Monday, March 23, 2009

ACLU weighs in on SEWRPC dismissiveness

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's decision to decide how to spend $38.7 million in stimulus money without public input or outreach violated the agency's own written standards and may have violated civil rights law as well, according to ACLU attorney Karyn Rotker.

"The process for discussing the allocation of stimulus dollars, as well as, potentially, the allocation itself, appears to violate civil rights requirements," Rotker wrote to SEWRPC Executive Director Ken Yunker. "Please note that civil rights compliance requirements do apply to the stimulus program, including to the distribution of stimulus funds."

A memo from the Justice Department confirming the applicability of civil rights laws is here.

A SEWRPC committee began meeting Friday to decide how to divvy up the cash. When asked what kind of public outreach efforts the agency would make, Yunker said only that "I expect the Milwaukee area to discuss this."

The committee, according to the Daily Reporter newspaper, did agree to give special consideration to projects in economically distressed areas.

Wrote Rotker: "I strongly object to SEWRPC’s failure to comply with its public involvement program in general, to involve its Environmental Justice Task Force (which is meeting next week) in the process, or to ensure that diverse communities are involved in the decision making process...no notice was sent to interested parties, and there is no public comment period at the meeting (or at any other stated time)."

Rotker noted that SEWRPC failed to meet standards outlined in its own public participation plan for transportation projects. SEWRPC, in that plan, said it would provide "timely notification of, and provision of access to, Commission regional transportation planning and programming activities will be achieved to encourage early and continuous public participation."

SEWRPC also promised, Rotker said, that "beyond...efforts to notify and inform, and obtain input from, the general public, the Commission will seek opportunities to notify and inform, and obtain input from, those most likely to be impacted by transportation proposals. The Commission will, for example, contact community groups of an affected and concerned area, and offer briefings and presentations to those groups at meetings held expressly for that purpose or during regularly scheduled meetings of those groups. Outreach contacts and materials will be done in user-friendly, lay language. Outreach efforts will also particularly be made to notify and inform, and obtain input from, low-income and minority populations."

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