When downtown Janesville recast itself as a recreation-friendly urban center with a multimillion-dollar riverfront park, the city likely wasn’t picturing kids doing tire burnouts there on electric two-wheelers.
But then came the Bird scooters.
A privately run pilot program that is less than a month old has already drawn complaints about riders abandoning the rental e-scooters on sidewalks, in parking lots and parking decks, and curbside on busy streets.
More troubling, some downtown business operators say, is vandalism and defacement of public property since the cellphone-app-based scooters arrived. Bird’s pilot program, slated to continue through October, has made 75 of the small scooters available for anyone to rent with a debit or credit card.
The defacement is evidenced by dark black skid marks left on sidewalks along Milwaukee Street and in the ARISE Town Square.
In one spot, a rider used the drive tire of a scooter to scrawl what looks like male genitalia on the surface of the town square’s bike path.
Downtown developer and property owner Paul Murphy said the motorized misbehavior has not surprised him.
When Murphy learned last year that downtown business groups and Bird were talking with city officials about an e-scooter pilot program, he began to research the company and its track record.
Murphy, along with several other residents, voiced concern earlier this year when city administration tried to slide the Bird scooter proposal into a no-discussion, procedural item buried in a long city council meeting agenda.
It wasn’t the only concern. Murphy and others also questioned whether the city would—or could—set ordinances to require riders of the rental e-scooters to be at least 16 years old, if not 18, the minimum age Bird recommends in legal disclaimers on its rental app.
But so far the city’s only document that governs use of Bird scooters is a memorandum of understanding with Bird. It lays out liability waivers and optional limitations on the use of electric scooters that can travel 10 to 15 miles per hour.
The agreement, along with state law, don’t jibe with Bird’s own age limits.
The city’s memorandum also doesn’t give it authority over Bird’s program, except for a clause that allows Janesville’s city manager to sever its agreement with the company at any time.
Murphy has since complained in letters to the city, showing evidence he says indicates adults are renting scooters and handing them off to minors. He also has photos of scooters lying askew downtown and black tire marks on new concrete sidewalks in front of West Milwaukee Street boutiques.
In an email to Murphy, City Attorney Wald Klimczyk wrote the city intends to enforce a local rule preventing people under age 16 from riding the scooters, but that’s the limit of the its enforcement authority over the pilot program.
“The MOU places the responsibility for complying with the 18-year-old minimum age requirement on the company (Bird). The (memorandum) is not an ordinance. The (city) can enforce ordinances, but the (city) has no responsibility to assure compliance by users with the MOU requirements,” he wrote.
Klimczyk added that the Janesville Police Department “indicates no evidence of unlawful operation by those under 16, or contrary to the MOU by persons under 18.”
In another email to Murphy, City Manager Mark Freitag wrote he would suggest Murphy bring his concerns to the city in November for review when the pilot program ends.
Murphy said his concerns are the same ones he brought to the city before the pilot’s launch. He called the city’s agreement with Bird “useless window dressing.”
Murphy has reached out to California-based Bird. He said the farthest he got was an email from the company laying out a university study that claims that businesses in some communities can see “$1,100” in extra spending for each Bird scooter.
“They brag about their (data) dashboards, and the cities rely on the information from the dashboards. But do they monitor the actual use of these, and who it is who is using them? Because it’s a lot of people under 18,” Murphy said.
Outside RiversEdge Bowl, a downtown bowling alley on South River Street blocks away from the town square, employees point out squiggly burnout marks up and down the sidewalk, apparently from the scooters.
Rob Borck, a maintenance worker at RiversEdge, said he sees nothing but underage teens riding the scooters near the bowling alley. He said the youths leave the two-wheelers lying under the covered portico side-entrance, blocking entry and exit to the building.
Borck said other patrons have found the scooters lying “everywhere,” including in the parking lot, on the sidewalk and in nearby yards.
“I’ve seen one adult with a kid once, but otherwise all you see on those scooters is kids riding them,” Borck said. “I’ll bet you that it’s not middle-aged people out doing burnouts on those scooters.”
Julia Jorgensen, a Janesville bike shop operator who as a contractor manages Bird scooter rentals in Janesville, said residents who have complaints should take it up with Bird, not her management team nor with city officials.
She said local managers don’t have authority from Bird to enforce rider age limits, and she said it is the company’s responsibility to deal with reported misuse of the scooters.
Jorgensen said seeing the scooters strewn about the city is evidence the program is working, arguing it’s proof that some people who most need inexpensive motorized transportation are using the scooters.
She said local managers also have no control over whether riders purposely throttle and brake to create black tire marks on city property. She said the tire marks “wash off when it rains.”
Jorgensen said people can lodge complaints on Bird’s app, and the company can, if needed, code the scooters so they’ll immediately shut off in areas where people have reported repeated misbehavior or problems. The riverfront town square, which on Thursday was still marked with numerous black streaks and lewd designs from scooter tires, so far is not an area where Bird scooters are electronically blocked.
But she said people no longer can use the scooters in the city’s North Parker Drive parking deck.
If they do, the scooters emit a piercing warning tone, then shut down until the rider moves to another area.
A new national suicide hotline is gaining traction locally.
Individuals who are considering suicide or are otherwise in mental health crisis can call or text 988, the new national suicide hotline that went into effect July 16. It takes callers directly to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, where they’re connected to trained counselors.
“These trained counselors will listen, understand how (callers’) problems are affecting them, provide support and connect them to resources if necessary,” said Tony Farrell Sr., volunteer executive director of the Rock County Suicide Prevention Network.
In the last two weeks of July, there were 66 calls placed in Rock County to the lifeline, according to Shelly Missal, program manager of Wisconsin Lifeline.
A previous Lifeline number, 800-273-8255, will remain available. In Rock County in 2021, that line took 514 calls. In 2022, from January through July 15, there were 388 calls in Rock County.
The Rock County Crisis Intervention team is also available 24/7 at 608-757-5025 or 608-757-2244.
Farrell began volunteering as a crisis worker more than five decades ago when he was in the military. He was assigned to work with a group of soldiers who had just returned from Vietnam and were struggling emotionally. When he returned home to Rock County, he volunteered at schools and became part of a Rock County mentor program that helps underprivileged children.
“There are many factors as to why a person would lose hope to the point that they wouldn’t want to live,” Farrell said. “No two people are the same. If something doesn’t seem to be right, it probably isn’t, and certainly take action and help the person get therapy or call the Rock County Crisis Intervention Services or dial 988.”
September is national Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and the Rock County Suicide Prevention Network and Safety Series says there are different ways to help yourself or someone else in crisis.
Suicide warning signs include suicidal thoughts or threats; researching methods for suicide; giving away belongings; excessive or increased substance use; feeling of purposelessness and/or hopelessness; anxiety, agitation or insomnia; feeling trapped, like there is no way out; withdrawing from friends, family and society; anger, rage or revenge seeking; reckless and risk-taking behavior; and mood changes or fluctuation.
According to 988lifeline.org, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people. Each year, more people die by suicide than in car crashes in the U.S.
During her high school years, Milton resident Patty Slatter said she could not name the feelings inside of her.
“I started struggling back in high school,” Slatter recalls.
Slatter was screened for depression and tests confirmed that was a factor, but it wasn’t until college, when she went through a traumatic experience, that everything came to a head. She dropped out of college and went to work in retail. A year later, she attempted suicide for the first time, followed by many subsequent attempts.
“Nothing really started to change until I wanted to change,” she said. “I stepped into a DBT program (dialectical behavior therapy) and started going to church. Faith was a big part of me wanting to change.”
She started volunteering with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Rock County and also was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, lupus and fibromyalgia.
“It made me realize that I needed to change,” she said. “It helped me shift my focus. This is my life. I call it my life experience. It really empowered me and people wanted to hear about my recovery.”
Slatter remains involved with NAMI and speaks publicly about her recovery experience.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson blasted Wisconsin’s Republican Assembly speaker this week for withdrawing subpoenas issued by former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to state and local officials for their testimony behind closed doors about the 2020 election.
Johnson told a Fox Valley business group Wednesday that he did not agree with Speaker Robin Vos’ decision last week to withdraw subpoenas issued by Gableman to the mayors of Madison and Green Bay and Wisconsin Elections Commission officials.
Gableman asked a Waukesha County judge to jail the officials if they did not agree to testify at his Brookfield office—a request that has been dismissed now that the subpoenas have been withdrawn and Gableman has been fired by Vos.
“I can’t tell you how much I disagree with Robin Vos canceling those subpoenas,” Johnson said at a Wednesday event hosted by the Fox West Chamber of Commerce in Neenah, according to a recording obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“You just gave up. You conceded legislative oversight over an entity you created. And you’re going to let that entity have a leader, that entity the Wisconsin Elections Commission just say, you know, give you the middle finger and say, ‘we’re not going to tell you what we did. We’re not going to show you the records.’
“So now those election records are required by law to be held for 22 months, why? So you can go back and look at them. We were never able to look at them, so now they’ll be destroyed. I’m not happy with that. But we’re going to be watching. We’re going to be trying to prevent (fraud). Our goal ought to be to restore confidence in our election system, which we don’t have right now.”
Under state law, elections officials must keep ballots, applications for absentee ballots, registration forms, poll lists and other voting data for at least 22 months following an election. Such information related to the 2020 election may be destroyed next month under this rule.
In a statement, Vos said his focus is on enacting legislation for future elections.
“I agree with Senator Johnson that election integrity is important. It’s why I’m focused on electing a Republican governor who will sign the extensive list of bills that were passed by the Legislature last session, but vetoed by Governor Evers,” Vos said.
Still, Johnson’s criticism comes at a sensitive time for Wisconsin Republicans who are dealing with internal rifts over the continued focus on the settled 2020 election and the senator’s tight reelection match with Democrat Mandela Barnes—a contest that is likely to turn on energized turnout from the parties’ base voters. Vos, meanwhile, barely survived his primary challenge from Trump-backed candidate Adam Steen, who has launched a write-in bid against Vos in November.
Gableman oversaw a partisan review of the 2020 election funded by taxpayers from July 2021 until earlier this month when Vos fired him after Gableman campaigned for Steen.
Vos hired Gableman last summer to review the 2020 election and gave him a budget of $676,000, a budget that Gableman surpassed by nearly double. He took that step months after recounts and courts concluded Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the state by about 21,000 votes.
But the base of the Republican Party turned on Vos for not taking the illegal and impossible step of decertifying the 2020 election, among other grievances related to the contest, in part, because Trump attacked Vos repeatedly on the same grounds.
A nonpartisan state audit launched by Republican lawmakers and a study by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty confirmed Biden’s win and did not find widespread voter fraud. Even so, Johnson said Wednesday “there were all kinds of irregularities.”
“Now, I can’t tell you what the exact result was. It’s very difficult to prove fraud after the fact,” he said.
Johnson spokeswoman Alexa Henning in a statement said the Oshkosh Republican “wants accountability.”
“As former Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the senator stresses that legislative oversight is crucial in holding the executive branch accountable and he is baffled that Speaker Vos would give up his oversight into elections,” Henning said.
“It boggles his mind the election officials, the staff of WEC, and election clerks wouldn’t cooperate so they had to be subpoenaed and then didn’t cooperate with subpoenas. It’s inexplicable that Speaker Vos would just give up and say ‘you don’t have to answer our questions.’”
Henning added: “As the senator has repeatedly said, this is about restoring people’s confidence in our election system and the only way to do that is find out what happened,”
As part of his review, Gableman issued subpoenas to election officials and the mayors of five cities, in addition to dozens of others, including to voting machine manufacturers.
The subpoenas sought information about grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life. The firm provided more than $10 million to about 200 Wisconsin communities, the vast majority of which went to the state’s five largest cities.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul sued, arguing Gableman could not interview Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Meagan Wolfe behind closed doors, as he intended. Such interviews should occur in public before an Assembly committee, Kaul argued.
Gableman brought his own lawsuit in conjunction with his election review because he contends the mayors of Madison and Green Bay had not cooperated with him and asked a Waukesha County Circuit Court judge to jail the mayors if they didn’t agree to interviews with him.
The mayors have said they have complied with Gableman’s demands for information and contended Gableman mischaracterized their responses to him. Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich recently asked the judge to sanction Gableman by fining him and requiring him to run newspaper ads correcting the record.
Republicans have called the grants unfair, particularly because so much of the money went to communities with large concentrations of Democratic voters.
State and federal courts, and the Elections Commission, have determined the grants were lawful in three separate challenges.
In Neenah, Johnson continued to question to the security of the state’s elections.
He noted he has an “eighty-person election integrity group” that reviews voter registrations in Wisconsin. Henning said the team includes 10 attorneys dedicated to Wisconsin election issues from the state GOP, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Gableman is not part of the group, Henning said.
Johnson has acknowledged Biden’s 2020 presidential victory but has long maintained that there were irregularities in the election.
Last fall, Johnson visited the Wisconsin State Capitol to reportedly meet with legislative leaders about dismantling the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Both Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu at the time said they did not support the idea.
“There’s no way you can take a look at what happened in Wisconsin or nationally and say ‘oh, perfectly secure and safe elections,’” Johnson said.
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