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Janesville makes push to trim urban forest

JANESVILLE

In response to tree-ravaging insects, damaged vehicles and pedestrian complaints, city staff is making an effort to ensure its urban forest gets a haircut.

Since mid-2017, the city has been surveying trees on terraces in residential areas to make sure they adhere to city ordinance. Branches can hang no lower than 15 feet above streets and 7 feet above sidewalks.

Moving alphabetically by street name, city staff has surveyed dozens of streets and sent residents several hundred orders to correct.

“It’s been ages, if ever, that we’ve done that,” said John Whitcomb, operations director.

Staff has reached streets beginning with the letter K and likely won’t finish surveying until next year, he said.

“To be fair to residents, we opted to go through streets alphabetically so that we were not focusing on one side of town versus another,” Operations Superintendent Kamron Nash wrote in an email to The Gazette.

From the city’s perspective, trimming low-hanging branches makes streets and sidewalks safer and protects city vehicles such as garbage trucks, fire trucks and street sweepers, Whitcomb said.

“If you travel down some streets, you can actually see where tree limbs have been broken or sliced off by trucks or other vehicles,” Nash wrote. “This isn’t the ideal way to keep trees trimmed up, as taller vehicles can be damaged.”

“It is a problem,” Whitcomb agreed. “This is an ordinance requirement, and it does have an impact on equipment, frankly. We do get a lot of pedestrian complaints every season about growth over the sidewalk.”

Residents who receive orders to correct have 30 days to trim branches. Citations are possible for failing to comply, but typically the city will do the work and bill the resident, Whitcomb said.

If a city employee inspects a property that was ordered to correct and notices branches were not trimmed enough, the property owner is given another order to correct, Parks Supervisor Ethan Lee wrote in an email.

“We want to be fair to residents that have made an attempt but didn’t quite get to the 7- or 15-foot requirement,” he wrote.

The city also has ramped up how it addresses diseased and dying trees, Lee noted.

In 2015, the city began proactively marking ash trees that emerald ash borers had killed or fatally injured. Last year, the program was expanded to mark other diseased tree species, Lee wrote.

The city has issued notices to remove about 3,000 ash trees since 2015.

“It makes sense for our staff to look at all ordinance issues at the same time since many residents contract out their tree work,” Nash wrote.

In addition to trimming and chopping down trees, residents must also dispose of tree debris. They can’t leave wood and brush on the curb for the city to collect until the week after Thanksgiving, so in summer, they need to take it to the landfill, Whitcomb said.

“Unless it is in the street or piled so high that it is a vision triangle issue, we will allow them a reasonable amount of time to remove the debris,” Lee wrote. “Usually, anything that has been left for over a month will receive an enforcement letter” from Neighborhood and Community Services.

Residents don’t have to be licensed to chop down branches or trees, and neither do the contractors they can hire.

At least one Janesville City Council member fears less-than-reputable contractors are taking advantage of residents.

“I know one guy that had a tree fall on his house because some do-it-yourself guy did not know what they were doing,” Councilman Jim Farrell wrote in an email to The Gazette. “My point is there seems to be more unscrupulousness and incompetent contractors than ever before that have contacted Janesville residents.

“I strongly support using local, qualified vendors even if they are not the lowest cost,” Farrell wrote.

After a recent hailstorm, contractors solicited residents to repair damaged siding. Like those contractors, tree-trimmers who sell their services door-to-door need to have city licenses, said Dave Godek, city clerk/treasurer.

Being licensed to solicit means police have done a background check on the contractor, and the city has confirmed the person is insured. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean the person is reputable, Godek said.

“It’s like anything else: You want to do your homework,” he said.


False starts, failures in diplomacy with North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea

No, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un isn’t killing his summit with President Donald Trump. Or at least, he’s highly unlikely to.

Pyongyang breaking off a high-level meeting with Seoul and threatening to scrap next month’s historic summit with Washington over regular allied military drills is seen as a move by Kim to gain leverage and establish that he’s entering the crucial nuclear negotiations from a position of strength.

Washington and Seoul, which have no intentions to overpay for whatever Kim brings to the table, have been saying strengthened international sanctions and pressure forced Kim into talks after a flurry of weapons tests. Pyongyang has now countered by saying it won’t be unilaterally pressured into abandoning its nukes, analysts say.

Nonetheless, North Korea’s surprise declaration Wednesday was a fresh reminder of many false starts and failures that derailed previous diplomatic attempts to resolve the decades-long standoff. It’s also a frustrating development for South Korea, which has been selling last month’s inter-Korean summit—where the leaders issued a vague vow for the “complete denuclearization” of their peninsula—as a meaningful breakthrough in peace.

A look at the history of negotiations between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang:

Bad start with Washington

The United States reached a landmark nuclear agreement with North Korea in 1994 following months of war fears triggered by the North’s threat to turn its stockpile of nuclear fuel into bombs.

Under the “Agreed Framework,” North Korea halted construction of two reactors the United States believed were for nuclear weapons production in exchange for two alternative nuclear power reactors that could be used to provide electricity but not bomb fuel, and 500,000 metric tons of annual oil supply. Pyongyang constantly complained about delayed oil shipment and the construction of the reactors that were never delivered. Washington criticized the North’s pursuit of ballistic missile capability.

The deal collapsed in 2002 after North Korea admitted it had been running a clandestine nuclear program using enriched uranium.

Derailed six-party talks

It didn’t take long for the United States to be roped back into talks with North Korea, but this time in a six-party forum that also included China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan.

After months of tense negotiations that began in August 2003, the North accepted a deal in September 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security, economic and energy benefits.

However, disagreements between Washington and Pyongyang over financial sanctions imposed on the North temporarily derailed the six-nation talks before North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.

The disarmament talks resumed a few weeks later and the six governments in February 2007 reached a deal where North Korea would receive an aid package worth about $400 million in return for disabling its nuclear facilities and allowing international inspectors to verify the process.

But a final attempt to complete an agreement to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program fell through in December 2008 when the North refused to accept U.S.-proposed verification methods.

The six-nation talks have stalled since then and the North conducted another nuclear test in May 2009.

Inter-Korean ebbs, flows

Since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, relations between the Koreas have been marked by wild swings, with three historic summits mixed with hostility that often pushed the rivals to the brink of a major military conflict.

The rivals most recently came near a military clash in 2015 following land mine blasts blamed on North Korea that maimed two South Korean soldiers.

The Koreas avoided disaster with a last-minute deal in which the North offered a vague regret over the blasts in exchange for the South temporarily stopping anti-Pyongyang broadcasts over the border.

The agreement led to a high-level meeting between the Koreas at the northern border town of Kaesong in December.

But those talks fell apart after the South refused to agree to restart joint tours to the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain resort, which were suspended in 2008 following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist.

A month later, North Korea went on to conduct its fourth nuclear test, which marked the start of a torrid run in weapons tests that peaked in 2017, when the country detonated a purported thermonuclear warhead and flight-tested three developmental intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to strike the U.S. mainland.

Wednesday was hardly the first time the North called off an important inter-Korean event at the last minute. In 2013, North Korea abruptly canceled reunions for families separated by the Korean War just days before they were scheduled to be held to protest what it called rising animosities ahead of joint military drills between Seoul and Washington, which the North claim are invasion rehearsals.

Will Kim go Back?

Months after taking power following the death of his father, Kim in 2012 reached a major agreement with the United States to suspend nuclear weapons and missile tests and uranium enrichment in exchange for food aid. But the deal was killed just weeks later after the North launched a long-range rocket in a failed attempt to deliver a satellite, which outside governments saw as a disguised test to advance ballistic missile capability.

Even amid the North’s diplomatic outreach of recent weeks, there are lingering doubts on whether Kim would fully relinquish the nukes he likely sees as his only guarantee of survival.

Some analysts believe that Kim would seek a deal where he gives up his ICBMs but retains some of his shorter arsenal, which might potentially satisfy Trump but drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. Or he might try to drag out the process and wait out the Trump administration, which has provided a credible threat of military force against the North.

Whatever his true intentions are, Kim will almost certainly show up for his talks with Trump in Singapore on June 12, analysts say. The past few months have seen the formerly reclusive leader belly-laughing with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, releasing detained Americans and declaring a halt to nuclear and ICBM tests while inviting foreign journalists to witness the dismantling of his nuclear test site scheduled for next week.

He has simply come too far to go fully back.

He also desperately needs sanctions relief to build his economy. In Washington, he sees a president who seems eager to prove his deal-making skills and thinks less of the traditional alliance with Seoul than his predecessors did. In Seoul, he sees a dovish liberal leader who’s eager to revive Seoul’s “Sunshine” policy of the 2000s that led to temporary rapprochement and joint economic projects. Kim likely knows he probably isn’t getting a better shot than this.

“North Korea is responding to the Washington-Seoul drills based on internal principles and routines,” said Kim Dong-yub, a former South Korean military official who’s now an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies. “The North is not trying to subvert the table for talks.”


Emergency 911 technology struggles to keep up with the times

ROSWELL, Ga.

High school students hiding from the gunman in Parkland, Florida, were forced to whisper in calls to 911 for fear of tipping off their location. Others texted friends and family who then relayed information to emergency dispatchers over the phone.

A few months later, a woman in Michigan was able to send off short text messages to 911 dispatchers as her homicidal husband held their daughter hostage. She was able to convey enough information to help officers get to the scene and formulate a plan to stop the man without the family being harmed.

The two cases show how in this era of active shooters, police shootings and global terrorism, a patchwork of technology around the country can make the experience of calling 911 vastly different depending on where you live. More cities have begun to accept text messages recently, but the system that Americans rely on during their most vulnerable moments still hinges largely on landline telephones, exposing a weak link that jeopardizes the ability of law enforcement to respond in an emergency.

“Most of the technology that’s in the nation’s 911 centers today is technology of last century. It’s voice-centric communications,” said Brian Fontes, chief executive officer of the National Emergency Number Association.

Nearly 80 percent of the nation’s 911 calls come from cellphones. Yet the dispatchers on the other end are hampered by outdated technology that in most cases doesn’t allow them to accept text messages, receive a live-streaming video or sometimes even easily detect where the caller is. It’s a striking contrast at a time when text messaging is ubiquitous, video chats with friends and family on the other side of the world are common, and Uber and Lyft drivers can pinpoint precise locations of riders.

The issue received new attention this week after the results of a police investigation in Cincinnati revealed numerous breakdowns in the response to a teenager who got trapped under the backseat of his minivan and died despite voice-dialing 911.

Experts worry the nation isn’t focused enough on improving the system and it is causing delays in getting emergency responders to the scene as fast as possible.

One obstacle is there’s no federal mandate or standards for call centers, with each one managed by state and local governments. That means there’s a wide range of standards, equipment and training. And a recent report by the Federal Communications Commission found that a surcharge paid by phone customers that is supposed to be directed to 911 is diverted by some states to other needs, to the tune of about $128 million.

It would cost considerably more than that to upgrade every call center in the United States. But David Turetsky, former chief of the public safety and homeland security bureau at the FCC, said there could be ways to reduce those costs by ensuring the system is more interconnected and working together, rather than separately.

“This underinvestment is a choice and it costs lives and health, and the thing about the 911 system is that none of us should be too confident that it might not be our own life or that of a loved one or a friend,” he said.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Democrat who represents California’s Silicon Valley, has been on a mission to modernize call centers since seeing one up close during an earthquake when she was on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. Her worries only grew after the 9/11 attacks.

She’s visited all the call centers in her district and, she said, “the smaller ones, especially rural areas, you walk in and it looks like 1952 because they’re not funded the way they should be. They need to be upgraded.”

In December, she submitted legislation that would direct federal funds to state and local governments to allow them to upgrade their systems to “Next Generation 911.”

It was Feb. 16, 1968, when the very first 911 call was placed—a test call made by a state senator in Alabama—and the system was born. It is now embedded in Americans at a young age to dial those three digits in an emergency. An estimated 270 million such calls are made each year in the United States.

Until recent years, dispatch centers might receive a handful of calls at most during an emergency. A witness to a car accident, for example, would have to get to a landline to alert authorities. And each landline phone is tied to a specific address, giving 911 operators instant access to their location.

But now in emergencies—whether it’s a routine traffic accident or a fast-moving crisis like a mass shooting—911 operators get inundated with dozens of calls. If the person is using a cellphone to call from inside a building, the location may not be immediately known. And if they’re inside a high-rise, it’s even more of a guessing game.

“That call could be on the 90th floor, it could be on the 40th floor, it could be on the second floor,” said Rick Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “That’s pretty damned important information for the responding officers to know.”

There are scores of stories offering warning signs about the system’s lapses—from a man who died last year after getting lost just seven miles from Bethel, Alaska, after rescuers weren’t able to find him because his cell signal wouldn’t pinpoint his location. A woman in metro Atlanta several years ago used her cellphone to call 911 after her SUV plunged into water. The cell call went to the nearest cell tower, which was in a neighboring county—and that county wasn’t familiar with the address she provided.

The biggest step many local governments have made with 911 is accepting text messages, including cities such as Phoenix, Arizona, but the vast majority still do not.

Melissa Alterio, the director of the 911 communications center in Roswell, Georgia, oversees a dispatch center that is among those accepting text messages.

Roswell, a suburb about 20 miles north of Atlanta, sees between 400 and 600 calls every day. It got its first text 911 message shortly after beginning to accept them this spring, someone worried about a possibly suicidal friend.

At some point soon, dispatchers might be able to view video streaming, just like anyone checking out Facebook. She worries about when that happens, knowing the emotional toll it could have on dispatchers who already struggle with what they hear on the other end of the line.

“We have to do something to prepare them for what they will see,” she said. “God forbid a situation like a Parkland happens. It’s tough enough that they hear it. Seeing it as it happens is just another stressor.”


glance

local • 3A, 8A

Monroe to celebrate 50 years

Monroe Elementary School, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary today, will get more fanfare for that event than it did when it opened. The public is invited to an open house from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the school grounds, 55 S. Pontiac Drive. It will feature an art exhibit, raffles, games, bounce houses and food trucks. A choir concert will be performed after a short ceremony at 6:15 p.m.

nation/world • 7B-8B

MSU to pay $500 million

Michigan State University has settled hundreds of lawsuits filed against it by the survivors of MSU doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual assaults. The settlement, which covers all 332 current claimants, will cost Michigan State $500 million. The school will pay $425 million now and hold $75 million in reserve in case other Nassar victims come forward.