Sunday, April 18, 2010

Oshkosh Common Council “love-fest” weird, sickening, at times even a little inappropriate

For anyone who watched or attended the April 13 Oshkosh Common Council meeting, they saw an over-the-top, somewhat sickening, yet not entirely surprising, display of back-patting and butt-kissing between outgoing council member Dennis McHugh and our embattled mayor. Even Deputy Mayor Palmeri chimed in, trying to make certain actions by McHugh and Esslinger look less offensive to our sensibilities than they were. Add to that, members of the “Paul Esslinger Fan Club” who stepped up to the microphone to praise him and defend some of his more recent actions. And before you get the wrong idea, I’m not talking so much about the praise given McHugh at the end of the meeting, though that, too, contained a few odd moments.

About that, let me say, like many in Oshkosh, I appreciate Dennis McHugh’s many years of service to the community – both on the school board and on the Common Council. To honor him with a portrait and some nice words at the end of the council meeting was deserved and proper, though I can’t recall it ever being done to this degree for other outgoing council members. Paul Esslinger apparently did some fundraising and, I have heard, bought some advertising to honor Mr. McHugh. I can’t recall that ever being done for outgoing council members either. Deserved? Perhaps. But could it not have been done in a less public setting where it could not be viewed that a precedent has now been set? Then to hand McHugh an envelope containing the remaining cash that was raised, but not spent, was just plain tacky and even looked to some to be a little inappropriate. Now, because Esslinger seems to have trouble distinguishing between people fairly criticizing his actions and people saying he’s doing something criminal, let me emphasize, I said some felt it LOOKED a little inappropriate; I said nothing about them thinking it looked criminal, or even suspicious. But enough of that. Let’s talk about the two agenda items that directly involved Mayor Esslinger and which really elicited the feeling that I needed to grab the nearest barf bag.

The first thing that happened, and something that was certainly in character for Esslinger, was when he stepped down from the dais and handed the gavel over to Deputy Mayor Tony Palmeri. It wasn’t that he stepped down, but what he said in doing so. As usual, I think Esslinger showed immaturity and a lack of decorum, class and professionalism by trying to get a couple digs in on some of his critics, saying that there had been allegations of criminal wrongdoing and that he was going to step across the street and change his name to Al Capone. In his failed attempt at retaliatory humor, he made himself look like an ass, and not only gave his critics even more justification for their past comments, but more fodder for future ones.

In point of fact, no one to the best of my knowledge, ever publicly accused him of any criminal wrongdoing. The point was made he should step away from the dais and should not vote on these issues for a variety of reasons. Those were excellent points and, as he now knows, ethically correct. And if someone made such an accusation to him privately, he should not have made such comments publicly. It seems to many of us that Paul Esslinger likes to view himself as a victim of unfair criticism and personal attacks. But there were no personal attacks either. He was criticized – and rightly so – for his actions – after which, he assumed his usual defensive posture, then turned it around and said he was being attacked because of personality differences, basically. Knowing Paul, I see how he would view it that way. Much better to shift the blame on his critics than admit he handled certain things poorly. The fact that he feels it necessary to do that so often when he receives criticism, shows that he is not nearly as thick-skinned as DM Palmeri said he was Tuesday night. Dennis McHugh also spent a fair amount of time talking about how poor Paul has been so embattled in light of these two proposals. Perhaps he wouldn’t be the lightning rod for controversy and criticism, if he’d think things through a little more clearly before doing them. Much of what has been going on the last year with his mayorship has been brought on by him, and no one else.

Now specifically to the pending legislation at Tuesday’s meeting, the repealing of certain fees that mostly affect bars and restaurants that serve alcohol was the first item considered. After first being told he could vote on this, then being told that upon further review he probably should not, Esslinger acted like a child and wanted a formal opinion from the Government Accountability Board. Really? He needed a formal opinion for something that was so painfully obvious to most of his constituency. He should not have needed to go this extra step. From an appearance sake alone he should have stepped aside from this issue. But I suspect he was concerned that without his vote, the fees would not get repealed – and guess what, they didn’t? Although, even if he had voted, this would not have passed.

It is funny though, how Esslinger actually wanted to be able to vote on this issue (and the fire truck reimbursement issue) when it was only a few years ago he complained rather loudly that councilors should have to abstain from voting on issues involving anyone who donated something, even as small as $50 or $100 to their campaign fund when seeking election. Of course, this is the same man who recently said that his own future votes on issues would not be influenced by donations someone involved in those issues might have made to his antique fire truck fund. Double standards and hypocrisy seem to abound in an Esslinger administration.

Regarding the repealing of fees issue, Pat Purtell from the local tavern league got up to speak and spent several minutes rambling about the good things the local bars do, yet he never once took a position on the actual proposal, nor did Palmeri stop his diatribe – something he should really have done because it had nothing whatsoever to do with the proposed ordinance change. Nor was anyone accusing the bars of doing anything wrong at this meeting.

During this same discussion Palmeri praised Dennis McHugh for making fee structures set by the city an issue when he first ran for office. So why have we only first heard of it really being pushed for in the last several months or so? More importantly, we’ve heard talk of the council and city manager wanting a workshop on the fees the city charges, so why did this particular issue have to come forward separately from everything else and at this particular time? And why were only certain ones – and only a handful, at that - pulled from a list of approximately 671 fees the city charges?

According to Purtell in an Oshkosh Northwestern article, Esslinger began complaining about these specific fees since he became a bar owner last year. Is it then any wonder that people believe Esslinger put McHugh up to bring this forward at his behest? Of course not, and if certain members of the Oshkosh Common Council would look at it in an unbiased way, they would see exactly why people have that opinion.

McHugh tried convincing people that he brought this forward on his own. How interesting then, that Esslinger was present during the meeting when suggestions were made on which fees could be repealed. And by the way, had this passed it would have saved Esslinger a minimum of $360 a year – that’s about $30 or so a month. If he has trouble paying that maybe he should stick to a less “costly” line of work. Of course, let’s not forget, Esslinger has twice voted to raise the fees during his tenure on the council and now, in retrospect, claims he didn’t know how they affected those involved, and was quoted by the newspaper as saying no one ever said they wanted them changed. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a laughable excuse and sign of a poor “leader.” Many decisions made by the council don't directly affect council members. So should we have all those things undone too? DM Palmeri praised Esslinger for coming forward, saying other small business owners are often afraid to do so themselves. Give me a break. The Tavern League on a state level is one of the strongest lobbying organizations there is, and on a local level I imagine they wield a certain amount of strength and pull, as well. I don’t believe for one second that, while many people may be afraid to come forward on their own, as an organized group, the league would not have been “brave” enough to step up for what they thought were unfair charges by the city. Further, we have seen several small business people and developers challenge the city over the years, whether it be over certain charges, or their property assessments. So Palmeri’s argument wasn’t very convincing – at least not to me.

Let’s also not forget about some of those other things Esslinger’s voted in favor of during his time on the council, most of which private citizens have to pay for out of their pockets and can’t deduct it from their taxes. At least these fees he has to pay are a cost of doing business for poor Paul and, as such, are tax deductible. I’m also quite certain he knew about them before taking over this bar last year. And if he’d not bought a fire truck for approx. $5,700 (his cost after being reimbursed $4,000 under another proposal the other night, which passed), he would have had enough money to pay these fees for about 15 years or more.

Thankfully, the proposal to repeal these specific fees was shot down and hopefully all fees will be looked at in a workshop setting. And if there are fees to be repealed or reduced in some way, it will hopefully be done en masse and in a way that is fairer, more across-the-board and less advantageous to just one councilor or his fellow bar owners.

The second item on the agenda that directly involved Esslinger was a proposal to reimburse him the money that had been donated so far for his antique fire truck and to continue those payouts for the remainder of the year, if other donations were subsequently made. Before the meeting Esslinger agreed to a different agreement and the council changed the proposal to reflect his only being reimbursed the aforementioned $4,000. During the discussion about this item, the love-fest continued, with Esslinger supporters and council colleague McHugh praising Paul for what a swell guy he is and citing some of the things he’s done for the city.

One Esslinger supporter came forward to praise Esslinger and essentially condone his actions concerning the fire truck. He and Esslinger then high-fived each other after his “speech.” Ben Schneider II, president of the local school board, also stepped to the microphone and made a ridiculous comparison between past council votes to spend taxpayer money on legitimate city business and his friend Paul Esslinger spending his own money on the fire truck, then asking the city to reimburse him for his expenses. Schneider also made the same mistake so many others have by calling this a donation. Until the vote was taken it was nothing anywhere close to resembling a donation. A donation is something you give with no expectation of getting something in return. That was never the case – until Tuesday night. With Esslinger accepting only $4,000 and “eating” the remaining $5,000 or so himself, I guess he’s donating part of a truck.

One other problem with Schneider’s comparison: While some people may not agree with the votes council members have made on various past issues before them, they were at least doing what they were charged with as elected officials. By comparison, there’s nothing that says an elected official should or must spend their own personal money on something, then try to get reimbursed, especially without a fair hearing where your constituents could be heard on the matter before you took such action.

There was even more slobbering all over each other with praise and kudos Tuesday night. For example, among the things McHugh praised Esslinger for was Esslinger’s attempts to get the mayor elected by the city, not the council. Sure, he was partly responsible for that, but he didn’t do it all alone. There were other people who helped in that cause, so to give him props like it was a one-man show is an absolute overstatement. McHugh also offered up congrats for Esslinger resurrecting the Mayor’s Breakfast. Never mind that there were as many schools of thought as to why he did that as there were reasons why the previous breakfast organizers pulled out in the first place after he was elected mayor.

Oh, and one other weird thing about this council meeting had to do with the removal of a section of proposed sidewalks in one neighborhood. We all remember how Esslinger initiated and helped shove sidewalks down the throats of residents in the River Mill neighborhood a few years back. Yet Tuesday night, when one woman expressed a desire on the part of herself and some neighbors that sidewalks not be continued as far as the Department of Public Works was proposing because they would lead nowhere and the neighbors didn’t want them, Esslinger supported that request without uttering a single word. Granted, the situations may be somewhat different, but if he truly believes sidewalks should be everywhere, then he should stand by that and not pick and choose which sidewalk proposals he’ll support and which ones he won’t. Some people are still waiting for them to be installed along parts of the frontage road and in other high traffic areas where people on foot or in wheelchairs have a tough time getting around in a safe manner. How long do they have to wait and why has this so-called leader not done anything to hasten those sidewalk installations?

In summary, if Paul Esslinger would stop doing things that appear so questionable, self-serving and even, in some cases retaliatory, maybe he would be criticized less and his friends wouldn’t then have to come to the Council chamber podium singing his praises in hopes of defending or legitimizing his actions. Because for all their pontificating Tuesday night, it doesn’t seem to have changed people’s minds; it’s only given them more things to talk about. And believe me, they are.


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