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OPINION - The birds are back

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The birds are back in the news... the highway sculpture on the Highway 52 median that welcomes out-of-towners into Wausau. The city's ethics committee may discipline whoever in City Hall botched the project. Some of the landscaping work was supposed to be put out for competitive bids, and the state's wage-and-hour rules should have applied for whoever did the job.

These are mistakes. And the person responsible for dropping the ball should be cited.

But the city is barking up the wrong tree.

The problem with the rusty flying birds and the fancy grass and gravel beneath them isn't that the rules weren't followed for project. The problem is the project itself. It should not have taken flight in the first place.

When the city council approved a budget line-line for 'city beautification' and 'Highway 52 median work', no one had this in mind. What needs to be investigated is how a project like this came about. Here are some of the questions that need to be answered, but aren't even being asked: Who came up with the flying birds idea? Did that person approach the artists, or did the artists approach the city first? Why wasn't the flying birds idea discussed publicly? Why didn't the City Council get to vote on it? What other (less expensive) beautification ideas considered? How was the value of the artwork determined? Why wasn't the artwork itself put out for bid? What connections do the artists, landscapers and other companies that worked on this project have with elected and staff members at City Hall? Was the amount on the budget line-item determined before or after the bird sculpture idea was hatched? If the idea came first, why was the budget line item given a generic name like beautification? What assurances do taxpayers have that the next surprise project wont also be bought, paid for, and installed before were told about it?

This is a systemic problem. An expensive, frivolous project was slipped past the taxpayers.

And for people who think the sculpted birds are a wonderful, please be prepared to step up and launch a fundraising campaign for the next bird-brained idea you dream up. Each time I drive past them, I imagine those birds flying away with my tax dollars.

Chris Conley
6.25.14