During the contentious budget debate over city funding for the Overture Center, Mayor Paul Soglin at one point sent the city's finance director, David Schmiedicke, to the arts center to review salary information the group would not disclose in writing.
Schmiedicke didn't get to look at individual salaries, but he was able to look at - although not print - total salaries and benefits that Overture paid for different groups of employees. It's a sign of just how strained things have gotten between the mayor's office and Overture.
Although Overture and the city recently agreed to sign another year's contract - something the city does with all groups it funds - the relationship between the two appears likely to remain prickly.
Ald. Mike Verveer, who sits on the Overture Center Foundation Board and thus represents both the city and the arts center, agrees relations could be better.
"It just seems silly to me to have the city have to go to extraordinary steps of visiting the office in person or filing open records requests," he says. "It seems like both sides are making it unnecessarily difficult for the other side."
In a news conference last month, Soglin blasted Overture for using Madison tax dollars to provide free or reduced programming to students well outside the city limits. He's also criticized Overture for not being upfront about how it spends its money.
In a phone interview last week, a surly Soglin said he wants the arts center to offer "what we would expect if they were a public agency, access to all compensation records. We'd like more information about how rental rates are established, more information regarding how the city funds are distributed for subsidized programming."
Overture spokesman Robert Chappell says he can't identify how specific revenues are spent. "Unless donations are specifically earmarked, they go into the general fund. The city grant was intended to support operations and capital needs."
So why were schoolchildren pleading with the council not to cut specific school programs during the budget deliberations?
Chappell responds: "Just because a city dollar isn't tracked step by step by step, it is one piece of a puzzle, and if any one of those things falls away, we have to start cutting. What do we cut first? Anything that doesn't produce revenue," such as subsidized programming for children.
Overture has provided everything the city asked for, Chappell says, with one exception: individual salaries of employees, which he says was done "in the interest of privacy of our employees."
Verveer says that's a mistake. "The Overture Center has nothing to hide. There's nothing to be embarrassed about, there's nothing in the budget we're trying to keep secret," he says. "I think our salaries are consistent with what city government pays, if not falling short."
Verveer says Janet Piraino, an aide to former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, took a pay cut when she left the city to work at Overture as vice president of advancement.
When Overture was restructured two years ago, it agreed to meet financial benchmarks in exchange for a $2 million annual city subsidy that has already been reduced. Schmiedicke says the city won't be able to evaluate how the arts center is doing until after June, when Overture completes its first fiscal year under the new structure.
Overture officials hope to get the funding conversation rolling earlier next year. "It's not worth fighting over," Verveer says. "Nobody wants to go through the very painful fight for funding for Overture every year. Having conversations with the mayor early in the year is critical."
[Editor's note: Isthmus associate publisher Linda Baldwin is a member of Overture Center Foundation's board of directors.]