Neil Heinen

Heinen: The news stops for no one

Vacations are tricky in the news business

Vacations are tricky in the news business. News doesn’t take a vacation, so inevitably events occur while you’re gone causing you to regret not being able to respond until optimal timeliness has long passed. The end of September was a perfect example. While I was out of the office for two weeks, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi proposed budgets for next year (including a $40 wheel tax and no new cops in the city budget), impeachment talk got louder as did the “discussion” of F-35 fighter jets at the Truax Field Air National Guard Base, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval resigned and it pretty much rained non-stop. All of that, with the possible exception of the weather, begged for editorial comment. But as a New York cab driver once relayed to me in response to a previous passenger’s request to speed up in heavy traffic, “not gonna happen.”

Of course vacations can also be great for regaining perspective easily lost during the daily grind. While I was away, I gained the luxury of time to read international editions of newspapers — a particularly rich source for different ways of looking at things. But even more valuable was immersing myself in the rhythm of life in a different place and experiencing different views on issues, shared concerns and seeing how others deal with the challenges with which we all struggle.

One example is the efficient and effortless joy of the public transit system in Lucerne, Switzerland. As mayor Rhodes-Conway imagines bus rapid transit in Madison, Lucerne features accordion-style buses with designated no-stop lanes that are free for most visitors and inexpensive for residents. The kicker is Lucerne’s population: A little more than 81,400, not counting its suburbs. That is well below Madison’s estimated population of 258,000, yet the Swiss city makes its transit system work. 

The barriers to a badly needed, 21st century multi-modal mass transit system are not population size, geography or money, but rather political and civic will. The political will was lacking when then-Gov. Scott Walker abandoned high speed rail, which was a hugely destructive stance. And now the initial responses to the mayor’s proposed $40 wheel tax to support transit improvements make me question whether the civic will yet exists.

As I read the inscriptions lining the walls of Palermo’s City Hall in Sicily, honoring lawmakers who have died for their courage to stand up to the mafia, I gave some thought to our evolving expectations for public safety and the role of law enforcement. It’s not so much the similarity of the issues between Palermo and Madison. The issues are different in so many ways. Rather, I question our willingness to address fears and biases and have serious and thoughtful discussions in which there is more listening than talking. 

Madison has a wealth of highly respected criminal justice resources, including University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School emeritus professor Herman Goldstein, former Madison police chiefs David Couper and Noble Wray, former UW–Madison  Police Chief Susan Riseling and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Everett Mitchell among others. 

Madison’s Police and Fire Commission is also comprised of five smart and dedicated appointees representing diverse constituencies. There are dozens of other civic leaders, business folks and community representatives to engage, too. We start from a position of strength found in decades of recognized excellence in community policing, experience in restorative justice and alternatives to entering the system, and the Race to Equity project guiding us. We have one of the best police departments in the country. So we should be able to get this right.  

Partners in Giving
Every year I’m more impressed with the generosity of the thousands of state and university employees who contribute to the annual Partners in Giving Campaign. The campaign allows employees of state government, the University of Wisconsin–Madison and UW Hospital to choose from 520 screened charities and 11 umbrella charity groups, including United Way and Community Shares. 

Last year 6,400 workers contributed $2.4 million. Maybe generosity of that magnitude is explained by the fact that these folks work in public service and can recognize the difference their financial gifts make. Still, there’s something special about state workers — who are so often demonized by 
self-serving politicians —meeting the needs of others in their community. 

“Give hope” is this year’s theme. The campaign runs through the end of November. We’ll let you know how it turns out.


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