Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Reduces Mayoral Power

A Barrett slap down. 15-0 vote restricts mayor's power over Historic Preservation Commission.

By - Feb 9th, 2021 03:23 pm
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee Common Council voted unanimously to curtail some of Mayor Tom Barrett‘s power on Tuesday.

The council adopted a change to the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) structure that would give the mayor’s office only 90 days to fill a vacancy on the citizen-led board. After that, the Common Council President could make the appointment.

“We are trying to solve a problem, which is vacancies make it difficult for this body to operate,” said Alderman Robert Bauman, the council designee on the commission.

For four years the HPC has operated with only six members despite being authorized for seven. 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 a December resignation.

Barrett opposed the original version of the change, which would have stripped him from all authority to appoint historic commissioners. He sent a letter to the council encouraging them to maintain the “principles of separation of powers.”

“He apparently believes there is a Milwaukee constitution that creates a separation of powers. There is no document that creates a separation of powers at the local level,” said Bauman.

“With 10 votes, a veto-proof majority, we can pretty much do anything that we think is best in the public’s interest,” said Bauman, acknowledging that the state regulates some things, like the size of the Milwaukee Fire & Police Commission. The council has repeatedly called on Barrett to fill the public safety body with its legally-allowed nine members, but Barrett has declined to do so.

“Most chief executives relish that power,” said Bauman. “Here we have a situation where they avoid that power like the plague.”

Bauman introduced the 90-day compromise as an amendment Tuesday. One vacancy has been outstanding for so long that the city’s online records system indicates that the term actually expired on April 20th, 2020 without ever having been filled.

“This is just kind of an effort to get somebody to do their job,” said the alderman.

Council newcomers JoCasta Zamarripa and Marina Dimitrijevic, first elected in April, asked about applying the same regulations to other commissions and boards.

“Let’s take a deeper look into all of our commissions,” said Dimitrijevic. Bauman said he only had first-hand knowledge of the HPC and problems caused by vacancies.

Dimitrijevic, when the proposal was before the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee, said she was concerned about the racial and demographic makeup of the historic commission and wanted to explore ways to make it more reflective of the city.

Bauman is currently the only HPC member that doesn’t live on the East Side and every member is white. The alderman attributes part of that to where the city’s historic districts are.

The current commission members consist of Bauman, Sally PeltzMatt JaroszPatti Keating Kahn and Ann Pieper Eisenbrown. The latter three saw their terms expire at the end of this week, but can continue to serve until replaced or reappointed.

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.

On Monday, during the commission’s regularly scheduled meeting, the commissioners openly discussed that an appointment was being advanced for Rafael Garcia. The nominee is a near west side resident, real estate developer and graduate of Associates in Commercial Real Estate program designed to train women and minorities for real estate careers. The nomination has yet to be formally introduced according to the council’s records system.

Will Barrett veto the ordinance change? His office did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

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