Less than a week after UW-Whitewater officials told the Whitewater City Council that “there isn’t anything we can do” to prevent large off-campus parties, the university has reversed course.
In a Monday announcement, Interim Chancellor Greg Cook said the university “will invoke state law and UW System policy” that allows the Dean of Students Office to discipline students for behavior on and off campus if that behavior:
In the announcement, Cook said UW-W would be “fooling ourselves” if officials and students don’t think the university might have to take actions similar to those at UW-Madison and UW-La Crosse, who have had to move to virtual instruction and quarantine dorms.
The topic of jurisdiction and enforcement came up at a Sept. 9 special Whitewater City Council meeting, where elected officials decided against a mass-gathering ordinance the university had requested because, largely, UW-W officials said they lacked standing to punish off-campus behavior.
“If it’s not a sanctioned activity of the university, then our hands are really tied,” Cook said last week. “We can’t really do anything to sanction those students even though they’re UW-Whitewater students. They’re off our property. They’re adults, and they are on private city property.”
He also said absent a city ordinance limiting mass gatherings, “There isn’t anything we can do.”
Cook had also mentioned that because he is so new to the role of chancellor, he had other cabinet members who could speak if he was mistaken. The university’s former interim provost, Cook is currently filling in for Dwight Watson, who is on paid leave pending an investigation into an unspecified complaint.
Artanya Wesley, vice chancellor for student affairs, said at the Sept. 9 meeting that UW System legal officials gave permission to use the health and safety clause within the administrative code of conduct.
But she appeared to see a potential problem with going that route.
“Now, there is a lot of room for students to appeal that decision,” Wesley told council members. “If students knew their rights, if they understand the administrative code of conduct, what a student I can see saying, ‘Well, I didn’t know I had COVID.’
“So they could use that as their justification and rationale for getting out of the sanctioning.”
Tommy Thompson said the lack of mask-wearing and social-distancing might mean schools cannot “finish the semester.” Differing from some local officials, he didn’t think UW-Whitewater will have that problem.
UW-W spokesman Jeff Angileri said in an email Tuesday that “COVID-19 is a fluid situation that changes all the time” and that university officials adapt as needed in working toward the goal of keeping in-person instruction going until Nov. 20.
Monday’s announcement came with a plea from Cook, who said he was begging and warning students that if they don’t change their behavior, the university will have to go all virtual.
Meanwhile, the virus rages on in Whitewater. The city on Tuesday ranked 11th among U.S. cities where cases were increasing the fastest on a population-adjusted basis, according to data compiled by the New York Times. Four other cities with UW System campuses also ranked in the top 20 (La Crosse, third; Platteville, 10th; Madison, 12th; and Oshkosh-Neenah, 20th).
UW-W’s dashboard on Tuesday morning accounted for 29 positive cases among students since Sunday. Last week, there were 139 student cases reported.
“The COVID-19 virus has the immediate potential to impair our ability to fulfill our normal teaching mission. Failure to follow safety precautions impairs our ability to continue,” Monday’s announcement states.
“Failure to wear a mask, observe social distancing, or take other suggested precautions will therefore be investigated aggressively and may lead to disciplinary action up to and including suspension and/or expulsion.”
The Whitewater City Council met again Tuesday night, but no vote was taken when it came to new COVID-19 prevention measures.
Council members supported the idea of a co- enforcement agreement between the city and university police departments, which city Police Chief Aaron Raap said could help university police leave campus and patrol nearby neighborhoods.
But council President Lynn Binnie eventually closed the meeting and apologized to Cook because, “We’ve been unable to address the concern that you have in a manner that some of us believe would be appropriate.”
Binnie was the only council member to signal in a straw poll his support for the ordinance reviewed last week, although some others—including newly appointed member Gregory Majkrzak II—said Tuesday they would support the ordinance with some changes.
The interim chancellor spoke earlier at the meeting again Tuesday night, and said he was “disappointed” that the council did not get the ordinance covering mass gatherings passed.
Council member Patrick Singer expressed frustration that county governments were not stepping up to handle such matters under the umbrella of public health, a department he noted that Whitewater’s city government doesn’t have.
Cook maintained it was going to be difficult to enforce any sanctions for violations, saying they need quality evidence and/or documentation of violations.
He also said during Tuesday’s meeting that the university’s current “bottleneck” is with contact tracing. He said they are trying to beef up those efforts.
Council member Brienne Brown mentioned a rumor she had heard about the university sending students who test positive home elsewhere because of a lack of bed space on campus, but Cook said the university still had plenty of space where students could quarantine.
The council’s next scheduled meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 6.
The coronavirus pandemic could continue to have substantial economic effects on the city if the university goes all virtual.
A Gazette analysis of 2019 enrollment and population data showed UW-W had about 778 students per 1,000 community residents, which is the highest among main campuses for UW System universities.
If UW-Whitewater’s campus is forced to shut down and go all virtual for the rest of the semester because of out-of-control COVID-19 cases, the university would not be alone in suffering economically.
Update: This story was updated at 9:45 p.m. Tuesday with details from the city council meeting.
TOWN OF FULTON
Edgerton firefighters had the sad task of recovering a girl’s body from the Yahara River at Murwin County Park in May 2019.
Then this July, five people enjoying a ride down the scenic waterway were thrown from their canoe at the same spot.
Everyone survived the most recent incident, but Chief Randy Pickering of the Edgerton Fire Protection District said a letter published in The Gazette spurred action.
Pickering said his department got Rock County government officials, Department of Natural Resources wardens, Dewey’s Towing and Recovery, and water-rescue teams from the Beloit, Edgerton and Janesville fire departments to the accident site in Murwin County Park on Tuesday.
The river is a beautiful place to canoe or kayak, said Rich Bostwick, a county board member who teaches canoeing and kayaking and who came to watch the work.
But the river takes a 90-degree turn in the park, blinding paddlers to a tree that protrudes into the water just around the bend, Pickering said.
That’s where canoes and kayaks have capsized, throwing paddlers into a current that suddenly accelerates as the river narrows, Pickering said.
The current shoots into an even sharper bend a short distance downstream. It throws anything that floats into a tangle of mostly submerged trees.
The 14-year-old Janesville girl who died got caught under one of those trees, Pickering said.
Tuesday, firefighters cut off protruding limbs and attached rope to a stump sticking out of the water. They weren’t sure what the stump was attached to.
A standard-sized Dewey’s wrecker activated its winch. A large, heavy, waterlogged tree slowly emerged from the water like an ancient shipwreck.
“We’ve just learned something,” Pickering said.
The tree caught on a sandbar. The rope snapped. A much bigger wrecker finished the job.
At least one more tree remained under the water at that point, and the plan was to remove it and clean up some other protruding trees, including the one at the 90-degree bend upstream, Pickering said.
Future paddlers caught in the current now have a better chance of survival, although they could end up stranded at the base of a steep, sandy embankment.
“If they can get up to the shoreline, they can at least get up to the sand so we can go get them,” Pickering said.
Water rescues are rare, but the Edgerton firefighters have been called to five of them this year. Most were on the Rock River or Lake Koshkonong.
Pickering said it’s likely that people who were cooped up this spring to avoid the coronavirus were looking for ways to have fun outdoors while staying out of crowds.
Ask anyone selling canoes or bicycles, Pickering said. They’re often sold out.
Pickering noted that the river’s natural inclination is to cut into the bank at the steep curve. Eventually, the river will undermine more trees, which will fall into the water.
Pickering plans to monitor the site and take action to remove any dangerous snags that develop in the future.
T.J. Thomas Bach
Betty J. Chrisinger
Debra L. (Forrett) Cox
Kelly Jo Ellertson
Walter R. Huff
Pearl Judith Johnson
Rita M. Line
Margaret “Marge” Mengelt
Harold “Harry” Schut
Kenneth Theodore Soergel
Ruth E. Whittum
TOWN OF BELOIT
The Town of Beloit Fire Department might become part of a collection of fire departments led by Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes.
The Town of Beloit Fire Chief Hiring Committee interviewed Rhodes on Tuesday morning as it seeks to address the vacancy to be left by retiring Town of Beloit Fire Chief Gene Wright.
Discussions indicated Rhodes could remain Janesville’s fire chief while leading the town fire department. Rhodes already is the Milton Fire Chief, and the Janesville and Milton fire departments are considering consolidating.
The town of Beloit committee is looking at the option of forming stronger countywide partnerships in fire services. The matter of addressing the town fire chief position is expected to be on Monday night’s town board agenda along with a public hearing.
Wright is scheduled to retire as town of Beloit fire chief and town administrator Oct. 9. He will continue to serve as Orfordville’s fire chief after he was offered that job Sept. 1.
Rhodes said he views a possible partnership between the township and Janesville as a group effort, not as a takeover. He said community partners deserve a say in how decisions on reorganization would affect their departments.
Rhodes told the committee that if chosen to lead the Town of Beloit Fire Department, he would intend to consolidate command staffs to delegate duties more effectively.
He said one idea is to assign each deputy chief to a specific area, such as training recruits or managing equipment and inventory. By assigning some tasks more efficiently, he said fire department personnel morale likely would improve.
Town of Beloit Deputy Chief Rich Tippelt, who is on the hiring committee, told Rhodes that in the first 90 days as chief, a key expectation would be to evaluate the town department and make suggestions for improvement.
Wright said the committee reviewed options, such as naming an interim fire chief, hiring a new chief or pursuing closer ties to other communities.
He said the partnership between the Janesville and Milton fire departments was most appealing to the town board members, who wanted to be a part of that success in the future.
“The writing on the wall shows we need to look further into the future,” Wright said, noting that strategic relationships between departments is increasingly important to save money and more efficiently utilize personnel.
Beloit Fire Chief Daniel Pease said the idea of shared services between the township and Janesville had “great potential.”
Pease said he works closely with Rhodes and they “have similar views on what is needed in Rock County.”
“The city of Beloit, Janesville, Milton and the town of Beloit have all been working together to implement various forms of shared services,” Pease said. “AVL dispatching is a form of shared services that geographically removed the borders between these municipalities so the fire departments could provide better services to all community members.”
AVL dispatching allows the equipment closest to an emergency to be sent, regardless of what department it is part of.
In a statement Tuesday, Beloit City Manager Lori Luther said, “The city of Beloit is always interested in regional partnership efforts that more efficiently provides service and eases tax burden. We have not been actively engaged with the town of Beloit but would welcome any opportunity for collaboration.”
In a separate meeting Tuesday, the Town of Beloit Town Administrator Hiring Committee discussed its next steps in the process of finding a new town administrator.
Town board member Carl McMillan, who is on the committee, said he wants the committee to find a candidate who intends to stay and think long-term for the township.
Community Development Director Tim Kienbaum echoed those thoughts and said it is important to select a candidate who will be physically present in the town offices full-time and will plan for growth in the township. He said one key area of focus should be available housing lots.
Wright, who is serving as an adviser on the committee, said he believes it would benefit the township to find an administrator who is able to act as a steady hand working with various town boards and department leaders over several years.
The committee largely agreed to take a closer look at the job description and certain ordinances before moving forward.
The matter is expected to be on Monday’s town board agenda, where the full board will have a chance to discuss. Workshops and public hearings are expected to follow.
A few town residents attended the meeting and asked questions about the town administrator role, such as pay, whether the hiring committee should designate a chairperson and how the role would compare to other area municipalities.
Town Clerk Karry DeVault said records show a prior administrator earned around $89,000.
One resident said he does not want to see the township caught in a situation where it has to “pay peanuts and get circus clowns,” adding the wage must be competitive to find a quality candidate. Another resident asked the committee to consider whether the salary range is too high and should be lowered.