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Eau Claire County had a strong year, but challenges remain

Eau Claire County had a good 2018, with increased downtown development, improved leisure activities and a stronger focus on agriculture, county leaders said at a Friday morning Chamber of Commerce event.

County Administrator Kathryn Schauf said in her State of the County address that the county is effectively working with other municipalities and area businesses to grow the region.

“We believe Eau Claire County, and all the organizations that make up this county, have this cohesion,” Schauf said. “We are going to, as a county government, continue to build that cohesion.”

Colleen Bates, who has been on the County Board since 1983 and is the vice chairwoman, raved about the positive impacts of the Pablo Center at the Confluence.

“It has truly turned around our downtown area,” Bates said of the performing arts center.

In leisure and education, the county has added LED lights to ski trails at Tower Ridge Recreation Area ski trails, and added 41 acres to the county forest, as well as rehabilitating 3.5 miles in the ATV trail system.

“We believe we have the quality of life to attract people to the area,” Bates said.

The county also has an expanded UW-Extension office providing a variety of services, they said. Schauf said officials are implementing real-time programming in the county.

“For every dollar we leverage in Extension, we get $3 in return,” Bates said.

Bates said that Farm Technology Days in 2020 will require about 1,600 volunteers, and they are already lining people up for the event.

Eau Claire County has seen a steady tax rate in the past decade, they said. In overall spending, the county is 57th of 72 Wisconsin counties in tax rate, Schauf said.

Crime, out of home placements, are concerns

Bates showed a graph that displayed a spike in felony cases filed in the county and a steady increase in the jail’s daily population. The daily jail population in 2008 was 261, but it had jumped to 291 in 2018.

Schauf also talked about providing health and social services to inmates in the jail.

“The outcome of this will be fewer detentions,” she said.

Schauf discussed a program that works with moderate and high-risk youth to reduce recidivism. It has prevented court action in 10 out of every 11 cases, she said.

The county has secured $5 million in state or federal funding to assist in health and social services, she added.

One of the largest areas of concerns is in child protective services, Schauf said. The referrals have increased by 47 percent since 2016. However, aid for that program has only increased by 9.5 percent.

“It’s an area that has been under-funded,” Schauf said.

Bates added: “We have an absolute crisis in serving that population.”

Bates said a treatment court also is paying off, with a much higher sobriety rate, and patients have an increased chance of success.

About 100 people attended the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Eggs & Issues” breakfast.

Fans flock to Silver Mine for annual ski jumping tournament

Despite the chilly conditions, Mark Anderson was happy to be outside Friday night.

That’s because it was opening night of the 133rd anniversary Silver Mine Invitational ski jumping tournament.

It’s an event Anderson, 60, has attended almost every year since he was just a boy.

“I just really like ski jumping,” Anderson said. “I love watching those guys fly that distance.”

He marveled that some of the top jumpers in the international field soar 300 feet through the air before touching down on the impossibly steep landing area covered in man-made snow.

“That’s the length of a football field. I know I wouldn’t do it,” Anderson said with a chuckle.

Tournament chairman Zach Jastrow never tires of hearing the amazement of spectators, both novices and regulars, at the feats performed by jumpers.

While some fans come for the camaraderie and others out of curiosity, the main attraction is clearly the spectacle of seeing humans flying through the sky above a hill that’s lit up like a giant Christmas tree.

“It’s something to do in winter. People get the itch to get outdoors, and everybody likes seeing a historic event,” said Jastrow, who also serves as chief of hill for the event and vice president of the Eau Claire Flying Eagles Ski Club.

Jastrow acknowledged that temperatures in the mid-teens Friday night were a little colder than some spectators might like, but that didn’t stop dozens of people from clustering around bonfires and Swedish candles (burning stumps) scattered around the grounds, listening to music and sipping hot or cold beverages even before jumping got underway.

The good news about the brisk weather, Jastrow said, is that it’s ideal for ski jumping and could lead to some spectacular jumps this weekend during an event that typically attracts 2,500 to 3,000 spectators.

For Kristen Gundry, the lure of the ski jumping tournament starts at home. While she loves the event she has been attending since 1976, it holds a special appeal now because she has three sons who are jumpers: Logan, 16; Stewart, 13; and Eli, 11. A cousin even drove all the way from San Francisco to see this year’s tournament.

With Logan and Stewart both competing this weekend at Silver Mine, Gundry is balancing nervousness and excitement.

“What I like is that the whole community comes out in the middle of winter when everyone is normally hunkered down in their houses,” she said. “It’s good for the spirit of the community.”

Part of the thrill is also seeing the hill illuminated against the dark sky.

“It looks like a diamond necklace leading up to the stars,” Gundry said. “It’s so beautiful.”

Following Friday’s Eau Claire Energy Cooperative U.S. Cup Tournament, jumpers and spectators will return to Silver Mine Hill in the town of Union at 6 p.m. today for the Charter Bank 5 Hills Tournament and at 8:30 p.m. for the Xcel Energy Long Standing Jump. Gates open at 4 p.m.

“We strive to keep the sport of ski jumping alive. It’s one of the original extreme sports and one of the original Eau Claire sports,” Jastrow said, noting that five of the six Eau Claire Olympians in history have been ski jumpers. “It’s near and dear to us in Eau Claire.”

Anderson agreed, calling the Silver Mine Invitational “kind of like our own little piece of the Olympics.”

Trump, Kim Jong Un to hold 2nd summit

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to try to broker a deal to coax the North to give up its nuclear weapons, the White House announced Friday.

News of a second meeting with the reclusive North Korean leader came after Trump’s 90-minute meeting in the Oval Office with a North Korean envoy, Kim Yong Chol, who traveled to Washington to discuss denuclearization talks. Trump and Kim Jong Un are to meet near the end of February at a place to be announced later, said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

“The United States is going to continue to keep pressure and sanctions on North Korea until we see fully and verified denuclearization,” Sanders said. “We’ve had very good steps and good faith from the North Koreans in releasing the hostages and other moves. And so we’re going to continue those conversations and the president looks forward to the next meeting.”

In May, North Korea released three American detainees and sent them home with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after his meeting with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang.

The second summit signals stepped-up efforts by both countries to continue talks. Trump has exchanged letters with the North Korean leader amid little tangible progress on the vague denuclearization agreement reached at their first meeting last June in Singapore.

On Friday, Pompeo met with the North Korean envoy at a Washington hotel before the White House meeting, and the two had lunch together afterward.

Trump has spoken several times of having a second summit early this year. Vietnam has been considered as a possible summit venue, along with Thailand, Hawaii and Singapore.

Since their Singapore sit-down in June, several private analysts have published reports detailing continuing North Korean development of nuclear and missile technology. A planned meeting between Pompeo and the envoy, who is North Korea’s former spy chief, in New York last November was abruptly canceled. U.S. officials said at the time that North Korea had called off the session.

The special U.S. envoy for North Korea negotiations, Steve Biegun, is set to travel to Sweden for further talks over the weekend.

The talks have stalled over North Korea’s refusal to provide a detailed accounting of its nuclear and missile facilities that would be used by inspectors to verify any deal to dismantle them. The North also has demanded that the U.S. end harsh economic penalties and provide security guarantees before it takes any steps beyond its initial suspension of nuclear and missile tests.

Harry Kazianis, a North Korea expert at the Center for National Interest, said any talks between the two nations are a positive development, but the hard work of negotiating an agreement has only begun.

“Both nations must now show at least some tangible benefits from their diplomatic efforts during a second summit, or risk their efforts being panned as nothing more than reality TV,” Kazianis said.

As a possible first step, Kazianis said, North Korea could agree to close its nuclear centrifuge facility at Yongbyon in exchange for some relief from U.S. sanctions or a peace declaration ending the Korean War. The three-year war between North and South Korea ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

“Such a deal allows both sides to come away with a much-needed win that can breathe new life into negotiations,” he said.

South Korea said it expects the second summit between Trump and Kim to be “a turning point in firmly establishing a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Kim expressed frustration in an annual New Year’s address over the lack of progress in negotiations. But on a visit to Beijing last week, he said North Korea would pursue a second summit “to achieve results that will be welcomed by the international community,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.

Kim’s latest trip to China, his fourth since last year, came as the North’s strongest ally has encouraged negotiations with the U.S. while at the same time arguing in favor of an immediate easing of sanctions.

The U.S. and North Korea seemed close to war at points during 2017. The North staged a series of weapons tests that brought it closer to its nuclear goal of one day being able to target anywhere on the U.S. mainland. The two sides then turned to insulting each other: Trump called Kim “Little Rocket Man” and North Korea said Trump was a “dotard.”

Independent analysts are highly skeptical that North Korea will easily abandon a nuclear arsenal constructed in the face of deep poverty and probably seen by Kim as his only guarantee of his government’s survival. But Retired Gen. Vincent Brooks, former U.S. commander of American and allied forces in South Korea, told “PBS Newshour” that he believes Kim is serious about getting rid of his nuclear weapons.

“I do. I think that the dance is going to be very important here, though, as we think about how we go from where we were to where we all want to be,” Brooks said. “First, we ought to take him (Kim) at his word. And it’s not an easy thing to accept, especially given the track record of North Korea.

“But this is a new leader in North Korea ... and, indeed, there’s evidence that he’s serious about committing to what he said. For example, we’ve now gone 415 days without a strategic provocation, test or demonstration. I think that’s a signal by itself that Kim Jong Un has moved in a different direction.”

Judge: GOP can't block Twitter comments

MADISON — Top Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature violated the First Amendment when they blocked a liberal advocacy group from seeing their Twitter feeds, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Judge William Conley’s decision marks liberal group One Wisconsin Now’s second legal victory in as many days over Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Another federal judge, James Peterson, on Thursday struck down early-voting restrictions Vos and his fellow Republicans passed in a contentious lame-duck session in December. One Wisconsin Now and other groups had challenged those provisions days after former Gov. Scott Walker signed them into law.

“Two different federal courts offered the same warning to Robin Vos and the Republicans: It’s the people’s government, not theirs,” One Wisconsin Now Executive Director Scot Ross said. “Vos and the Republicans cannot suppress people’s speech simply because they don’t like what’s being said, whether it’s at the ballot box or on social media.”

Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Friday’s ruling.

One Wisconsin Now filed a lawsuit in November 2017 alleging Vos, state Rep. John Nygren, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, and then-Rep. Jesse Kremer blocked the group from following their official Twitter accounts. The group argued the moves amounted to a violation of free speech.

A blocked user on Twitter can’t follow, see Twitter messages or reply to the user who blocked them. The blocked user can’t see who is following the account or search their tweets. They’re also not notified if the account holder mentions them in a tweet.

Conley wrote Friday that the lawmakers were government actors when they created their accounts, the interactive portion of their accounts are public forums and the legislators engaged in content-based discrimination when they blocked One Wisconsin Now.

He pointed to U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald’s ruling in May that President Donald Trump violates the First Amendment when he blocks critics on Twitter as precedent. Trump is appealing that ruling.

“Defendants in this case blocked plaintiff because of its prior speech or identity. Indeed, all three defendants indicated, either directly or indirectly, that they do not approve of plaintiff’s liberal perspective,” Conley wrote.

The judge stopped short of granting One Wisconsin Now’s request that he order the lawmakers to unblock the group and prohibit them from blocking others, asking both sides for briefs on what relief he should grant and set aside time in March for a one-day trial on that question if necessary.

Nygren aide Chris Borgerding didn’t immediately respond to an email. Kremer didn’t run for re-election in November but his Twitter account in which he calls himself a state representative still appears active. He didn’t immediately respond to a message sent through it Friday seeking comment on Conley’s decision.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice, which defended the lawmakers, didn’t immediately respond to an email.

One Wisconsin Now and other liberal groups also challenged provisions in lame-duck legislation Republicans passed in December that restricted in-person early voting to the two weeks preceding an election. The move came after a difficult midterm election in November that saw the Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee hold early voting for six weeks, far longer than other smaller, more conservative communities.

The groups contended that the limits mirror two-week restrictions Peterson struck down in 2016 and filed a challenge three days after Walker signed them into law. Peterson agreed , saying there was no difference between the lame-duck limits and the restrictions he blocked two years ago.