Members and contacts of LeaderEthics receive a monthly copy of The Ethics Report. Each edition will include summaries of research as well as articles about ethical leadership in practice...frequently awarding a "green light" or "red flag" rating. Each month, we include a featured article from the most recent edition of The Ethics Report.
LeaderEthics articles are written by the Executive Director and reviewed by the Judges Panel (three former judges) prior to publication in The Ethics Report. Periodically, guest articles appear. The articles regularly award a green light or red flag. The green light is in recognition of performance that is consistent with the four principles of ethical leadership...to be:
Lee Rasch, Executive Director. Email: Lee@leaderethics.us.
Rebuilding Trust in Media
Sadly, public trust in media has decreased as the political divide has increased. When any institution suffers a loss in trust, it can have a devastating impact on the institution. Yet the challenges facing the media differ somewhat from other institutions because of the ongoing reciprocal relationship to the political system.
As long as the nation is severely divided politically, the media faces an uphill climb to restore trust.
How steep is the climb? Let’s look at some of the recent studies. A collaborative research study by Gallup and Knight Foundation of 20,000 Americans highlights some of the reasons for the underlying distrust in media. This is a very comprehensive study and readers are encouraged to check out the full report. Among their findings:
•Sixty-eight percent of Americans say that it is a “major problem” that they see too much bias in the reporting of news that is supposed to be objective.
•Many Americans perceive inaccurate news to be intentional — either because the reporter is misrepresenting the facts (52%) or making them up entirely (28%).
•Nearly 3 in 4 Americans (74%) say the news organizations they distrust are trying to persuade people to adopt a certain viewpoint.
•16% say news organizations are trying to report the news accurately and fairly but are unable to do so.
•Nine percent of Americans say distrusted media are trying to ruin the country.
Despite these conclusions, the study respondents also recognized the importance of the news media. The vast majority of Americans (81%) stated that, in general, the news media is “critical” (42%) or “very important” (39%) to democracy. And large majorities say it is “critical” or “very important” for the news media to provide accurate and fair news reports (88%), ensure Americans are informed about public affairs (88%) and hold leaders accountable for their actions (82%).
Research by Trusting News reinforces the challenges faced in rebuilding trust in media. Trusting News conducted an 8-week study in the summer of 2022. Journalists from nine partner news organizations conducted 76 interviews with people in their communities. In addition to the community interviews, 76 follow-up journalist surveys were logged, and 43 follow-up community surveys were completed. Finally, a focus group of journalists was held.
There was consensus among conservatives and liberals regarding the overarching goal…they want the media to “report the facts, neutrally.” And there was general agreement that journalism was essential for democracy and also for healthy communities, but not in its current form. Despite the similarities, there were differences between community members who identified as conservatives or liberals. Conservatives want reporters to stop reporting content about Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ communities and identities, and other “liberal” topics. They want reporters to stop using politicized phrases and report “just the facts.” Liberals, on the other hand, want more context and background incorporated into coverage, especially of marginalized communities. They want reporters to call out politicians who are lying or being racist, etc., and to play a role in helping communities solve problems. They too want “just the facts.”
The process used in the Trusting News study was insightful as well. It was determined that simply listening to community members who don’t trust you helps to build trust. In the community member follow-up surveys, 23% reported that their feelings about journalism in general changed for the better, 86% said they felt a sense of trust building with the reporter or the news organization after the conversation, and 28% were considering subscribing.
The Trusting News study led to the development of Trust Kits, a self-guided training tool. Trust Kits are intended to offer journalists and news organizations step-by-step guides for how they can demonstrate credibility and actively earn trust as independent news sources. Their goal is to break down big trust-building strategies into actionable steps designed to improve transparency and credibility with the news audience. The kits focus on nine areas: ethics, explaining coverage, listening, earning trust with sources, opinion, transparency, explaining sourcing, reporter mission statements and corrections. Furthermore, it is expected that the content in the Trust Kits will grow and evolve over time. It is an impressive endeavor. It should be noted that the Trust Kits do not strive to turn around the image of news media at the national level. But they can make a difference at the local level. They can give journalists helpful tools to better navigate the political divide. They emphasize listening, transparency and connecting with people with diverse perspectives, and have earned a green light for their efforts.
In writing about independent journalism, A.J Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, stated, “Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn—fully and fairly regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be.” These words may seem to be a tall order given today’s political climate. The media and the political world are inextricably intertwined. But that is all the more reason why it is important to take steps forward, like the Trust Kits. Indeed, there are parallels between independent journalism and promoting ethical leadership for elected officials. Both require a commitment to do the heavy lifting toward meeting established principles, be it the words of Sulzberger or the commitment to the four principles of truthfulness, transparency, unification and full representation of constituents.
In the words of Marty Baron, former executive editor of the Washington Post, “Failure to achieve standards does not obviate the need for them. It does not render them outmoded. It makes them more necessary.”
One U.S. City Cut Gun Violence in Half
Few issues can generate more controversy than gun violence. I recently received the following unsolicited social media message, “Is anyone working locally on this crazy gun problem we have in our society? It is such a major issue, and it is hurting the soul of our nation.” By all appearances, this message seemed to be an effort to reach out to anyone, anywhere, with some hopeful information.
Gun violence is a major issue in the United States. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have already been 13,169 gun violence deaths nationally in 2023, as of April 24th. This number includes 80 children ages 0 to 11. These are staggering statistics! Tragically, across the country, communities and political leaders are gridlocked on the issue of reducing gun violence.
Despite these alarming conditions, one city...Omaha, Nebraska...has made significant progress at reducing gun violence incidents. A diverse city of a half million residents, Omaha is quite literally making measurable progress while much of the rest of the country is moving in the other direction. The city's effort is called Omaha 360. The initiative started in 2009 by the Empowerment Network, an organization comprised of nonprofits, neighborhood associations, churches, and local law enforcement. Omaha 360 focuses on addressing the immediate threats of gun violence as well as underlying issues that contribute to it. Community engagement is key. Omaha 360 partners meet weekly to review crime statistics and to discuss upcoming issues and conditions to help develop preemptive actions. They also emphasize reentry strategies for offenders as a key component in breaking the cycle of violence. Local law enforcement officers admitted that there was skepticism at first. Community engagement was a key component and they wondered if interest would wane over time. In looking back, they also realized that it would take learning on their part, to embrace new practices aimed at breaking the cycle of violence. Ultimately, they recognized that the community engagement indeed sustained. At the same time, they began to embrace the change in the culture in law enforcement.
The Omaha numbers speak for themselves. The number of shooting victims in the city stood at 246 in 2009. in 2022, that number was 121. During that same timeframe, the number of shooting incidents dropped from 191 to 90. These results caught the attention of leaders in other U.S. cities, and several are involved in early conversations about adopting this model.
Indeed, the Omaha story provides hope. Cities can move beyond blaming and denial, toward a safer community. But given the political divisiveness surrounding the issues of gun violence, there are challenges as well. Communities planning to adopt the Omaha model should perhaps start with an initial review of these questions.
Can your community effectively collaborate in these politically divided times? Collaboration isn’t easy, even in the best of times. It is worth noting that Omaha 360 began in 2009. As shown in the studies by the Pew Research Center, this was just before the dramatic widening of the political divide in the United States. The increased political divisiveness we are seeing today has an added effect… reduced trust, a key element in resolving issues at the local level. This means that collaborative efforts on tough issues such as reducing gun violence may be harder today for those communities looking to get started.
Can your community embrace a comprehensive approach? As reported in ABC News, Thomas Abt of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction at the University of Maryland stated, “The country is not facing just one gun violence problem. It is facing at least four…. everyday community violence, domestic and intimate partner violence, mass shootings and suicide.” His point is that we cannot afford to get bogged down debating simple solutions. Furthermore, there is a cloud of misinformation surrounding the issues of gun violence. Jumping to simple solutions in this murky environment doesn’t work. The proposed actions tend to get mired in the political debate. Omaha 360 uses a comprehensive, measurable approach based upon the review of crime statistics and other community data. If other cities seek to adopt the Omaha model, they will need to take steps to first address the cloud of misinformation in their community, then work for broad-based buy-in for a comprehensive approach.
Can your community demonstrate the persistence needed to get results? The Omaha model has been at it for more than 14 years. Law enforcement and community leaders have been meeting weekly for that entire time. They initially did not see a significant reduction in gun violence during the first three years. Yet they persisted. By the sixth year, the numbers of gun violence incidents and victims were reduced dramatically. The lowest gun violence levels were in 2017, 2018 and 2019. It is worth noting that the incidents of gun violence in Omaha began to increase during the pandemic, as they did elsewhere in the country. But they did not rise anywhere near the former levels. And they are now trending downward again. Conditions evolve. Community actions must adapt over time with the changing conditions.
If this seems like this is a lot of work, it is. But it is also important to keep in mind, that most communities face other challenging issues as well. Using the thoughtful approach demonstrated by the Omaha model can set the stage for depoliticizing other issues at the local level...and getting results. In a politically divided time, just getting started can be daunting. The hopeful news is that while national and state solutions on tough issues such as gun violence may seem out of reach, cities like Omaha have demonstrated that they can accomplish real results.
Read more about their approach in ABC News, One city cut gun violence in half and may become a model around the country. Omaha, Nebraska, has seen a marked decrease in shootings.We award a green light to city leaders for working with community leaders to develop Omaha 360, which focuses on addressing immediate threats of gun violence as well as underlying issues that contribute to it.
For good or bad, elected leaders are role models
I recently heard about a friend who was reluctant to go to a community program on politics because she didn't want to “enter a room filled with anger, hostility and a climate of distrust”. Not every program about political issues deteriorates to this state, but sadly, many do. By their words and actions, elected leaders who fail to act as ethical leaders may create or, at a minimum, contribute to the climate of hostility and distrust.
How much do we know about the impact of ethical leaders in politics? Not as much as we’d like. A recent study, Can Ethical Political Leadership Restore Public Trust in Political Leaders? was designed to understand how ethical leadership practices can restore public trust in political leaders. Conducted in the United Kingdom, the study used in-depth interviews with 121 political leaders from 65 local election districts. The study found that an ethical political leader not only sets a good example of behavior but can set the tone for other elected officials. Additionally, they are better situated to challenge those who do not behave ethically and encourage and support those who do. They concluded that with ethical leadership, the level of public trust in political leaders is likely to gradually increase.
So why are we looking at a research study in the UK? Because there are so few studies on ethical leadership in politics in the United States. As pointed out by author, Karin Lasthuisen, “While research on ethical leadership in organizations has proliferated over the last decades, specific attention to the complexities involved in such leadership in the public and political realm remains surprisingly limited.”
Does this mean we don’t have ways of determining the impact of ethical leadership in the political arena in the U.S.? While we could certainly benefit from further study, I think we have some solid indicators. The Sienna College Research Institute is considered to be the most reliable source for ranking the U.S. presidents. They have been conducting a ranked analysis of the U.S. presidents since 1982 using 20 criteria within the overall categories of attributes, abilities, and accomplishments. Two of the 20 criteria are integrity and the ability to compromise...key characteristics of an ethical leader. It is not surprising that Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington were ranked highly in these two categories. Former president Jimmy Carter ranked second only to Abraham Lincoln in integrity. The other criteria lowered Carter ’s overall ranking. His job performance during a time of high inflation, compounded by the Iran hostage crisis, led to Carter being included among the one-term U.S. presidents, ranking 24th overall. But ethical leadership practices are a significant factor because they impact other criteria and overall ranking. Joining the one-term presidents group, former president Donald Trump was ranked 43rd by Sienna, ranking 43rd in ability to compromise, and 45th in integrity.
Among elected politicians and candidates, there can be a reluctance to take an ethically sound but unpopular stand fearing the outcomes at the polls. Taking a difficult vote or compromising with the other political party can result in being voted out of office, often during the next primary election. For example, of the 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach former president Donald Trump in 2021, four lost in the primary election, four opted to retire and two were re-elected. Our partisan primary system, with its own set of problems, likely contributed to these outcomes.
Does this mean that an ethical leader must ultimately be willing to fall on the sword? Well, maybe. Elected leaders who stand on principle may choose a legacy of integrity as a better alternative than reelection based upon deceit. However, overall performance over time can overcome these dynamics. Consider the work of the CommonGroundCommittee.org, an organization that recognizes bipartisanship and elected leaders who seek points of agreement on social and political issues through listening and productive conversation. They publicly recognize elected leaders for serving as role models for good citizenship over a sustained period. As a four-term congressman, Mike Gallagher (R-WI) is rated well above average by the Common Ground Committee, the highest ranking among Wisconsin elected leaders. Rep. Gallagher is chairing the newly formed Select Committee on China, along with co-chair Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill). The two congressmen have successfully worked together in prior years. Recognizing that the Select Committee is just getting started, it is too soon to predict how it will go and what will be accomplished. Nonetheless, in the 118th Congress, considered by many to be primed for dysfunction, the Select Committee on China is projected to use a bipartisan approach to present actionable recommendations to the full House.
We need to encourage formal study of ethical leadership within the political process. It is a far better step than the finger pointing and blaming that leads to anger, hostility, and mistrust. It is a sad situation when people are afraid to participate in public discourse. The breakdown in trust puts us all perilously at risk. For now, the responsibility is ours. As a nation we must acknowledge and place value on the impact of ethical leadership within the political process and withhold support when it is violated. And it’s also important to publicly recognize ethical leadership in practice. We need to place emphasis on building trust within our democratic republic. That process can start by using the tools of good citizenship: to speak out, to contribute, to vote.
Is the Culture in the U.S. House Hopeless?
Recent images appearing from the U.S. House of Representatives show a confrontational and dysfunctional culture. The Republican majority in the 118th Congress is slim, leading to Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s compromise agreements with members of the most extreme faction within the House. The priority of this faction appears to be conducting investigations into the President and various Departments, including Justice and Homeland Security. Most experts believe the prospects are slim for meaningfully legislation that will pass both the House and the Senate in 2023 and 2024.
Of course, hyper-partisanship and dysfunctionality in the House of Representatives is not new. Even though significant legislation passed in the 117th Congress, much was by slim partisan margins. However, there is a notable exception to these hyper-partisan dynamics. Consider the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (referred to as the Modernization Committee). It was established by H.Res. 6 on January 4, 2019, and is tasked to investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations to make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent. There certainly was a need for serious work in this area. Many of the the practices under review were outdated and obsolete and, as such, costly and time-consuming. Nonetheless, there was reason to believe this committee would not achieve significant results. The last select committee created to reform Congress, which focused on budgeting, passed no recommendations by the time it ended in 2018. Expectations for the Modernization Committee were accompanied by a sense of realism.
Nonetheless, with the leadership of chair Rep. Derek Kilmer (D) and co-chair Rep. Tom Graves (R), the Modernization Committee got off to a good start. The twelve-member committee consisted of 6 Democrats and six Republicans. The members of the modernization committee did things differently than other Congressional committees, on purpose. They started the session with a bipartisan planning retreat, which almost never happens in Congress. Rather than having separate staffs for Democrats and Republicans, they hired one bipartisn staff team. That meant they started with twice as much staffing capacity, and everyone was rowing in the same direction. The committee made good progress in their first two years.
Then came the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol. This was a low point for the committee. The breach of the Capitol was a traumatic event for the members. Many Democrats refused to work with any of the 147 Republicans who had voted against certifying the election results — three of whom were on the Modernization Committee, including the new Republican vice chairman, William Timmons (S.C.). As reported in a Washington Post article by Amanda Ripley, after a long conversation that involved tequila, Kilmer and Timmons decided to confront the fracture directly. Because they felt the only way out of this difficult conflict is forward. On March 20, 2021, the committee members met for a confidential conversation (on Zoom because of the pandemic) about what they had experienced on Jan. 6 and how it was affecting their ability to work together. In a break from tradition, outside facilitators helped moderate the process. The moderated session brought out the personal, human side of the January 6th events. And it helped to restore the functionality of the committee. Once they resumed meeting, they adjusted the room layout and operating rules to encourage roundtable discussion. They scheduled periodic meals together and established joint gathering spaces for committee members. As a committee, they were back on track.
Once their planning work was completed, the Modernization Committee chose to not only focus making recommendations, but to also assist with implementation efforts. This has allowed the committee to make progress on 132 of the 202 recommendations passed in the 116th and 117th Congress. This includes 45 of which have been fully implemented and 87 that have been partially implemented. Based upon their work, the full House acted twice to extend the committee until January 2023. It is now officially expired. The success of the Modernization Committee is a story of transparency and functioning as a team of unifiers.
What about the 118th Congress?
As previously stated, the 118th Congress got off to a rocky start. But there may be an opportunity for one prominent committee to make bipartisan headway. The new select committee on China may be worth watching. Republicans and Democrats on the panel say it could be the one bright spot of bipartisan cooperation in a Congress brimming with partisan bickering. The China committee ’s two leaders — Chair Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. — are setting the tone early, identifying areas where they say they can expect to find bipartisan agreement on policy and legislation. The following are among the committee’s priorities: spotlighting human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist Party; devising a strategy to reduce U.S. dependence on China; making investments in artificial intelligence, robotics and other new technology to compete with China; and investigating the alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi have had a history of working together since they both arrived in Congress in 2017. That year, the two teamed up to launch a new jobs caucus, and they have served alongside each other on the House Intelligence Committee.
The work of the Modernization Committee is encouraging. They tossed out some of the traditional practices that generally reinforce partisan competitiveness and mistrust. They were even able to overcome one of the most traumatic occurrences on Capitol Hill…the January 6th assault…and bring about significant results. Chairman Kilmer and Co-chair, Timmons and all of the members of the Modernizatiin Committee have earned a green lightfor serving as unifiers in a divided political climate. The Select Committee on China is new and untested in the partisan dynamics of the 118th Congress. It appears that they are framing their work to bring about results. We will be watching their work closely in the year ahead.
Is Gerrymandering Ethical?
Is gerrymandering an ethical practice? It is an interesting question. The U.S. Constitution requires that legislative and congressional districts get redrawn at least once every 10 years using new census data to guarantee equal representation. The Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment clarified this, and the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently upheld this practice. This means that as nearly as is practicable, one person’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s. Gerrymandering is a term coined after the actions of Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He also served as governor of Massachusetts and signed the bill creating the misshapen state senate district designed to benefit his political party. Many contend that the practice of gerrymandering is undemocratic. However, the Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling determined that gerrymandering for political party advantage cannot be challenged in federal court. The states are responsible for the redistricting process and for the determination of a process that meets the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. Essentially, though the U.S. Constitution requires equal representation in numbers, based upon census data, it is silent on equal representation based upon political party preferences.
It is not surprising that the term gerrymandering is considered a partisan practice and a hot topic by both political parties. The LeaderEthics organization held a seminar in 2022 on the topic of Gerrymandering. The speaker was from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. It was an information session focusing on national practices. The speaker explained that, nationally, both political parties practice gerrymandering, however the process is much more complex and sophisticated given today’s technology. He demonstrated that you cannot just look at a map and determine a fair or gerrymandered district. Meanwhile, a Wisconsin state legislative staff member contacted one of the event sponsors (a business organization), criticizing them for sponsoring a “political” event. To their credit, the sponsor responded stating that the LeaderEthics organization, and their programs, are nonpartisan.
The State of Iowa uses a non-political model for the redistricting process, which is a variation of what is called fair maps. Within the legislative branch there is the Legislative Services Agency, a nonpartisan entity. The law directs the agency to draw maps with equal population being the primary consideration. There are other factors, including respect for political subdivisions, contiguousness, and compactness. However, what makes Iowa unique is that political factors are specifically excluded. Districts cannot be drawn to favor any political party or an incumbent. Data concerning incumbents’ addresses, their party affiliation, the party affiliation of voters, and previous election returns are excluded.
Wisconsin maps are drawn by the legislature and the Governor. Political factors and voting patterns are very much included in the process. If the legislature and the Governor are in the same political party (as was the case for Republicans in 2010), the maps favor the party in power. It should be noted that in 2009, Democrats had majorities in the State Senate and Assembly and held the Governor’s seat. Nonpartisan redistricting legislation was proposed. Democratic Party leaders took a pass on approving the legislation, expecting to maintain the ‘trifecta’ in 2010 and thus overseeing the redistricting process. They were wrong. Instead, Republicans swept the 2010 elections by narrow margins and held the sole authority for re-drawing the legislative maps.
Does a redistricting process such as used in Iowa mean there will be balance between the two political parties? That may not be the case. Consider the situation with statewide elections in Iowa. In 2008, 52 counties voted blue. Yet in 2022, Iowa had only 5 counties that voted Democratic, primarily those in and adjacent to Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. As of January 18, 2023, The Republican Party holds the Governor's office, the State Senate, the State House and all 4 U.S. Congressional seats. Even with a fair map system, demographic changes are a factor.
Changing demographic voting patterns are also a factor in Wisconsin. Consider the second-term election results for two Democratic Governors, Jim Doyle and Tony Evers. Doyle received 52.7% of the vote in his 2006 re-election bid. Evers received 51.1% of the vote in his 2022 re-election. Though the margin for victory in the two elections was remarkably close, Doyle carried 47 counties, while Evers carried only 16 counties. In short, in the last decade and a half, most rural counties shifted to vote Republican, while larger cities overwhelmingly voted Democratic.
There are also important trends in sub-population areas. For example, the overall population in Wisconsin grew by 9.7% between 2000 and 2020. At the same time, the Latino population grew by 126%. Latino strategists and advocacy groups say both parties are still missing the mark. They argue that the Democratic and Republican campaigns both continue to treat Latino voters like a single voting bloc, failing to recognize their individual and community-based concerns. Meanwhile, in 2022, the suburban shift in favor of Democratic votes is continuing. The so-called WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) still tend to vote Republican yet are no longer considered to be an impenetrable Republican stronghold.
Should states like Wisconsin adopt the Iowa Model? The answer is yes. Gerrymandering is inherently divisive and lacks transparency. It employs a “winner takes all” approach that can disenfranchise half of the population. Meanwhile, a fair maps model will support legislators who focus on responsive legislative policy rather than political gamesmanship. The 2009 non-action by Democrats in Wisconsin serves as a reminder that political leaders should not take the needs of their constituents for granted. As demonstrated in Iowa, the fair maps model will not necessarily mean that partisan shifts in voting patterns will not occur. Our population needs and preferences change over time. But fair maps will allow legislators to keep their focus on the people they represent. And that is the ethical thing to do.
Transparency Issues in Wisconsin
Transparency in government builds trust. It is a cornerstone of the American republic. Over the years, there have been many legislative steps taken to ensure transparency such as the federal Freedom of Information Act as well as state Sunshine and Open Meetings laws. However, in Wisconsin, there is a legislative “end around” on transparency that is puzzling and problematic. The Wisconsin Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program has a multi-step process for the identification and review of land acquisitions for public preservation. The final steps involve the authorization of funds by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the expenditure approval by the state’s legislative Joint Finance Committee (JFC). It is at this last step of the process where there is a concern. There is a provision in the process that allows a single member of the Joint Finance Committee to anonymously object to the acquisition for a review and stop the process. Furthermore, there is no requirement to specify the reason for the objection.
Consider the circumstances surrounding several recent acquisitions that were stopped at the Joint Finance Committee level. In April 2022, the DNR authorized funding for two projects, the preservation of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff Nature Preserve in Port Washington and the transformative renovation of the west bank of the Milwaukee River in downtown West Bend. Both projects were stopped by an anonymous member of the JFC. No reason was provided for the need for the review. However, in the case of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff Nature Preserve, an unidentified citizen circulated a letter to local officials and the JFC, expressing concern about the public acquisition and made an offer to privately purchase the site for development. The Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff project included privately raised funds which, along with the DNR appropriation, met the agreed land purchase amount. However, it was stipulated by the property owner, Waukesha State Bank, that a September purchase deadline must be met. If the DNR stewardship proposal did not receive JFC approval by the deadline, the bank offer would be withdrawn. Though the objecting JFC member was not identified, it was reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Senator Dewey Strobel had been involved with the two projects, but he was not identified as the anonymous objector. With a September bank deadline looming on the DNR purchase offer, Governor Evers appropriated $2.3 million in federal stimulus funds in late August to allow the acquisition of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff site, and an additional $2.7 million to fund the West Bend Riverwalk easement acquisition. As a result, the funding for both projects was completed without JFC appropriation approval. Because the JFC action was anonymous, the reasons for the objection cannot be fully determined.
Meanwhile, in late October 2022, the Wisconsin DNR Board approved the expenditure authorization of the remaining portion of the state ’s largest land conservation project in state history. The board signed off on a $15.5 million conservation easement for more than 56,000 acres in northern Wisconsin. Once again, an anonymous objection for review stopped the process. Without question, a public acquisition of this size could have questions raised that warrant a review. For example, the proposal commits millions of dollars to secure public access to lands in a part of the state where millions of acres are already in public ownership. However, questions like this should be addressed in public discussions and public actions.
It should be noted that anonymous objections by Joint Finance Committee members has not always been the practice. In 2017, JFC member Senator Howard Marklein (R) objected to the acquisition of the Nelson tract in Dane County. He stated, “I am not opposed to purchasing land for the stewardship program, but too often, the DNR appears to be acting as the realtor, rather than the buyer, by making offers that are at the high-end of the appraisals for each property we consider. We need to negotiate for better prices on behalf of taxpayers.” He added, “The appraised price the DNR decided to work with was nearly $100,000 more than the lowest appraisal! No ordinary citizen would make this offer. This is an ongoing trend that we need to address in the Stewardship Program. Public land is important, but it should not be purchased frivolously.” The questions raised by Senator Marklein were completely in line with the role of the Joint Finance Committee, to scrutinize the integrity and efficiency of projects prior to voting on the appropriation of funds.
However, this kind of open and public review was not conducted in the three 2022 cases cited. The JFC process for approving or not approving stewardship projects, as it’s currently being applied, needs reform. But the transparency issues in Wisconsin do not end here. On December 14th, the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB), a nonpartisan office of state government, issued a report that Governor Evers lacked transparency in disclosing information about the distribution of pandemic relief funds. The Legislative Audit Bureau said that Evers' Department of Administration did not provide information on which it claimed the governor based his decisions when handing out some $3.7 billion in pandemic aid over the past two years. As reported by PBS Wisconsin, the Evers administration did not turn over any of that information when requested by the audit bureau. Instead, they gave auditors information that was already available online and later said that many spending decisions happened in verbal conversations rather than written documents. The department also told auditors that the decision-making process varied over the two years during which Wisconsin received relief funding. It should be noted that the federal dollars used to fund the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff and West Bend Riverwalk projects were included in the pandemic aid audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau.
Regarding the Joint Finance Committee, none of its deliberations should be secret. Senator Howard Marklein earns a green light for publicly addressing concerns about a stewardship acquisition project. At the same time, there is clearly a red flag for the lack of transparency by the anonymous member of the Joint Finance Committee. The concerns by members of the JFC should be open and publicly reviewed. This issue is further compounded in the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff project, given the presence of an unidentified offer to purchase. There should openness and awareness of the public role and responsibility of the Joint Finance Committee regarding the intersection of the DNR authorization and the private purchase offer. Clearly, the Joint Finance Committee should remove the anonymous objection provision and conduct their business in an open manner, wherever possible.
At the same time, the actions by Governor Evers are a major concern. The amounts included in the pandemic relief are massive. State law provides the Governor with the authority to distribute these federal funds. However, the LAB report indicates that the Governor’s unilateral distribution decisions lacked the fiscal integrity that should be associated with the management of public funds. Responsible government should include open disclosure and the checks and balances needed to represent the public interest. Governor Evers’ actions warrant a red flag for the lack of transparency. Perhaps the actions of both the Joint Finance Committee and the Governor are indicative of the lack of communication between these branches of government. In any case, more transparency is needed. It will be the only way to rebuild trust.