Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Mayor Could Lose Control of Historic Preservation Commission

Bauman and council committee support council president appointing HPC members.

By - Feb 3rd, 2021 09:03 am
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee’s historic preservation regulations are anything but historic.

The City of Milwaukee has changed the ordinance multiple times in the past two decades, including switching the reporting structure for the full-time staff from Department of City Development control to City Clerk control.

Now, led by Alderman Robert Bauman, the council is moving to take control of who gets to sit on the seven-member, part-time board of the Historic Preservation Commission. The move would give the Common Council president, not the mayor, control of who gets appointed for three-year terms.

For just over four years, the commission has operated with only six members. Multiple times Urban Milwaukee has witnessed meetings rushed because of quorum concerns, with at least four commissioners required to be present to conduct official business. Now it only has five members.

Following the expiration of her term in December 2020, Marion Clendenen-Acosta, an architect with Kahler Slater, elected to step down to spend more time with her family.

“If the Mayor’s not interested in historic preservation, we will basically make the complete switch over,” said Bauman to members of the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee on Tuesday. “We need a full seven, just as we need a full nine on the Fire & Police Commission.”

One vacancy has been outstanding for so long that the city’s online records system indicates that the vacancy’s term actually expired on April 20th, 2020.

Board members are paid a flat reimbursable fee of $20 per meeting, a maximum of $400 per year.

“It’s certainly not a full-time gig,” said Bauman. The commission meets once a month on Monday afternoons. Meetings often last less than two hours and the full-time staff provides recommendations on actions that range from the mundane, such as approving new railings, to the complicated, designating properties.

Bauman, who said he hasn’t discussed the change with Mayor Tom Barrett‘s office, nor President Cavalier Johnson, said the change from DCD (mayoral) to clerk (council) control of the full-time staff improved issues regarding political disputes. Such an issue recently arose when the commission staff endorsed the designation of Forest Home Library, but the library system and DCD, as its broker, were in opposition. “It functions as a well-oiled machine now,” said the alderman of the structure.

“I can’t imagine the current council president would not be in support; who doesn’t want some additional discretion?” said Bauman. He said other commissioners brought the idea to his attention.

The ordinance requires that the board consist of at least one registered architect, one historian or architectural historian, one person with experience in real estate development or finance, one Common Council member (which has been Bauman for over a decade) and three citizen members.

Owing in part to where the city’s historic properties are, the racial makeup of the commission does not match that of the city. Clendenen-Acosta was the lone Black member of the commission, and the lone south side resident. “With the exception of myself, everyone is from the East Side,” said Bauman, a Historic Concordia neighborhood resident.

“The all white, East Side residents is a challenge,” said Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic. “We need to be more reflective of the community.” She said she wanted to roll up her sleeves and improve the situation.

“We could certainly do with representation from some of those central city historic neighborhoods,” said Bauman. “Grant Boulevard is a perfect example.”

The committee voted to adopt the change on a 4-1 vote. Ald. Milele A. Coggs objected, but did not otherwise speak during the item’s discussion. The full council is expected to consider the change on February 9th.

The current commission members consist of Bauman, Sally Peltz, Matt Jarosz, Patti Keating Kahn and Ann Pieper Eisenbrown. The latter three members have terms that expire at the end of this week, but can continue to serve until replaced. The full-time staff members are Carlen Hatala and Tim Askin.

While the historic preservation commissioners are effectively volunteers, other board members receive compensation. Part-time members of the City Plan Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, Board of Review, City Service Commission, Fire & Police Commission, Employee Retirement System Annuity and Pension Board and Standards and Appeals Commission are paid between $3,000 and $6,600 depending on the board. Existing city employees are not eligible to receive additional pay.

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