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GM compensation offer includes families of girls who died in St. Croix County; Man says ‘tomato’ but cop says ‘pot’; More state news

Families of three Wisconsin victims in a 2006 traffic crash linked to General Motors' faulty ignition switches have yet to decide whether to take a company settlement.

Ken Rimer says the families will meet with their lawyer tomorrow after GM announced a compensation fund Monday.

Natasha Weigel, 18, and Amy Rademacher, 15, were killed when their car stalled, veered off a road and slammed into trees in rural St. Croix County. The driver, Megan Phillips, 17, suffered brain damage.

GM has admitted that one of the girls died directly from the ignition problem because an air bag in front of her had not deployed. Yesterday GM said all passengers in such crashes would be eligible for compensation after refusing to compensate back seat riders previously.

The three Wisconsin families have a lawsuit pending. Rimer says he'll need to know more before deciding whether to drop the suit and accept GM's compensation. Amounts have not been disclosed, but company settlement administrator Kenneth Feinberg said families would know the offers before having to decide whether to take them.


State Supreme Court poised to rule on ‘bombshell’ cases

July will feature some big decisions from Wisconsin's highest court on issues like showing photo ID's to vote and restoring at least some public union bargaining.

The State Supreme Court is about to rule on several major cases, including whether the Republicans' voter ID mandate from 2011 is constitutional. A federal judge says it's not, and the state will need to win its appeals on both the state and federal levels before the law can be brought back.

The state justices must also rule on whether the GOP's Act-10 public union bargaining limits apply to municipal, county and school district employees. State employees will have to follow Act 10 regardless.

The Supreme Court will also decide whether same-sex couples will lose the domestic partner registry created by Democrats in 2009. It gives those couples about 40% of the legal benefits that married couples get, including end of life decisions.

The justices will also decide whether it's legal for University of Wisconsin campuses to ban people from their properties. That was after the university ordered student fee protester Jeffrey Decker to stay off all 26 UW campuses.

The Supreme Court normally saves its bombshell decisions for last. As of late May, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson said the justices still needed to discuss three-fourths of the cases still facing them. They imposed time limits on their deliberations so they can get everything done.


Man says ‘tomato’; cop says ‘pot’

You say "tomato." I say ... well, a Wausau police officer said it was pot.

Officials said a 60-year-old man claimed he was growing tomatoes on his upper level patio while an officer recognized the plants as being marijuana and seized 29 plants.

Police said they were tipped off about the marijuana patch last Saturday.

A 53-year-old woman fessed up and said the drug was for her own use. The couple faces possible charges of manufacturing marijuana and possessing drug paraphernalia.

--Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau


Door County businesses damaged by fire

STURGEON BAY -- Several businesses were destroyed in a building that caught fire overnight Monday in Sturgeon Bay.

Firefighters were called the Harbor Place Shoppes just after midnight. The Steel Bridge Cafe and the Ranly Maritime Gallery were among the shops that were damaged. There were no reports of injuries.

Red Cross personnel were on hand to help emergency crews.

A nearby bridge on Michigan Street was closed but it was expected to reopen later Tuesday morning.


Milwaukee-area storms knock out electric service for 114,000 users

About 36,000 electric customers just north and west of Milwaukee were without power at daybreak after another round of heavy storms.

We Energies reported new outages during the night. About 114,000 We Energies customers in southeast Wisconsin lost their electricity Monday. Almost 30 power poles were damaged in what the utility said was its worst outage in the last ten years.

Wisconsin Power and Light had 1,500 customers out -- down from a high of 10,000.

Rapid rains of up to 2.5 inches, and winds up to 78 mph toppled trees throughout the southern part of the state. Pardeeville -- which had an inch and a half of rain in 20 minutes Sunday -- got another half inch late last night.

Gov. Scott Walker toured storm damage in La Crosse yesterday, but that city didn't get much compared to what parts of southwest and northwest Wisconsin got over the past few days.

WEAU TV of Eau Claire said the Colfax school had a $500,000 of damage from a tornado on Friday.

A pair of tornadoes were confirmed near Dodgeville and in rural Dane County on Sunday. A funnel cloud was spotted late yesterday in Grant County, but it didn't touch down.


Bear checks out Eau Claire restaurant

A bear with an apparent appetite hung around the Olive Garden restaurant in Eau Claire late yesterday.

WQOW TV had a photo of the animal on its Website.

An employee saw the bear show up around 4:45 p.m. It hung around the parking lot for about ten minutes until a car almost hit the animal while it was crossing a street. After that, the bear ran off.

Restaurant employees called police, but there was no immediate word on whether authorities could find the bear.


Great Lakes officials say water-standard revision coming too fast

State and local officials along the Great Lakes are upset about a federal proposal to reduce the threshold for warning people about contaminated beach water.

The Environmental Protection Agency told states a couple years ago to update their standards for protecting swimmers from fecal E. coli contamination on coastal beaches.

Now the EPA wants states to warn swimmers about possible contamination once fecal bacteria reaches lower levels than in the past. And if it's not enough, states could lose federal funding to test the waters for things like E. coli.

Michigan officials say Great Lakes states will probably forfeit their federal testing money this year because their legislatures would not have time to change their laws to meet the new reporting requirements.

A public comment period for the measure ended in late May. The EPA's Betsy Southerland says a final decision will be made by the end of July.

Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council said Wisconsin had the 8th worst beaches among 30 coastal states. It said 14% of the state's water samples failed to meet new EPA standards for safe swimming waters.


Anticipated changes in state’s hiring processes raise skepticism

There's a report that the Walker administration is in the early stages of streamlining the hiring process for civil service employees in state government.

That's the nearly 110-year-old system that assures qualified people work in most state jobs without regard to political connections.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said it was told multiple times by administration officials that they're not looking to change the civil service system, but the newspaper said it obtained records of early talks toward that end.

Four top officials told the paper they don't intend to change the basic civil service concept of hiring people on merit instead of political favors. But Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said the state needs to respond more quickly to fill a growing number of posts vacated by an older workforce with impending retirements.

Some critics are skeptical, especially after the GOP's Act 10 law virtually eliminated most public union bargaining. Marty Beil, head of the state's largest employees union, said he wondered why the civil service talks are so quiet and why the administration is not working with Employment Relations agency which handles the program.

Beil says the talks appear more "politically motivated than functionally motivated."

The Journal Sentinel says other states – like Arizona, Tennessee and Colorado -- are changing their civil service systems.


Skeletal remains found in woods near Rhinelander

Authorities in northern Wisconsin hope an autopsy will provide answers after skeletal remains were found yesterday in a wooded area near Rhinelander.

Oneida County Chief Deputy Dan Hess said a person walking in the woods saw the remains and called 911 around noon Monday. The remains were in the town of Pelican near Lake Julia.

Hess said the early word that was the victim was a man, and he did not appear to die recently. Hess said his officers have no current reports of missing persons in the area.

Anyone with information about a possible missing man is asked to call the Oneida County sheriff's office.

--Raymond Neupert and Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau


DOJ investigates police shooting death

The state Department of Justice says it's almost finished investigating the death of a mentally ill man shot by a Milwaukee police officer in a downtown park over two months ago.

Dontre Hamilton, 31, was killed April 30 in Milwaukee's Red Arrow Park by a 13-year police veteran.

Attorneys for Hamilton’s family have complained about the slowness of the investigation and a lack of communication about the progress of the probe.  Lawyer Jonathan Safran said that until yesterday, he didn't hear anything from the DOJ for five weeks.

Justice spokeswoman Dana Brueck said the investigation was more complex than others because the shooting happened in the middle of the day in a busy location and lots of witnesses had to be interviewed.

A new state law requires an outside agency to investigate deaths that involve police officers. In many cases, the justice department is that agency.

Milwaukee police said the officer was sent to Red Arrow Park to check on Hamilton, who was lying on the ground. The officer was said to have helped Hamilton up. When the officer patted him down, a scuffle ensued, Hamilton beat the officer with his baton, and the officer responded by shooting the man. Witnesses heard up to ten gunshots.


Man who killed son says his kids bullied him

Prosecutors said a Glendale man was apparently drunk when he shot and killed one of his sons and wounded another.

He claimed he was bullied by his kids and his estranged wife, according to a criminal complaint filed yesterday against Robert Washington, 57, of Glendale.

He's charged in Milwaukee County with reckless homicide for the shooting death of Robert Washington II and reckless injury for the wounding of Wesley Washington, 15. The shootings occurred last Thursday at the family's home.

According to prosecutors, the elder Washington was drinking vodka while he watched his younger son play baseball. Later, Wesley knocked over his father while playing basketball, and the father was quoted as saying "You do that again, you ain't gonna wake up."

Both sons were shot a little while later. Glendale police quoted the defendant as saying his younger son tried bullying him "all the time." His wife Annette filed for divorce last fall.


Second suitcase death victim identified

It took almost a month to identify the second of two people found dead in suitcases near Lake Geneva.

Police said it was because Jenny Gamez, 19, was never reported missing from her home state of Oregon.

Her foster mother, Lorraine Ericksen, told reporters that Gamez lost touch with her family after she moved from her home in Cottage Grove, Ore., to be closer to a community college. Gamez had won a scholarship just before she disappeared, and Ericksen said she appeared to be turning her life around after she gave up her son to his father.

Former West Allis police officer Steven Zelich is charged in Walworth County with hiding the corpses of Gamez and Laura Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minn.

Prosecutors say homicide charges will be sought in the places where the women were killed -- Simonson in Rochester, Minn., and Gamez in Kenosha County.

Police allege Zelich met the women online, killed them when he met them and hung onto their remains for months before they were found on a grassy roadside June 5.

Zelich's attorney, Travis Schwantes, has said that both deaths might have been accidents and they might have taken place during consensual sex.


Survey shows most employers offer benefits to domestic partners

Just over four of every five employers now offer fringe benefits to employees' domestic partners in same-sex relationships, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

In June almost 540 employers answered surveys from the foundation, located in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield

Almost a third of employers offer benefits to same-sex couples in states where gay marriage is not legal. That includes Wisconsin.

Foundation CEO Michael Wilson says some employers are making changes in order to comply with various laws. Others say they're doing it to make their corporate culture more inclusive.


Motor manufacturer expands

The Regal-Beloit Corporation is getting bigger.  The company said this morning it acquired Benshaw Inc. of Pittsburgh for $50 million.

Benshaw makes custom voltage drives for manufacturing equipment.

Regal-Beloit CEO Mark Gliebe said Benshaw is an "excellent fit" for Beloit's custom electronic drive business. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation of North Carolina is selling Benshaw after owning it since 2007.

Regal-Beloit makes a host of electric motors, mechanical and motion controls, and other industrial power generating products. It has offices in Beloit, Wausau and at least 14 countries.