The building across the street, with a large sign in the terrace that apparently has not drawn regulatory concern.
File it under "The Thanks We Get."
This spring the city of Madison notified the Art Gecko store on Monroe Street that a citizen had complained about a stone carving in the garden it built to beautify the neighborhood. The carving, mostly obscured by foliage, bears the words "Art Gecko." According to the notice, "No permit can be obtained for this signage as displayed."
When the sign was not promptly removed, the city's building code office sent another note calling it an "unlawful display" and issuing a $172 citation.
Art Gecko co-owner Marcel Colbert and wife Frances Colbert are stunned. He acquired the store in August 2004 and immediately began working to spruce up the then barren terrace outside its front door. Store employee Jake Goeller has worked to turn the 10-by-54-foot space into an extraordinary urban garden.
Marcel Colbert estimates he's spent more than $10,000 on plants, soil, sculptures and labor, which he considered a gift to the neighborhood. The stone carving, made in Indonesia, has been in place for four years. He considers it "something that looked cool," not an effort to promote his business. He notes that it's not presenting a safety hazard or obstructing the right-of-way.
"It seems the city is just kind of blindly saying, 'This is a violation, you have to comply,'" he says. "It doesn't seem like there's a lot of thought that's gone into the city's position."
Indeed, in the terrace just across the street from Art Gecko is a large sign advertising the availability of Monroe Commons condo units. This sign has apparently not drawn the city's regulatory interest.
Colbert says what worries him most is that someone else might subsequently complain about other aspects of the garden that run afoul of a strict reading of city rules - "somebody says these plants are in the way, my dog can't urinate freely" - and another crackdown will come.
At a July 7 court appearance, it was agreed that the store could avoid fines and other enforcement action if it removed the offending sign within 60 days, or by early September. Art Gecko plans to comply, but remains plenty sore about it.
"The city's decision to prosecute Art Gecko seems to place one [complainer's] concerns above those of an entire community," the store says in a statement. "Art Gecko is reluctant to continue its investment into the community garden if it is exposed to liability [from] (apparently) random, unthinking enforcement."
Frances Colbert, a lawyer, argues that "this type of violation was not what the ordinance was drafted against." She notes that the store could avoid problems just by sandblasting the words "Art Gecko" from the stone. Marcel takes this point further: "If it said 'Jake's Garden' or 'U.S.A. No. 1,' it wouldn't be an issue."
Matt Tucker, the city's zoning administrator, agrees: "Its commercial message is what makes it a sign." Therefore, under an interpretation from the Madison city attorney in 2000, it cannot qualify for a "privilege in the streets" exemption.
Barbara Wright, who owns the Dardanelles restaurant down the street, calls the garden "lovely" and is sorry for the fuss the sign has caused. "I don't think it's hurting anyone being there, and it's not a flashy sign, it's art," she says. "It's just too bad - of all the things [the city] could be worrying about."
But both she and area Ald. Julie Kerr feel the city must enforce its rules uniformly. Says Kerr, "When a taxpayer calls, they have to look into it."
Kerr says it's "unfortunate" that the city's enforcement action has left the Colberts feeling abused: "Everybody loves the garden. I love the garden. I think it's spectacular."
On Monday as Goeller was deadheading flowers and showing the garden to a reporter, a passerby stopped to admire his work. "Nice," he said, walking on, not the least bit perturbed by the Art Gecko carving.
Follow the money
In his bid for an open Dane County circuit court judge seat this April, assistant U.S. attorney Stephen Ehlke convinced just about everyone - including his successful opponent, Julie Genovese - that he was qualified for the job. Thus many people thought Gov. Jim Doyle would pick him for one of three Dane County judge vacancies caused by midterm resignations.
But it was not to be. Though Ehlke made a screening panel's initial cut from 28 to 14 applicants, Doyle ended up picking three others: former prosecutor Amy Smith, personal injury lawyer Nick McNamara and administrative law judge Peter Anderson.
By an amazing coincidence, Smith, McNamara and Anderson just happen to be the three applicants from among the 28 who gave the most money to Doyle's gubernatorial campaigns, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's searchable database.
In recent years, Smith has given the guv $1,525, McNamara $1,100 and Anderson $900. The next-highest donor from among the finalists was Monica Burkert-Brist, an assistant attorney general, who has given Doyle $745 - but nothing since 2001.
Of the 14 applicants eliminated in the first round, only two greased the skids for Doyle's campaigns, including administrative law judge Robert Pultz, who gave $800. (Another first-cut reject, assistant public defender Gary Mason Taylor, really blew it by giving $2,400 to Doyle's 2006 challenger, Mark Green.)
In contrast, eight of the 14 finalists, including the winners, gave money to Doyle. Among the minority who gave nothing were four strong contenders: Ehlke and assistant Dane County district attorneys Karie Cattanach, Robert Kaiser and Timothy Verhoff.
Ehlke is "disappointed" he was passed up but isn't speculating as to why. He says his campaign treasurer had thought his failure to give was a good thing, because it eliminated the appearance of a conflict.
But such concerns seem not to weigh heavily on Doyle. According to The Capital Times, he picked Smith, his top contributor, despite getting a signed letter from state public defender John Tradewell that questioned her fitness and said she "would stop at nothing to gain an advantage." Other letter writers praised Smith; it's always hard to know on what basis decisions are made.
On Friday, Dane County Judge Stuart Schwartz announced plans to retire, effective Oct. 2. It will be interesting to see who gets to fill that vacancy, and how much he or she has given the guv.
Dane County's erstwhile policy of insisting that requests for records be mailed or delivered in person seems to be dying from 1,000 paper cuts.
First, in an article last November, the State Journal pointed out that the city of Madison's new records policy expressly allows emailed requests. In February, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney announced that his office was accepting records requests online or by phone.
Now Dane County Supv. Carousel Bayrd is planning to introduce an amendment to the county's open records law requiring that email and online requests be treated as valid.
"My goal is to make it very simple and sweet," says Bayrd, adding that the current "splintered" policy, where one county agency may honor an emailed request and another may not, is untenable.
The county, she says, is now creating a central portal to accommodate electronic requests. She thinks that's a great idea: "It's an understatement to say, 'Get with the times.'"
From a handwritten letter to Isthmus: "The first self-extinguishing cigarette papers are now appearing in Wisconsin due to recent legislation. People should be extra cautious with their smoking now as the lit tip falls off very easily with the new type of paper. Cigarettes may be more of a fire hazard now than with the previous cigarette paper." Don't say we didn't warn you.