June 03--The mayor deserves veto power. He's the top elected city official in Madison, with broad responsibility to its citizens.
The Madison Landmarks Commission does not deserve veto power. The commission is a mostly unelected panel narrowly focused on historic preservation.
The City Council should pare back the power of the commission and better define the parameters for its decisions.
The Landmarks Commission plays an important role in analyzing development proposals Downtown, including their impact on historic buildings and neighborhoods. Commission findings and actions should be taken seriously -- and they have been.
Yet the elected City Council shouldn't have to muster a super-majority vote to overcome the commission's rejection of a high-quality project Downtown. That's essentially veto power.
A simple majority of the City Council, with support from the mayor, should be enough for the final say. That way, if voters don't like a decision, they can change their representatives. Trying to change who sits on the unelected Landmarks Commission is much harder.
In the case of Steve Brown's recent proposal to erect stylish brownstones in the Mansion Hill Historic District, the commission's rejection led the developer to challenge that decision to the City Council. Most council members subsequently sided with the commission. So the super-majority requirement, in this case, didn't become an issue.
Nonetheless, the decision hinged on how the volume of the proposed brownstones should be considered, and whether the developer would suffer hardship.
Instead of relying on vague and disputed definitions, the city needs a process that's clean and clear.
The City Council just formed an ad hoc committee to review the city's landmarks ordinance. Ald. Chris Schmidt is leading the effort.
Schmidt sounds committed to a smoother process that all parties can better understand and anticipate. Schmidt's committee will start its work with input from the Landmarks Commission.
We urge the City Council to go beyond the commission's recommendations and reassert itself as the elected body in charge.
Historic preservation is important, but so is progress.
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