A threat from Mayor Paul Soglin to veto the 2012 budget over two arts-related items left many council members bitter and angry Thursday morning.
"We had a full on tantrum from the mayor, who behaved not with leadership but with petulance, because he didn't get what he wanted," Ald. Mark Clear said after the meeting.
The veto threat, which came early Thursday, clearly shocked many alders, who thought they were about to go home for the evening. "I don't want to die on this hill," joked Ald. Steve King, pleading for a compromise.
After midnight, Soglin told the council a veto would be coming because of two items: an amendment to provide an extra $500,000 of funding for the Overture Center (for a total of $1.85 million) and an amendment that would axe a proposed study of the city's performing arts venues, slated to cost $125,000.
As the council was about to approve the $250.8 million budget with those amendments, the mayor told members they needed to be ready to meet again soon, to deal with his veto. At first many council members, disgusted and frustrated, were ready to do battle.
Ald. Jill Johnson told her colleagues, "This is a pretty poor performance. Stick to your guns, go ahead and veto it."
"If you want to get bullied, if you want to get lectured at, fine," said Ald. Bridget Maniaci. "This is a silly thing to get worked up over."
Referring to King's joke, Clear said: "The mayor has made it clear this is the hill he wants to kill us all on and throw the entire workings of government over the next couple of weeks into chaos." But he added, the mayor had to take responsibility for it: "If this is that important to the mayor he needs to explain that to the people."
But when council president Lauren Cnare asked Soglin what changes they could make to avoid a veto, he responded, "I can live with the half million for Overture, if we have the study."
The arts study would look at the city's art performance needs in total: what assets it has and what residents and arts groups need and want. Soglin, who did not approve of a restructuring deal the council agreed on last year, said the study was needed as the city looks at future arts funding.
"It's not good enough to just write the check," he said. "The responsibility is greater than that. That's why the study is so important. I made it clear over a year ago."
Some said they wished he'd made that message clearer during the budget deliberations. "After two very, very difficult nights for this body, I wish the mayor had taken a little bit of time to explain to us how strongly he felt," said Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff. "It's uncalled for and does not reflect well on how we do business in the city."
But Bidar-Sielaff added that she would take "the high road" and give the mayor what he wants.
The council reconsidered the amendment to kill the study: the second time around, only Ald. Matt Phair voted to kill the study while Maniaci abstained. The study was left in the overall budget, which increases the tax levy by 4%, raising taxes on the average home by 3.7%.
After the meeting, Clear said that Soglin has settled into a governing style of "threats and intimidation."
"The mayor will get what he wants more often," Clear said. "He's found a tactic that works."
Clear changed his vote on the study because of comments made by Ald. Tim Bruer. "Ald. Bruer convinced me it was better to move the city forward. For the mayor, it's clearly more important to be right."
Of his threatened veto, Soglin said "I didn't want to do that. I didn't want it to play out that way."
But he said he wasn't being a bully, noting that he accepted the council's desire to give an extra $500,000 to Overture.
Soglin also dismissed the anger of some alders. "Bridget Maniaci was very upset. [Maniaci] who went on the radio this morning and attacked half a dozen council members on the radio, trashed them."
"Maybe I'm too subtle sometimes," he said. "If I say something, I mean it. I may say it quietly, but it counts."
"There continues to be no love lost between the mayor and a handful of alders," said Ald. Mike Verveer. "Last night certainly did not help relations."
"I've never seen such high theatrics and drama during our budget deliberations before," he added. "It was appropriate considering we were talking about the arts, how dramatic the discussion was."
Despite the harsh feelings, the mayor and many council members went to out for a traditional post meeting drink after the meeting.