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Lake levels fluctuate; public official dodges abuse charge; electrical dangers; Rittenhouse trial exposes rifts; Trump country clerks embraced drop boxes

Of note: Today we highlight the launch of our latest series, Imperiled Shores, which explores how wildly fluctuating levels on Lake Michigan are causing damage on Wisconsin’s eastern shore. Reporter Mario Koran explains that the lake’s normal ebbs and flows are being magnified by climate change. Communities in Wisconsin are expected to spend an estimated $245 million over the next five years to blunt the effects of lake levels that have fluctuated by up to 6 feet between record low waters in January 2013 and a record high in July 2020. Koran found the hundreds of barriers erected along the shore to protect individual properties in the past few years threaten to erode beaches and properties downstream, potentially accelerating the damage. 

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As they watched waters rise, Bo and Mindy Ellis paid for a new stone revetment to prevent their home on the south side of Whitefish Bay Creek in Door County, Wis., from getting washed into Lake Michigan. The couple waited months for a professional to do the work as other northeast Wisconsinites flooded contractors with calls amid erosion worries. Photo taken May 12, 2020. (Myles Dannhausen Jr. / Door County Pulse) Myles Dannhausen Jr. / Door County Pulse

As Lake Michigan shoreline vanishes, Wisconsinites fight waves with walls. (Spoiler: The waves will win.)

Wisconsin Watch — November 4, 2021

Bo and Mindy Ellis needed to act to keep their house from sliding into Lake Michigan. With their home 8 feet above the waves and 20 feet from the shore of Whitefish Bay in Door County, Wisconsin, the couple watched last year as the lake’s waters rose, whittling away the shoreline. Crashing waves undermined a protective stone revetment. As other northeast Wisconsinites watched their beachfronts shrink in 2020, they overwhelmed contractors with bookings. High waters have sped erosion along Lake Michigan’s shoreline, swallowing beaches, damaging public lands and draining homeowners’ savings. Cities from Milwaukee to Green Bay and small communities in Door County must confront erosion — a key portion of climate impacts that Wisconsin’s shoreline communities expect to cost at least $245 million over the next five years.

See the first installment of Wisconsin Watch’s Imperiled Shores series: ‘The water always wins’: Calls to protect shorelines as volatile Lake Michigan inflicts heavy toll

In Rittenhouse case, Americans see what they want to see

Associated Press — October 30, 2021

From the moment Kyle Rittenhouse shot three people on the streets of Kenosha during protests over the police shooting of a Black man, he’s personified America’s polarization. The 17-year-old from Illinois who carried an AR-style rifle and idolized police was cheered by those who despised the Black Lives Matter movement and the sometimes destructive protests that followed George Floyd’s death. He was championed by pro-gun conservatives who said he was exercising his Second Amendment rights and defending cities from “antifa,” an umbrella term for leftist militants. Others saw him as the most worrisome example yet of vigilante citizens taking to the streets with guns, often with the tacit support of police — a “chaos tourist,” in the words of the lead prosecutor, who came to Kenosha looking for trouble.

Earlier from Wisconsin Watch: ‘I just killed somebody’: Vigilantes inject danger into police brutality protests in Kenosha, nationwide

Madison has 14 absentee ballot drop boxes, locked until ballots are sent out again, including this one on Williamson Street. But the city is hardly alone, as clerks in at least 245 Wisconsin municipalities reported using the devices last year as an alternative to sending ballots through the mail. John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal

Despite objections from conservatives, clerks in Trump country embraced ballot drop boxes, too

Wisconsin State Journal — November 1, 2021

For more than a year, conservatives have sought to block the use of ballot drop boxes in Wisconsin, or the private money used to purchase them. But the boxes appear to have been a popular place for voters of all political stripes to deposit their absentee ballots during the pandemic, according to a report from the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau. Municipal clerks looked to the freestanding, mailbox-like structures at a time in 2020 when there still wasn’t a vaccine for COVID-19 and public health officials were warning against large gatherings, like at polling places. But conservatives raised questions about the boxes’ security and whether they were allowed under state law — concerns liberals labeled as efforts to suppress the vote, especially in left-leaning areas that were using money from a tech-funded nonprofit to purchase them.

Earlier from Wisconsin Watch: Ballot drop boxes offer ‘a safe place’ for voting in Wisconsin’s election 

Frayed wires. Defective lights. Fire traps. What we found doing electrical inspections in one Milwaukee neighborhood.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — November 3, 2021 

In the dark basement of a duplex on North 19th Street in Milwaukee, Bruce Janczak shines his flashlight at an electrical service panel on the wall. “Touch that and you’ll go flying,” he says. The aged, rusted panel is missing its cover. A web of copper wiring — second only to silver in its ability to conduct electricity — sits exposed. Four young children are upstairs, slowly waking up from a birthday party sleepover. Their mom says she will keep them out of the basement, away from the panel. The panel’s missing cover, while it might seem minor to a layperson, is a serious danger and violates city codes, Janczak says. Most of the components are electrically charged, and sparks can shoot out, easily starting a fire. It’s one of dozens of infractions the master electrician found while inspecting the duplex and other rental properties across this north side neighborhood as part of an ongoing investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Earlier from the Journal Sentinel: Electrical fires hit Milwaukee’s Black renters hardest. Nobody is held accountable.

State Rep. Shae Sortwell, R-Gibson, is shown during debate on an Assembly bill at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin legislator Shae Sortwell was referred for felony child abuse in 2013 before elected, but was never charged

Green Bay Press-Gazette — November 2, 2021

Police sought a felony child abuse charge against a man who now serves as a Wisconsin legislator after he was accused of leaving 4-inch bruises on his child and told officers the Bible commanded him to strike his children as punishment, according to newly released records. The Brown County District Attorney’s Office never charged the lawmaker, Shae Sortwell, and did not explain its decision until eight years later in response to a Green Bay Press-Gazette inquiry. The police investigation took place in January 2013, before Sortwell was elected to the state Assembly, but by then he was active in state and national politics and had served on the Green Bay City Council. In a followup story, the Press-Gazette reported that Green Bay police may have given Sortwell improper notice that the newspaper had requested public records about the case. 

The byline "Wisconsin Watch" represents members of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism's editorial and public engagement and marketing staff.