Tuesday night's Madison Common Council meeting was, as Ald. Julia Kerr joked, akin to the Academy Awards: "I love this part where we thank everybody and pat each other on the back."
After months of frustration and confusion over a plan to erase the Overture Center's $28.6 million debt, the council agreed to a deal most members could live with. They spent hours congratulating everyone, before voting 14-5 to accept a plan that gives ownership and management of the center to 201 State Foundation (or some successor organization), with the promise of an annual $2 million subsidy from the city, adjusted for inflation. (Alds. Marsha Rummel, Paul Skidmore, Chris Schmidt, Thuy Pham-Remmele and Larry Palm all voted against the plan; Ald. Judy Compton was absent.)
Concerns about city employees at Overture were alleviated, though not erased. They will remain city employees until Jan. 1, 2012, when they will have the option of taking a job with 201 State, at the same pay rate (including a 3% raise next November) and with a similar benefits package, but without certain civil service protections and a city pension.
"It is with a heavy heart that I'll support this...only because of the employee issues," Ald. Mike Verveer told his colleagues.
His concern isn't just for the 47 permanent Overture employees. Twenty-four of them, represented by AFSCME Local 60, have "bumping rights" - meaning that if they want to stay with the city but there is no vacancy, they can push an employee with less seniority out of his or her job.
Verveer feared "a tragedy of mass bumping throughout the city.... If we don't do this right, there will be harsh consequences in terms of layoffs."
Confidence in the plan was hardly evident, with many alders expecting that the council will have to take up the matter again in another five or 10 years.
Ald. Marsha Rummel said the consensus during the council's marathon Nov. 30 meeting was that some option of public ownership would be best. Instead, the deal negotiated over the past two weeks went in the other direction.
"The outcome is all the debt goes away and all the underlying problems don't," Rummel said. "After all the talk about it going dark, it's often dark now. It's not physically dark, but it's locked down to the public."
Which is why Rummel was in the minority voting against the deal. "This is the best political solution," she said, "but not the solution for a world-class arts center."
A better way to redistrict?
As 2010 Census data starts trickling in next year, Dane County will begin the messy, contentious process known as "redistricting."
And when it comes to this task of redrawing legislative boundaries, County Supv. Eileen Bruskewitz knows "there's mischief to be played all around." The last time this was done, after the 2000 Census, Bruskewitz was a freshman County Board supervisor, and the process was handled by a committee of supervisors.
"It was very contentious," she remembers.
This time around, Bruskewitz has proposed having the boundaries drawn by a panel of five retired circuit court judges, picked by the County Board chair. She believes this will make the process fairer: "When elected officials are doing this, they're trying to save their seats."
Supv. John Hendrick, who took part in the last redistricting, is less concerned about who is in charge than "the standards of how they do it." It's important not to carve up communities or minority neighborhoods.
Each time the process comes up, there are proposals to reduce or increase the number of County Board districts, currently at 37. Some have even called for reducing the number to five members and making it a professional board.
But Hendrick says studies have shown that "smaller boards tend to spend more money per capita." Board Chair Scott McDonell is also against drastically shrinking the board, saying this would mean supervisors must raise more money to get elected.
They work hard for the money
Meanwhile, Common Council President Mark Clear hopes to use redistricting to help the body he presides over run more smoothly.
The problem, as he sees it, is that the job demands too much work for the pay. "There's too much work for people to do part time," he says. "We have to find ways to make it less work or ways to make it pay more."
Alders make $7,546 a year. The pro tem makes $8,456, and the council president makes $10,050.
During the Overture negotiations, Clear estimates he put in about 50 hours a week on council business, leaving not much for his regular job, as head of IMS, which develops content management systems for websites. "Over the past nine months, it probably averages 30 to 35 hours a week."
Clear suggests making the council presidency a part-time paid position and giving the council more resources. "It's a matter of strengthening the institution," he says.
Train, train gone away, come again some other day
Last week's announcement that the federal government was reallocating Wisconsin's $810 million train grant to 13 other states seemed to be the death knell not just for high-speed rail in Madison but for a whole host of offshoots: commuter rail, a public market, a new hotel.
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz admits the loss of funding is a blow, but says he'll continue to work toward adding a public market and a new downtown hotel.
Moreover, he isn't giving up on a train: "Someday, there will be a high-speed rail station at that location. Obviously, it's not going to happen in the next four years."