Friday, May 26, 2006

Fishing pier issue continues to haunt council

One by one, opponents of the fishing pier proposed for Miller’s Bay in Menominee Park marched up to the podium at Tuesday night’s city council meeting to ask the council to consider rescinding the approval it granted for the pier last summer.

Since its approval, neighbors and other opponents have given testimony in a hearing held by the state Department of Natural Resources, which ultimately gave the pier its stamp of approval by approving a permit for its construction in late 2005. The group then asked for a contested hearing in front of an administrative law judge. Such a hearing has yet to be scheduled, but the DNR has told pier opponents it would be preferable for the matter to be worked out locally.

The group has tried in the past to work with the Otter Street Fishing Club, but club members are steadfast in their decision to place the pier in Miller’s Bay at the end of New York Avenue – nowhere else. Judging by the arrogance and rudeness continually displayed over this issue by club spokesman Terry Wohler (who also happens to serve on the city’s advisory parks board), there is no room for discussion. Therefore, pier opponents want the city council to rescind its decision.

Councilman Paul Esslinger was not at last summer’s council meeting when approval was granted, but Tuesday night he told Chuck Williams, a local attorney, park neighbor and pier opponent, that he would not be able to support rescinding the council decision because there has been nothing illegal done by the parks board, the city council, the fishing club or any other entity. City attorney Warren Kraft has also told the council that the Otter Street Fishing Club may have a cause of action against the city if such a rescinding would occur.

It’s interesting how Esslinger has tried to make the case that because no one has done anything illegal, he can’t justify rescinding the council decision. Yet he does not seem to have similar concerns about the council granting approval to place an angel statue in Menominee Park which, if it happens, has all but guaranteed a lawsuit against the city by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He also doesn’t have a problem pulling the plug on the Five Rivers resort project, though the council has been cautioned such a move could also result in the city being sued.

In addition to his other comments, Esslinger said he believes the club has spent a lot of time and money on this already. Does he not think there has been considerable time and a certain amount of money spent by the opponents? What about the time and professional expertise essentially “donated” by some of the experts involved in fighting the pier? Maybe Esslinger just doesn’t want to ruffle the feathers of the fishing club because they carry a lot of clout and represent many votes to an elected official. Who knows? And in the long run, who really cares why Esslinger does what he does?

But his contradictory position and the threat of possible litigation aside, I believe the city council moved too hastily in approving the pier last summer and owes it to the citizens and neighbors, especially in light of a recent report done by Dr. Michael Burayidi from UW-Oshkosh, to rescind its decision and find an alternate site for the fishing pier. (you can find a copy of that report by going here.)

While the Otter Street Fishing Club has done wonderful things for the Oshkosh community over the years, I think a court would be hard-pressed to find in favor of the club in the event of its members filing suit for its expenses.

First, it’s hard to imagine what expenses the club has already incurred for a pier that is not yet constructed, though Wohler mentioned a $10,000 figure at Tuesday’s council meeting. Without seeing receipts it’s hard to say what, if anything, has been spent so far. But whether they’ve spent $10 or $10,000, the club knew DNR approval would be necessary before construction could begin and we’ve been hearing about money the club spent even before that approval was granted.

Second, the Otter Street Fishing Club also knew that pier opponents would exercise their right to appeal, and they knew the possibility of the council being asked to rescind its decision was very real. Therefore, common sense suggests they should not have purchased any materials until all appeals or other measures of redress were exhausted. If the club has expended funds, I believe it did so prematurely and the club should not prevail in the event of its filing a claim.

Moreover, the club said it wanted to “donate” a fishing pier to the city. Gifts should not come with strings attached and the club should be willing to make its donation no matter where the city council would determine is best for the pier's placement instead of adopting an attitude of “We will donate the pier, but we get to decide where it goes, too. And if it goes somewhere other than where we want it you’ll have to reimburse us for our costs.” That’s not a gift; that’s holding the city hostage for something unless you get your way. It’s ridiculous and the city should not have accepted a “gift” on those terms.

Either way, I believe the city council needs to take a stand and rescind its earlier decision. There are far too many reasons why it should; and to leave the earlier decision stand just because nothing illegal may have been done is ridiculous and only serves to add insult to injury. This process has been handled poorly from the beginning when a proper meeting notice was not given and the issue rushed through the layers of city government. Rescinding its earlier approval is the one way the council has to right these wrongs.

Cheryl Hentz


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