Bauman presses for details on Park East Kohl’s bid
When downtown Ald. Robert Bauman (4th District) asked a committee to order the City Clerk to make an open records request demanding information relative to the city’s failed negotiations with Kohl’s Corporation, he was using a tool most often employed by the media to wrestle facts from a recalcitrant government agency. The move also points to a strained relationship between some council members, like Bauman and the Barrett administration. It may also point to some dissension within council ranks.
Bauman is increasingly showing his impatience with the Barrett administration and Department of City Development (DCD) Commissioner Rocky Marcoux. On March 4, Bauman introduced a resolution at the Zoning Neighborhoods & Development Committee calling for the administration to “disclose all records related to Kohl’s Corporation’s consideration of relocating its corporate headquarters to downtown Milwaukee.”
The city, with Marcoux as its lead negotiator, conducted secret negotiations with Kohl’s with the goal of locating its headquarters in downtown’s demised Park East freeway corridor.
The City, Bauman feels, went beyond the ordinary in its approach to Kohl’s, offering a nine-digit financial incentive to induce Kohl’s to locate in Park East. The city even secretly purchased the iconic Sydney HIH Building through a surrogate to aid in assembling the site for the retailer.
Ultimately, Kohl’s announced that it would not move to Park East. However, it did not announce say where it would move, thereby drawing more attention to Park East and the city’s failed negotiations than if it had simply announced a winner.
According to Council File 111503, “the unsuccessful attempt to attract Kohl’s Corporation’s headquarters to the city of Milwaukee will have negative repercussions on the local real estate market, and particularly the redevelopment of downtown Milwaukee.”
Bauman’s resolution said that the DCD “did not consult with the majority of Common Council members about its recruitment efforts for Kohl’s and provided little information about its negotiating strategies.”
Bauman has been skeptical of city efforts on Kohl’s, and feels the city may have been used by the corporation in order to secure more favorable bids from suburban communities vying for the headquarters. He has said that the plan by Kohl’s to move downtown “was never real.” He was earlier upset with Marcoux for missing what he said was an opportunity to buy a troubled gasoline station at the northeast corner of N. 27th St. and W. Wisconsin Avenue as part of Bauman’s plans to redevelop that intersection in his district. He has also been critical of the department’s spending of millions of dollars for the Century City project, in which the former AO Smith / Tower Automotive site is to be redeveloped.
Bauman was riled that Marcoux stumbled on a $125,000 bid differential on the gas station purchase, while Century City has cost over $13 million in city funds “with nothing to show for it.”
How the measure fared
Bauman’s proposed substitute resolution called for the office of the City Clerk to file an open records request with the Department of City Development and the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee for the records sought.
This alone shows the degree of separation between council members like Bauman and the administration in this matter, since in many instances aldermen automatically receive rather substantial dossiers on development plans. The city and its agencies are permitted by law to conduct some negotiations in closed session, but there are limitations on the extent to which these discussions can range. By making a public records request, Bauman hit on a rather crafty legal stratagem, aligning his efforts with those of the media.
Also looking for answers about the Kohl’s plan was reporter Tom Daykin of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He said his editors had also made a request for the records, which could run into thousands of pages — and thousands of dollars. As permitted by law, the city could choose to redact some of the documents to preserve the secrecy of negotiated items, which would take some manpower.
However, the release of public records has considerably changed from the time when it would require physical staff to go through files, copy them, and send them to the recipient, and there is lively debate about permissible charges for public records in the electronic era.
Bauman told the committee that since the documents will be shown by the news media to be public records that cannot be withheld, the city must also comply with his request for the documents. The committee was reluctant to allow this matter to go to a vote, partially to avoid the wrath of Common Council President Willie Hines, who was kept apprised of negotiations, and knows what Bauman wants to learn.
Opposed to the release of documents was a consortium of real estate interests, who argued in a letter that:
“Negotiations such as the one involving Kohl’s Corporation, and other major developments that may ultimately take place on the Park East property, are filled with a great deal of propriety information, as well as sensitive financial data that, if released, is likely to put the City at a disadvantage in future deals. “
Commissioner Marcoux said he supports the release of the information, which he says is in excess of 2000 pages, but feels it should not be released to the public, but shared in private, perhaps at a closed session of the Steering and Rules Committee of the council, which is headed by Hines.
Ald. Willie Wade, a committee member, alluded to this saying he did not mind asking the commissioner for this information, but felt that voting on the measure might upset “a colleague of mine.” That colleague would be President Hines, who is best not trifled with. In the end, the committee decided to postpone consideration of the matter until a later committee hearing by which time the members hope the Journal Sentinel’s public records request would have been heard, and the matter mooted. The next meeting of the committee will be at March 20 at 8 a.m., immediately before a scheduled Common Council meeting. If the matter is acted on in committee at that time — that is, if the city has not fulfilled Bauman’s open records request — it can be voted on later that day by the full council.
In other news
If this is 2012, why are Common Council files still numbered beginning with “11?”
“That’s because our calendar starts in April,” says Deputy City Clerk Jim Owczarski. Files will start with “12” after the Charter Meeting of the council on April 11. The charter meeting is held once every four years, and is one time when City Hall gets decorated and festooned. That meeting also is when the council selects its president and chooses the City Clerk.
Owczarski says he does not know if his boss, Ron Leonhardt, will seek to return to that position, but there are signs that if the council wants him, Leonhardt will serve, since the city will be host to an international meeting of legislative clerks in 2014.
Also at the Charter Meeting, or thereabouts, comes the quadrennial matter of the assignment of committee seats and chairmanships. This may provide a problem this time around for President Hines or his successor, since it is entirely possible that for the first time in memory, all council members might return.
Traditionally, new members would be assigned to committees like Licenses, which is a time-consuming task. As senior members retired, or occasionally were defeated, it would open up seats and chairmanships in other committees, so there would be some mobility. However, with a good chance that the old gang might return in its entirety, Hines could elect to simply keep everybody where they are, or shuffle committee assignments somewhat arbitrarily. It will be interesting to see how this develops.