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Rock County's Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration will be back in person Jan. 14

After two years of living online, the 2023 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration figures to be much tastier than the last two.

A cultural food tasting will be part of the festivities this year, the first the commemoration ceremony will be held in person since 2020. The program at Blackhawk Technical College is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14, but a meet-and-greet event at 1 p.m. will precede it so attendees can catch up with friends they might not have seen outside a Zoom frame for awhile. The commemoration is free to attend.

Amiee Leavy, the racial justice director for YWCA Rock County and the head of its events planning committee, said the event has been around for a long time but only in the last couple of years has the YWCA taken the lead in organizing it. She said the virtual events served their purpose but that this year, organizers finally felt like they could facilitate the event safely and that she is “so excited” to be back.

“When we were virtual, we tried to keep a similar format, but we did more spoken-word poems from kids and we filmed all of this prior to the event and put it on Facebook Live,” she said. “We had a lot of people join in and yeah, we had them talking in the chat, but it really lacked that interactive nature” of past events.

That’s why in addition to the main program, organizers added the meet-and-greet to help people reconnect. The meet-and-greet will also feature slideshows of art from schools around Rock County.

Leavy said every year the theme is based on a King quote. This year, organizers picked “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

“The events included are all very intentional with the art, speakers and performances all being by students,” she said. “The quote is timeless; we all want our students to be smart and of good character.”

Leavy said the program that starts at 2 p.m. will feature keynote speaker Dr. Mark Holzman, superintendent of the Janesville School District. There will also be a student speaker, performances and an award ceremony. YWCA Rock County will present its Racial Justice Award to Krystal deLeón Judah, and the United Auto Workers Local 95 will present its MLK Jr. Civil Rights Award.

The cultural food tasting will allow attendees to sample foods that volunteers will bring as a display of their heritage and culture.

Planning committee member Leslie Brunsell of the American Association of University Women said she started participating in MLK Day commemorations in 2000 when she used to be a part of a group that had an ethnic food festival around King’s birthday, which eventually became part of the Diversity Action Team’s commemoration.

Brunsell said the committee usually starts to plan the event in the fall and that each one is different from the last. She said there is representation from both Beloit and Janesville.

Brunsell said she likes that the event builds connections between different groups and communities by drawing in people from different generations and backgrounds.

Blackhawk Tech does the marketing for the commemoration but partners with many other groups to put it on, including YWCA, the AAUW, UAW Local 95, the Diversity Action Team of Rock County, Hedberg Public Library, JATV, Rock County, and the Beloit and Janesville school districts.

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Janesville city attorney: Any referendum on Woodman's Center construction would be 'advisory'

JANESVILLE—A group of residents continues to press for a ballot referendum on whether the city of Janesville should borrow millions of dollars of public money to build the Woodman’s Sports and Convention Center.

Since earlier this month, a group that has identified itself as “We the Taxpayers,” “Rock County Taxpayers,” and “Taxpayer Watchdogs of Rock County” has initiated a public pamphlet campaign that questions the Janesville City Council’s intent to borrow at least $17.3 million to build the planned two-sheet ice arena.

On Monday night, the group turned out at a city council meeting to gather signatures for a petition and hand out informational packets along with pink-colored shirt pins that read “No New Taxes”—an apparent statement in opposition of city borrowing for the facility.

Members took part in a 45-minute-long set of public comments during which one resident urged council members to call for a referendum on the spot.

The city took no action on that request Monday, and the city’s attorney said that if such a referendum went forward, it only could be considered “advisory,” not binding.

During the public comment period, Janesville resident Paul Lembrich called the city’s plan to borrow money to build the new ice arena and convention center “reckless” and told council members “You do indeed have the power to order a referendum (for the April election) this very evening.”

Lembrich suggested such a move could save the council the thousands of dollars it would cost to conduct a special election later this year if the group later tried that route to get a referendum to a public vote.

The council could vote to approve construction of the 130,000-square-foot Woodman’s Center as early as late May or early June, city officials have said.

Fliers some in the group had distributed in residential newspaper tubes and elsewhere included requests for signatures for a petition aimed at mounting a referendum. But those fliers didn’t suggest a ballot question—something required by law for a referendum to go on a ballot.

A handwritten note the group gave to a Gazette reporter at City Hall on Monday night supplied a draft of such a question. It read:

“We request the city (of Janesville) common council’s intent to borrow funds for the construction of ‘Woodman’s Sports & Convention Center’/WSCC Ice Arena and Convention Center: ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”

The group in the note indicated that if its members were unable to spur a referendum for the spring ballot, the group might instead petition for a “special election” later this year to put the referendum question to a vote.

The note, which was signed “We the Taxpayers,” indicated the group seeks a “binding” referendum.

Although the city council under law is not allowed to not respond directly to public comments, one council member, Michael Jackson, asked City Attorney Wald Klimczyk if residents are allowed to ask for a “binding” referendum on whether the city could fund the Woodman’s Center.

Jackson is running for reelection this spring for the next city council, which likely would be the one to vote on whether to move ahead with the Woodman’s Center. Incumbent council members David Marshick and Heather Miller are also running for reelection.

Klimczyk told the council that state statute would not allow residents to petition to force a binding referendum on the project, although it would allow the council to choose to place a question on a ballot as an “advisory” measure. In an advisory referendum, the council would not be required by law to uphold voters’ decision, Klimczyk said.

He also noted that the city council has never before put any public project such as the Woodman’s Center to a ballot referendum.

City officials said last week that anyone seeking to turn in the few thousand signatures needed to get a referendum question on the April ballot would need to submit a petition and a yes-or-no referendum question by Jan. 24, although the request would still face city review and a council vote.

The group’s public comment session during Monday’s council meeting came prior to an update on planning for the proposed project by city Public Works Director Mike Payne.

Payne said a city ad hoc design committee continues to meet monthly to shore up exterior designs and floor plans for the Woodman’s Center.

Payne said that later this week or early next week, the Friends of the Woodman’s Sports & Convention Center, a booster group that is raising private funding and lobbying for federal and state grants for the project, plans to launch a project website.

He said the website would act as a portal for further private fundraising.

On Wednesday, the Rock County Citizens Civics Academy, a Janesville-based nonprofit think tank, plans to discuss the Woodman’s Center project.

The academy’s leaders said in an emailed announcement that Wednesday’s talk, to be held at 6 p.m. at Italian House, 1603 E. Racine St., will compare the Woodman’s Center to an emerging plan announced last week by private groups that seek to spearhead a similar ice arena and sports center in neighboring Beloit.