Tag Archives: meetings

Wisconsin newspapers fight bill to eliminate meeting minute publication

Wisconsin newspapers are pledging to fight a bipartisan effort in the state Legislature to eliminate a requirement that meeting minutes of government entities be published in local newspapers.

A group of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers announced they were circulating a bill to do away with the requirement that summaries of meetings by school districts, municipalities, counties and technical colleges be printed in the newspaper.

Instead, the meeting minutes, or summary of what occurred at a public meeting, would instead be posted on the government entity’s website.

Supportive lawmakers pitched the proposal as a way for cash-strapped governments to save money and a way to increase access to the information.

“I don’t know anyone who keeps a stack of newspapers at home to reference minutes of proceedings,” said Rep. Jason Fields, D-Glendale, in a prepared statement. “It is better to allow taxpayers to save money and have better and easier access to minutes.”

But Beth Bennett, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, sees the proposal as an attack on the public’s ability to know what their elected representatives and local governments are up to.

“Obviously we’re adamantly opposed to it,” said Bennett, whose organization represents more than 230 weekly and daily newspapers in the state. “Maintaining access to public information is at the very core of what we do as an industry. We believe posting information on a government website does not notify anyone of anything. It is not pushing information out.”

Bennett said she did not find out about the bill until Jan. 24, the day its sponsors put out a press release announcing the idea.

A special legislative task force that last year studied the state’s public notice requirements did not recommend making the changes being pursued in the bill.

The proposal is sponsored by Fields and Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, along with Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, and Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee.

The sponsors say the proposal is supported by eight groups representing school boards and administrators, counties, technical colleges and municipalities.

The bill would affect the requirement that meeting minutes be published in the local newspaper.

It would not change the requirement that meeting agendas and other legal notices be printed.

Bill sponsors said the change would affect nearly every government entity statewide, except townships, the city of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Public School District, which already are exempt.

Neither the lawmakers nor Bennett had an estimate of how much the change would save taxpayers — and cost newspapers.

But the bill sponsors did have some anecdotal costs that they reference in their pitch for co-sponsors.

They claim that annual savings would be $12,000 for the Green Bay school district, $3,600 for the city of Wausau, just over $4,400 for La Crosse, $11,000 for Eau Claire and $2,100 for Beloit. And, they say, Outagamie County would save about $6,500 a year while Wood County would save over $13,000 annually.

The measure would have to pass both the state Assembly and Senate — which are controlled by Republicans — and be signed by Gov. Scott Walker before taking effect.

On the bulletin board, February 26, 2015

On the community bulletin board…

FARM FRIENDLY: Know your farmer. Know your food. The 13th annual Local Farmer Open House is at 11 a.m. on March 7 at the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park. This event provides a once-a-year opportunity to talk with local farmers, hear about their growing practices and learn about community-supported agriculture.

Organizers plan to offer options for people to sign up for deliveries of farm-fresh produce and offer workshops on CSA and healthy eating. For more, go online to urbanecologycenter.org.

REVITALIZING NEIGHBORHOODS: Kiva City Milwaukee on Feb. 17 launched an initiative to support small-business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs who are revitalizing Milwaukee neighborhoods, creating local jobs and building community. Visitors to kiva.org/Milwaukee can lend $5 or more to those seeking to grow a business and create jobs. As of Feb. 17, a revolving pool of $140,000 is providing a dollar for dollar match for anyone from the Kiva community lending to Milwaukee borrowers.

AT THE MARKET: The Dane County Winter Farmers’ Market, 330 W. Mifflin St., Madison, is open Saturdays 8 a.m. to noon through April 11. The indoor market boasts the increasingly popular “Taste of Market Breakfast” series and offers an abundance of fresh, canned, dried, pickled and preserved food items. For more, go online to dcfm.org.

NOMINEES SOUGHT: Sand County Foundation, Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association and Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation are accepting applications for the $10,000 Leopold Conservation Award, which honors Wisconsin farmers who demonstrate exemplary stewardship and management of natural resources. For more, go online to leopoldconservationward.org.

ANIMAL ADVOCACY: The Humane Society of the United States and its state and local chapters are sponsoring Humane Lobby Days around the country, bringing citizens to their state Capitols to push for pro-animal bills. For more, go online to humanesociety.org.

ANNUAL MEETING: The annual meeting of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center takes place at 6 p.m. on March 5 at the center, 1110 N. Market St., Milwaukee. For more, go online to mkelgbt.org.

— Lisa Neff

Please send community announcements of interest to our progressive readership to Lisa Neff at

Death Cafes allow end-of-life discussions

On a blazing afternoon, cars vie for the few shaded parking spots outside Radiance of Sarasota in Florida, a storefront in a small strip mall billed as a “wellness and inspiration center.”

Visitors, mostly aged 50-plus, enter the center’s cool, dimly lit quarters, where they’re invited to help themselves to tea, pastel-colored pastries, gluten-free brownies and a seat within a large circle of chairs.

They are not necessarily seeking radiance, wellness or inspiration. They are here to participate in a frank, open-ended discussion about life’s grand finale at the monthly Sarasota Death Cafe.

The idea? To provide a casual, comfortable space for people to discuss everything from the practical (legal documents and right to die legislation) to the ethereal (near-death experiences and the great “What’s next?”). The free gathering is based on the writings of a Swiss sociologist who believed talking openly about death could lead to a fuller, richer, more conscious life.

If that sounds a little morbid, a growing number of people would disagree. Death cafes are just one of the ways a subject once taboo — or at least uncomfortable — is coming out in the open.

Over the past year, Sarasota, Florida, with one of the oldest demographics in the country, has joined other communities across the nation in embracing frank discussions about the end of life — everything from how to avoid dying in the hospital to advancing legislation in favor of physician-assisted suicide.

A public lecture at the Selby Library by the president of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies in February drew a capacity crowd and went an hour overtime to accommodate questions.

Two panel discussions with end of life experts sponsored by the Herald-Tribune in March following its publication of “Dorothy’s Choice,” the story of one elderly woman’s choice to end life on her own terms, were standing-room only.

A 9 a.m. weekday screening in July of “Consider the Conversation,” an award-winning documentary that encourages people to plan ahead for their deaths, had to be moved to a bigger Lakewood Ranch theater to meet demand.

And the Sarasota Death Cafe, begun in May, tripled in size from the first meeting to the third.

Even parents and children are more frequently broaching the once-taboo subject, though Joelle Angsten, chief medical officer of Tidewell Hospice, doesn’t endorse the frequent suggestion to have “the conversation” over Thanksgiving dinner.

“I’d recommend while you’re in a car on a long trip,” she says, only half in jest. “That way you don’t have to look at each other but you can’t escape.”

As the aging but fiercely independent baby boomers effort to control their own destinies clashes with modern medicine’s ability to sustain life to extremes, a backlash is building. This generation is determined to rewrite the script on dying, much as they have altered social acceptance of living together without marriage, nursing babies in public or same-sex unions.

But it won’t happen, they say, unless we talk about it.

“No previous generations have had to figure this out,” Angsten says. “So there’s no role model. But we’ve adopted so many things that support social change _ like maternity leave, for example. Wouldn’t it be great if we could figure out how to do that at the other end of life?”

The first official “death cafe” was organized by a 40-ish father of two, Jon Underwood, who hosted the initial gathering at his home in East London in September 2011. Underwood’s “Mum,” a psychotherapist, helped to facilitate.

“They’re not being morbid,” Underwood said at the time of the original participants. “These are people who want to live more fully. The more we talk about dying and what it means about ego and self, the more we add to life.”

After he created a website, deathcafe.com, with instructions on how others could start their own chapters, the idea proliferated into a global movement. The first death cafe in the United States was held in Columbus, Ohio, in 2012; there are now hundreds of regular gatherings in this country and more than 1,000 meetings have taken place around the world.

The cafes _ which have no set objectives, agendas or themes, nor any profit motives _ reached Florida during the past year, with sessions held in Tampa, Naples, Gainesville and Ocala, as well as Sarasota.

The local group was started by Lori Marshall and her partner, Mark Sanders, who call themselves “spiritual mediums and life counselors.” It has drawn a diverse crowd: from psychics to educators, elders on oxygen to an 11-year-old girl who accompanied her mother and, at one point, burst into tears, protesting, “But I don’t want to die!”

Donna (who does not share her last name) says that when she first heard the term “death cafe,” she assumed it must be a party for Grateful Dead fans. Then she thought it was a joke. But as caregiver for both of her parents, who are in their 80s, she is looking for help with end of life planning.

Tobie DeSantis, who assists the elderly with end of life challenges _ her business card advertises help with household needs, doctors appointments and “special projects” _ came to learn more about Florida’s laws regarding deaths that take place at home.

Mark Tishman wants to help people through the dying process with a more natural approach than the one he was taught as a funeral director.

Susan Dana figured a birthday trip to the death cafe was a fitting follow-up to a stop at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens for a glimpse of the Amorphophallu titanum or “corpse” plant, which blooms only once every few years and smells, so they say, like a decomposing mammal.

“Every month we’re not really sure what will happen,” says Marshall, who was motivated to start the group after the “amazing experience” of watching her father die in hospital hospice two years ago. “But everyone leaves feeling just a little more connected, a little more comfortable and little less fearful about the idea of death.”

Death and how we deal with it has changed dramatically over the past century, Marshall says. Before advances in medicine made it possible to sustain life beyond “natural” limits, a death at home was the logical bookend to a birth that also took place at home. Family members held vigils as a loved one expired and personally prepared the body for burial.

Now, with most people dying in the hospital, the process has become clinical and the intimacy desensitized, she says; the body becomes an object to be whisked away to a crematory or funeral parlor and the vigil agonizing or feared.

No one gathered here thinks being hooked up to a ventilator matches their idea of a graceful, dignified leave-taking. But they aren’t necessarily unified about what does. Over the course of two hours, the conversation veers from the inadequacy of living wills and “Do Not Resuscitate” orders to how to communicate with those “on the other side.” At one awkward moment, it even segues into someone’s tirade about drones, but that topic is quickly shut down. Organizers are emphatic that meetings are not meant for grief counseling nor political rants.

For the most part, the exchanges are sensitive, thoughtful and accepting of a diversity of opinion. In fact, were it not for the skeleton skull that decorates the refreshment table, you might think you’d stumbled on a friendly coffee klatch or a “Meet Up” group. Though there is plenty of solemnity and even the occasional tear _ Marshall has learned to have a box of tissues on hand _ humor surfaces just as readily.

In fact, it doesn’t take much more than the brief self-introductions that kick off the session, to demonstrate that, while death may be no laughing matter, it can elicit plenty of good-natured jokes.

One elderly man smiles endearingly at the woman seated next to him as he shares that on this very date 56 years earlier, they were in the middle of their wedding ceremony.

With perfect comic timing, John St. Clair, a retired probate attorney, quips:

“Well if that’s the case, no wonder you wanted to come to a death cafe today!”

Not every death cafe takes place in a public place.

In Ocala, monthly meetings that began last October were moved from Mojo’s Grill, which proved too hot, noisy and distracting, to the comfortably middle-class living room of Teddy Laury.

Jovial and direct, Laury is a native of the Netherlands, the first country to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 2001 and the catalyst for starting this first death cafe in Florida. She is not accustomed to holding back her opinions on death or anything else, for that matter; the back of her SUV bears bumper stickers with environmental, political and religious slogans.

“Holland has always been a refuge for people persecuted for every reason,” she says, with a gutteral accent. “In the Netherlands, we talk about everything.”

So does this group of eight people _ plus one dog and two cats _ who met on the last Monday evening of July in a cramped circle, perched on an assortment of overstuffed chairs and furniture dragged in from the nearby screened porch.

Donna Wright and her friend, Lee Hansen, arrive a few minutes late after the 30-minute drive from their home in Cross Creek. Wright promised her late husband she would not allow him to suffer during his death from cancer; Hansen worked for many years in hospice.

Diane Podkomorski is an administrator at an assisted-living center looking to “open people’s eyes to the fact that you can’t wait until the last minute to make your plans.”

Don and Dave Laury, Teddy’s brothers-in-law sit mutely on the couch; they are here because they are Laury’s health care surrogates.

Whether because of its seniority, make up or location, this meeting has a different feel than the one in Sarasota. There are salty snacks and beer on the refreshment table as well as coffee and cookies and the conversation is less New Age and more topical, occasionally getting sidetracked by current events.

At a previous meeting the group watched a Dutch documentary about assisted suicide. But at this one, like most, there is no visual or verbal “prompt,” just friendly, like-minded chat about what Hansen calls “our death-denying, death-defying” world.” Laury sees that attitude as particularly American.

“This country is all about winning and American doctors feel like they have to win the fight,” she says. “Whereas our doctors in Holland look much more at the quality of life.”

For example, she says, when she recently refused a mammogram based on her conviction that, even if she had cancer, she wouldn’t choose to treat it, her doctor responded with: “I did not hear you say that.” When she speaks of her late husband’s choice to refuse chemotherapy after a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer _ he loved food and enjoyed a steak and potatoes dinner the night before he died _ it comes with a warning about the difficulty of charting a course that defies the medical model.

“When I asked for a referral to hospice after his diagnosis, the nurse gave me the dirtiest look, like, ‘So, you’re trying to get rid of him?”” Laury recalls. “And even as on top of it as I was, I let the oncologist talk us into a test that put him in the hospital for two days. He died at home, but I had a hard time getting him back out.”

Agrees Hansen: “Once that 911 call goes in, it’s out of your control.”

When the talk turns toward physicians’ inability to discuss end of life with their patients, Lila Ivey, the outreach coordinator for Marion County Hospice, is sympathetic, but pragmatic.

“Our doctors don’t want to go to jail,” she says. “They’re trained to meet people where they are, but people are uncomfortable talking about this with their own families. They’re certainly not going to talk to their doctors.”

Leslie Robertson, who is working on a graduate degree in suicidology — she’s careful to clarify that means counseling people who are suicidal, not advocating for it — wants to be part of altering attitudes about what constitutes a “good death.” She represents the youngest edge of the boomer generation, and believes a tidal shift is coming.

“Older folks might have wanted to go to the hospital to die, but baby boomers don’t,” says Robertson. “I feel like we need to let the community know there’s a better way.”

An AP member exchange.

Pope opens big week with sex, marriage, divorce on agenda

Meetings this week between Pope Francis and his cardinals will deal with some of the thorniest issues facing the church, including the rejection by most Catholics of some of its core teaching on premarital sex, contraception, gays and divorce.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has called for “changes and openings” in the church’s treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics, will give the keynote speech Thursday to the pope and cardinals attending a preparatory meeting for an October summit on family issues.

The cardinals are in town for a ceremony to formally install 19 new “princes of the church,” the first batch named by Francis to join the group of churchmen who will elect his successor. The ceremony is the high point of an intensive week of meetings presided over by Francis that include the first proposals to put the Vatican’s financial house in order.

Ahead of the consistory, cardinals will meet for two days behind closed doors to begin preparations for the October summit on family issues.

Francis scheduled the summit last year and took the unusual step of sending bishops around the world a questionnaire for ordinary Catholics to fill out about how they understand and practice church teaching on marriage, sex and other issues related to the family.

The results, at least those reported by bishops in Europe and the United States, have been eye-opening. Bishops themselves reported that the church’s core teachings on sexual morals, birth control, homosexuality, marriage and divorce are rejected as unrealistic and outdated by the vast majority of Catholics, who nevertheless said they were active in parish life and considered their faith vitally important.

“On the matter of artificial contraception the responses might be characterized by the saying, `That train left the station long ago,'” Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, recently wrote on his blog, summarizing his survey’s findings. “Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) suggests the rejection of church teaching on this subject.”

German and Swiss bishops released similar survey results earlier this month. German bishops reported this: “The church’s statements on premarital sexual relations, on homosexuality, on those divorced and remarried and on birth control … are virtually never accepted, or are expressly rejected in the vast majority of cases.”

The Swiss bishops went further, saying the church’s very mission was being threatened by its insistence on such directives.

Kasper, who retired in 2010 after a decade as the Vatican’s chief ecumenical officer, has for years held out hope that the Vatican might accommodate these remarried Catholics who are forbidden from participating fully in the church’s sacraments unless they get an annulment.

“What is possible with God – namely forgiveness – we should be able to succeed within the church, too,” he told Germany’s Die Zeit in December.

Church teaching holds that unless that first marriage is annulled, or declared null and void by a church tribunal, Catholics who remarry cannot receive Communion because they are essentially living in sin and committing adultery. Such annulments are often impossible to get or can take years to process, a problem that has left generations of Catholics feeling shunned from their church.

Last year, the German diocese of Freiburg issued a set of guidelines explaining how such remarried Catholics could get around the rule. It said if certain criteria are met – if the spouses were trying to live according to the faith and acted with laudable motivation – they could receive Communion and other sacraments of the church.

The Vatican’s chief doctrinal czar immediately shot down the initiative, insisting there is no way around the rule. Cardinal-elect Gerhard Mueller, like Kasper a German theologian, cited documents from popes past and his own office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in rejecting arguments that mercy should prevail over church rules or that people should follow their own consciences to decide if their first marriage was valid or not.

“It is not for the individuals concerned to decide on its validity, but rather for the church,” he wrote in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

But Kasper has said the issue can and should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Francis himself has made clear he wants to help these Catholics and that the annulment process itself must be reviewed because the church’s tribunals currently are not able to deal with their caseload. He has said now was a “season of mercy.”

Francis is a big fan of Kasper. During his first Sunday noon blessing as pope, Francis praised Kasper by name, saying he was a terrific theologian who had just written a great book on mercy.

American canon lawyer Edward Peters, who has written extensively on the American annulment process, said Monday that compromise is not possible on annulments themselves since that is the only way baptized Catholics can remarry. But in a blog post, he said the Vatican might consider some “process-smoothing provisions” that were approved for the U.S. church back in the 1970s, including the elimination of the mandatory appeal to Rome.