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Ignore the people, build the jail

Dane County Supervisors dodged a vote on Resolution 145, revealing a disdain for the public and democracy itself.

Illustration: Renderings and floor plans from architecture firm Potter Lawson’s proposal for the Dane County Jail project.

The Dane County Board of Supervisors has an opportunity this year to re-consider the county’s investment in an expensive new jail project, at a time when community members are pushing local governments to shift resources away from incarceration. So far, the Board has squandered that opportunity, and in the process illustrated what an uphill battle Dane County residents face in influencing local government.

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Supervisor Elizabeth Doyle, who represents District 1 on the board, introduced Resolution 145: Addressing Systemic Racism in the Dane County Criminal Justice System and Investing in Alternatives to Incarceration Outside of Law Enforcement in July. On October 1, the Dane County Board of Supervisors voted against a motion to take a vote on Resolution 145 at their next meeting. Supervisor Teran Peterson decided the motion was necessary after watching her colleagues let Resolution 145 languish in committees for months. In a Facebook post, she was frank about Supervisors’ motivations for stifling a vote on the resolution (“Whats a good way to claim to be progressive, and not actually have to vote on a progressive resolution? indefinite postponement.”) and why she wanted to put Resolution 145 to a vote: “to cut the crap…. let us TALK about the content of the resolution. Let us amend it, if needed, let us do what the public is BEGGING us to do. If it fails, it fails, but indefinite postponement is an easy way out, and government is not easy.”

If passed, Resolution 145 would halt the $148 million Dane County Jail consolidation project. To date, Supervisor Doyle’s resolution is one of very few instances of a local leader responding to this summer’s historic uprising against racism and police violence with a proposal for change that matches the seriousness of the movement in the streets. It is also one of the only instances of a local leader taking up an actual movement demand. For years now, activists and community members have been fighting to stop the County Board from spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a jail and pushing them to instead invest in building up communities. Resolution 145 was met with immediate enthusiasm from these same groups. 

To respond to public outcry and popular support by refusing to take a vote is a move right out of the obstructive Republican Party of Wisconsin playbook. It is no different than Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald ending September’s special sessions on police reform after less than a minute. It simultaneously protects elected officials from having to take an official position and signals their disdain for the legislation in question as well as for everyone who supports it. 

The Board’s refusal to take a vote on Resolution 145 is not the end of the road for efforts to stop the jail consolidation project. The resolution could still reach a vote by the full County Board if it is taken up and approved by the three County Board committees to which it was formally referred, one of which—the Public Protection & Judiciary Committee—has already done so. The Public Works & Transportation committee previously voted to postpone the resolution indefinitely, but could take it up again. The Personnel & Finance Committee has yet to add Resolution 145 to its agenda. Outside of Resolution 145, the County Board will need to approve a number of decisions related to the jail project that will give Supervisors and the community more opportunities to weigh in on the future of incarceration in Dane County. But the way the process has played out so far is discouraging, to say the least. Instead of openly discussing the merits and weaknesses of Resolution 145 and collaborating to amend and strengthen the resolution, many Supervisors have opted to try and avoid an issue that is not going to go away. 

Democracy is in decline in the state of Wisconsin, from the bottom to the top. The County Board’s latest maneuvering around Resolution 145 isn’t just a symptom of the rot—it’s the very behavior that produces a necrotic government in the first place.

Local government is a drag to begin with. Outside of voting for elected officials, the average person’s ability to influence change is limited to sending emails (relatively easy) or offering comments at meetings (a process swathed in bureaucracy, rife with potential for error). Following a specific piece of legislation or a particular decision requires constant monitoring of local government websites, none of which are optimized for public use, and navigating a series of agendas and attachments which are not intuitive or written in plain language. Many of us rely on seasoned local government experts (thank you, Forward Lookout) or elected officials themselves to let us know when it’s time to act. Oftentimes, the decisions elected officials are involved in seem so trifling that people can hardly bring themselves to pay attention. This is how our democracy works. It is not accessible or engaging. 

So when people do begin to participate in politics in huge numbers, elected officials should take them seriously. In the case of Resolution 145, hundreds of people began contacting their Dane County Board Supervisors immediately after the resolution was introduced. They have remained engaged throughout the summer and into the fall, in spite of the lack of action on the board’s part. Dozens of people called in to committee meetings when Resolution 145 wasn’t on the agenda, asking the committee to put the resolution on the agenda next time. These are the residents that Dane County Board Supervisors are elected to serve, who overcame the bureaucratic hurdles to participate because the legislation in question matters so much. 

They have not been taken seriously or treated with due respect. Until very recently, the Board’s process for taking public comments at their virtual meetings was so terrible that many people who registered to speak were not able to do so. In some cases this summer, people listened from their homes as the assistant to a committee meeting announced that she was calling them, but their phones never rang. Apparently feeling that it was to be expected that many members of the public who registered to speak would flake out during the actual meeting, Supervisors moved on. Their technical difficulties effectively silenced numerous residents attempting to speak about Resolution 145. These residents would’ve gotten more of a hearing shouting their testimony on a random street corner.

The disdain for public participation goes beyond neglecting the right of the public to provide comments. Many Supervisors expressed frustration with the public for not being aware of all the steps the County Board has already taken with regard to criminal justice reform, as if a deep knowledge of County history should be a prerequisite for participation. Residents have received condescending emails from representatives, explaining that “the sheriff and the judges who have worked with the [Public Protection & Judiciary] committee have been and continue to be committed to addressing racial equity, reducing the jail population and providing alternatives to incarceration.” These messages are not at all reassuring when the racial disparities in arrests and incarceration in Dane County are as bad and as racist as they have been for years. 

But declining to vote on Resolution 145, which is arguably the most popular piece of legislation a board member has introduced all year, raises the disdain to a new level. It is worse than simply voting against a proposal with broad popular support. Not only does it deprive Supervisors who do support Resolution 145 of the opportunity to vote for it, it prevents the public from sharing their comments with the entire board and keeps the public from knowing, officially, where their representatives stand. It is fundamentally undemocratic. It is disrespectful to all the people who have spent time and energy sharing their opinion for the board to refuse to do the same by discussing and voting on the resolution.   

Democracy should be accessible and engaging. The best plans and the smartest policies will emerge when people with a variety of experiences, from a multitude of backgrounds, have the opportunity to weigh in. Discussing and debating solutions to the problems in our community is how we get to the best possible answers. When people are empowered to take part in shaping their community and shaping their future, the horizons for their own participation are raised, too. If people believed that local government could do good work, more people would want to run for office themselves, making the political landscape even richer. 

Stifling discussions and avoiding debates has the opposite effect. It produces insufficient solutions, policies that fail to address people’s needs, and plans that don’t take everyone’s interests into account. It is how a county spends decades failing to address some of the worst racial disparities in the entire country, in fact. It is also how a body like the Dane County Board becomes irrelevant. Instead of being a live, responsive political body that people look to for real leadership, it will further devolve into a collection of resume-builders who run unopposed for positions no one else wants to take. With no connection to the values or the will of the community, they will continue to enact policies that many people don’t care about or pay attention to. 

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Throughout this past summer, elected officials and community leaders lectured young Black protesters about how to work towards change. Many people, including Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, suggested that instead of civil disobedience, protesters should get involved in local politics and share their opinions with their elected representatives. The Dane County Board’s treatment of Resolution 145 so far has made that advice seem farcical. 

It is a travesty and a moral outrage for Dane County to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a jail, especially when the gaps in our social services have never been more clear. It is frustrating that many Supervisors lack either the clarity or the fortitude to recognize that fact and govern accordingly, especially when so many community members have tried to provide clear, informed, and passionate encouragement in the right direction. But frustrating the will of the public through undemocratic maneuvering doesn’t just result in bad decisions. It damages the legitimacy of the board itself. 

If you want the Personnel and Finance Committee to put Resolution 145 on its agenda, send them an email. You can find a list of committee members and their email addresses here.

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