, pavilions, golf courses, senior centers, horticultural facilities, etc.) they would be most willing to sacrifice to “reduce the size of the Milwaukee County park system to match current available funding.” 

Just to be clear, the annual budget of Milwaukee County can cover whatever cost is necessary to maintain the spectacular park system that was bequeathed to us by past generations. All it takes are leaders with the political courage to continue to preserve those parks.

And parks need to be protected from destruction now more than ever from two ugly forces in modern-day politics. 

The first are the profiteers who see beautiful, natural open spaces as development opportunities to be exploited for one-time, private profit. The second are tax cut politicians who value minimizing taxes for the wealthy above public services that enhance the community for everyone. 

Many are suspicious of Abele’s connections to both. One of Abele’s biggest battles with the County Board was over his attempt to sell Downtown’s lakefront O’Donnell Park to one of Milwaukee’s major corporations.

When the board blocked the sale, Abele got Republicans in the Legislature to destroy the board’s future ability to exercise any meaningful checks and balances over whatever Abele wants to do, particularly in real estate deals.  

Abele also has continued the hostility toward tax increases of his predecessor, Gov. Scott Walker. Now he’s sponsoring a parks survey that appears to employ Walker’s “divide and conquer” strategy by pitting supporters of various parks and services against each other. 

If local politicians lack the courage to raise taxes to pay to maintain a community treasure that enhances every neighborhood, we will watch year after year as our quality of life slips away, along with the parks system that took a century to build.

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