Records indicate few complaints spurred Soglin’s State Street plans
Mayor's office turns over 22 complaints about panhandling, taxis and sandwich boards
MADISON, Wis. — Madison Mayor Paul Soglin has pushed against downtown business owners, taxicab operators and panhandlers largely on his own, with few written or electronic complaints from city residents, records revealed.
The records, which the mayor’s office released to WISC-TV through an open records request, indicate 22 complaints about the three issues since Soglin took office in April 2011. Most of the correspondence has come in the weeks since the issues gained media attention this summer.
None of the complaints are about taxicabs illegally cruising State Street for fares, while five address sandwich signs in the sidewalk and 17 suggest that Soglin ban panhandling along the street, WISC-TV reported.
“I would assume so,” Soglin said, when asked whether the figures were accurate. “I have not gone through them, so I couldn’t tell you whether that’s it. That wouldn’t obviously count the people who stopped me on the street and that sort of thing.”
The mayor’s office revealed about 250 documents, most of which are back-and-forth conversations among city staffers regarding the issues. Others are opponents of Soglin’s push, asking him to drop the plans.
Soglin has promoted a new city ordinance that would effectively ban panhandling on all of State Street, citing the alcoholic problems that the practice creates.
He has said he wants compliance with longstanding but rarely enforced bans against sandwich boards in the public right-of-way and taxicab cruising. Cruising is dangerous to pedestrians, while the signs are impediments to the disabled and many are ugly, Soglin said.
Business owners, 80 to 100 of whom packed a public meeting about the issue earlier this summer, feel attacked.
“He’s taking a sledgehammer to take care of an ant,” said Diane Doughman, co-owner of Mimosa Books and Gifts on Gilman Street.
Doughman said her sandwich board is critical for business, although she acknowledged that there were a few major violators along the street.
“Laser in on the problem,” she urged. “But he just wants to level all of us and take away something so vital. I know it’ll hurt our business. I know it’ll put some people out of business.”
Meanwhile, the City Council appears poised to effectively overrule Soglin on the taxicab cruising. The mayor said there is enough support to pass ordinance revisions that will allow the cruising from midnight to 4 a.m., the peak time for bar customers.
“I don’t think it’s the best decision, but I think it’s a decision we can live with,” he said. “If we’re going to change that space, it shouldn’t be pre-empted by one group or one interest. It should be by all of us.”
Kristin Forde, president of the Union Cab co-op and one of Soglin’s opponents over the ordinance enforcement, said she wasn’t surprised that there were no written or emailed complaints about cab cruising.
“The business owners don’t have a problem with cabs on State Street, customers want us on State Street, emergency services don’t have a problem with us on state street, so it’s hard to say the issue is cabs,” she said.
A ban on panhandling on almost all of State Street will get City Council attention in two weeks, although it will now allow musicians to continue to play, Soglin said.
But the sandwich board enforcement pits the mayor against small business owners downtown, who are currently at a stalemate.
“Everyone says, we’ve gotta look out for small independent businesses, they’re the life-blood of America,” Doughman said. “Then our mayor — who used to be more friendly — does this. I’m like, ‘What happened to Soglin?'”
The mayor, who has taken criticism for promoting the “quality of life” issues instead of crime, said he’s perfectly capable of tackling all of them even without piles of complaints from residents.
“Certainly, some issues are more important than others,” he said. “But I think we’re sophisticated and bright enough that we can deal with many issues at the same time.”