For much of the last year, Madison Mayor Dave Ciewslewicz and other city officials have been working in closed-door sessions to circumvent city commissions and the zoning code, so that Edgewater Hotel expansion can succeed, according to Ald. Mike Verveer.
Verveer, a veteran downtown alder, paints an alarming portrait of a city hall that, by accident or design, has spun out of control for the sake of a single development.
The Common Council will vote Tuesday to overturn the Landmarks Commission's rejection of the project. The developer, Hammes Sports and Entertainment, cannot otherwise proceed. A super-majority of 14 of 20 alders is needed for the appeal.
At least two alders, Larry Palm and Michael Schumacher, are unable to attend, and Cieslewicz has stated that they could later ask the council to revisit the appeal, regardless of how the vote goes. Meanwhile, the mayor has vowed to "fix" the landmarks ordinance, which he says is "broken."
This is just the most visible example of unorthodox practices at city hall, says Verveer, who has served on the council since 1995, including two terms as its president.
"At this point I'm so fed up that I'll just tell you everything," says Verveer, who plans to vote to uphold the Landmarks Commission's denial.
Verveer says that while Cieslewicz and Bob Dunn, president of Hammes Sports, appeared to react with surprise to the Landmarks Commission'srejection, in truth both have always expected a super-majority vote, and planning for this contingency has been extensive.
"For quite some time now, but especially since late spring, early summer, when the mayor pretty much made the decision that he very much supports this project, he has actively been engaged in strategy sessions," says Verveer. "The strategy included the thought that the road map to final approval, at least for the land use questions, would have to include having the council overturn the Landmarks Commission."
Verveer says these sessions included the mayor's office, Hammes Co. and three key alders: council president Tim Bruer, president pro tem Mark Clear, and Bridget Maniaci. "They have meetings in the mayor's office with all these people, and they discuss strategy," says Verveer. The goal is to neutralize barriers to the project and tally likely commission and council votes.
Maniaci confirms these meetings, but pegs them more as process discussions. As for when they've occurred, she says, "I honestly don't remember."
"Yes, there have been such meetings," says mayoral spokesperson Rachel Strauch-Nelson. "As you know, the mayor believes this is an important project for the city and he's met with a lot of people to discuss it, including opponents. I wouldn't characterize it as out of the ordinary for the mayor to meet with people to discuss a project he supports."
In early November, says Verveer, the most urgent concern for Hammes and the mayor's strategy team was the project's tax increment financing (TIF), and how alders would vote. Land use issues such as zoning and historic preservation were lesser concerns.
"They were very scared of the three-quarters vote needed for the TIF question," says Verveer. "That's why they had the full court press to keep the money in the mayor's budget for the TIF, because they didn't think they'd get a three-quarters vote. But for land use they think it's an easier burden -- that there are enough alders who just don't care about land use as much as about as $16 million in TIF."
Verveer says that besides anticipating the need to override the Landmarks Commission, the strategy team has focused on "having the Zoning Board of Appeals taken out of the equation" because the board was seen as a "danger" to the project.
"It's a 100% citizen body, no elected officials on the body, and their decisions are appealable only to a circuit court," says Verveer. "If Hammes wanted to prevail over an unfavorable ZBA ruling they would have to go to court, which would be difficult to overturn, generally, given past precedent."
Under current city rules, the Zoning Board of Appeals must issue a variance to allow Hammes to build so close to the water. The board has not yet acted and Hammes has not yet provided it with materials or measurements. Verveer says this is because there's talk about avoiding the board entirely by amending the shoreline preservation ordinance to exempt commercial buildings.
Says Verveer, "So all the way along, behind closed doors they have talked about how to get around the ZBA."
Verveer alleges that neutralizing the Landmarks Commission has been a constant goal of the Edgewater's proponents. Perhaps not coincidentally, the city has not filled the position of preservation planner since Kitty Rankin retired nearly a year ago.
The position has remained vacant despite a May 21 memo from Brad Murphy, planning division director. He warned that leaving the "critical" position unfilled was causing "significant hardship" and stalling progress on a "backlog of critical historic preservation initiatives."
Murphy said his department lacks "the necessary qualifications to carry out the responsibilities of this position. Since many historic preservation issues arise in the context of a new development proposal, these historic preservation controversies often play out in a very public forum and require the guidance of a preservation planner who is properly trained and has the experience to deal with such issues."
Prior to the Nov. 30 meeting at which the Landmarks Commission denied the Edgewater's variance and certificate of appropriateness, Rebecca Cnare, the city's acting preservation planner, raised a concern about whether one of the commissioners should be allowed to vote.
Cnare contacted Landmarks commissioner Erica Gehrig, who also serves on the board of the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation, which has opposed the Edgewater expansion. Cnare flagged this as a possible conflict and suggested that Gerhig should speak with city attorney Michael May to see if she should recuse herself.
Gehrig says May advised her that yes, she should recuse herself. However, "I got a second opinion," says Gehrig. She told the rest of the commission of her "conflict," there were no objections, so she voted anyway - against the expansion.
Strauch-Nelson says Cieslewicz had nothing to do with this turn of events: "The mayor did not tell Mike [May] or Erica that she couldn't vote."
As for what acting preservation planner Cnare says, on the eve of the city's biggest landmarks decision since the Landmarks Commission was created in 1971, she can't be reached for comment. She's out of the office until Dec. 14.