I just talked to Brian Benford, a former alder and current member of the Equal Opportunities Commission. Benford is also a UW student and was a member of student government until he left last semester to tend to a sick family member.
Benford unequivocally supports shutting down the Africana restaurant on Atwood Ave. The eastside joint, which has drawn neighborhood concerns because of noise and several violent incidents, was recently the subject of a city ordinance that requires restaurants with a capacity of over 49 customers to apply for entertainment licenses in order to host DJs or live bands.
Benford says he's down with hip-hop, down with diversity but that the restaurant has been bad for the neighborhood.
In addition, Benford weighed in on the recent debate about whether to allow the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Affirmative Action Commission to introduce ordinances to the City Council without the sponsorship of an alder. Benford was a big backer of the plan, and emphasized that politics can often get in the way of alders allowing good civil rights policy to even get to the floor, in the same way that the city Plan Commission can introduce ordinances on city planning policy independently.
"Sewers and streets are important I'm not going to debate that. But with something like civil rights it's our role to make sure that's not swept under the rug, that the conversation sees the light of day."
What surprised me was Benford's belief that a civil rights issue would be so contentious within a constituency that an alder would not want to debate it. In Madison? Nevertheless, Benford gave me an interesting example. When he was on the Council several years ago, the mayor's creation of a new civil rights department worried some progressive activists, who believed the new department might threaten the power of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Affirmative Action Commission. He said there were many people who didn't want it to be brought to the floor. He ended up voting against the measure but is now satisfied with the department.
I still don't see why the change would be necessary. There are always reasons why certain alders won't want to discuss certain legislation, but there are 20 of them! No, they're not going to come up with all the best ordinances themselves, but all it takes is a commission member putting in a phone call to try and get support from one of them! It's probably not as convenient as commission members would like, but democracy is an inconvenient process altogether.