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Milwaukee city attorneys in exile, waiting on renovations

A sign posted in the doorway of the City of Milwaukee Office of the City Attorney redirects visitors next door to the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

Those are not busy city attorneys, pressured by deadlines and rushing around the hallways on the 8th floor of Milwaukee’s City Hall.

Rather, those are people getting their exercise, pressured only by seeing how far they can get in the time they have. The posted sign, after all, declares “One mile equals 24.5 laps.”

The city attorneys used to work there. But while people walk the halls of their former offices, those attorneys often work in the halls of the neighboring Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building.

That has been the case for seven years while the city attorneys wait for renovations. They first moved out in 2006 to make room for a City Hall restoration. They were supposed to be in temporary offices on the 7th and 10th floors of the Zeidler building for two years.

Seven years later, they still are dealing with a difficult and inefficient situation, Deputy City Attorney Linda Burke said.

“We belong in City Hall,” she said.

Every year since 2009, they have tried to get city money to fix their old offices for a return to City Hall. Every attempt has failed.

The requests first go to the city’s Capital Improvements Committee, which makes recommendations for the mayor’s budget. The committee regularly has supported spending some money on the offices, but it hasn’t made it into the city budget.

In April, the committee once again recommended spending money to fix the 8th floor. Members want a study on how best to use the space, and they want money for HVAC and mechanical work.

The former office of Milwaukee City Attorney Grant Langley is empty Tuesday on the eighth floor of Milwaukee's City Hall.

A full renovation is not in the recommendation, nor is a guarantee that all of the space would go to the 37 city attorneys, who used to have a law library and some work areas at one end of the floor and offices at the other. In fact, some committee members have said there are other things that belong in that space, such as public areas or other city departments.

But City Attorney Grant Langley said the space in the Zeidler building does not have adequate storage or workspace.

Burke said the arrangement in the Zeidler building leaves attorneys working on briefs in hallways that have documents stacked against the walls. She said her department has not placed a cost on lost productivity, but operating on two floors with only one receptionist desk does not work well.

The Office of the City Attorney this year tried and failed to get $5.5 million for a full renovation to the 8th floor. The project would take about three years to complete.

When Langley and Burke presented that request to the Capital Improvements Committee in April, Alderman Bob Bauman, who is on the committee, said he does not expect such a renovation could happen even in the next 10 years.

In a 2012 meeting, Bauman, an attorney, called the requested renovation “grossly excessive” and said the office space on the 8th floor is acceptable with only a few minor changes.

Burke said a sole practitioner could work in the 8th floor office as-is, but that is not possible for an entire office of city attorneys.

In meetings and interviews, Burke and Langley have said that their City Hall offices need adjustments: some are too big, others are too small, and they have to account for two more attorneys hired since 2006. They also have requested three conference rooms.

Neither the Zeidler space nor the 8th floor of City Hall have the necessary technology for a modern law firm, Burke said. The city attorneys need projectors, conference call equipment and “war rooms” to prepare briefs and work on cases.

Bob Jorin, of the City of Milwaukee Office of the City Attorney, talks about usage and storage issues in the office's law library on the eighth floor of Milwaukee's City Hall.

Bob Jorin, special assistant to the city attorney, said the City Hall office layout is dated. The time for large offices for city employees has passed, he said, and the recently rejected renovation request was an attempt to reflect the changing needs of the department.

“It’s not grandeur,” Jorin said. “It’s a process of creating an efficient space.”

The Capital Improvements Committee’s recommendations for next year’s budget show members agree the Zeidler offices are not efficient.

But members do not agree with the attorneys’ proposal for the 8th floor. Alderman Nik Kovac has been at the front of the charge to use the space for more than city offices.

His 2011 resolution requesting a feasibility and cost study for putting a restaurant or banquet hall on the 8th floor failed in Common Council. Still, Kovac said, at least parts of the floor should be open to the public.

Kovac said he understands why city attorneys want to move back, but their offices should be in the narrower end of the floor so the wider end can be used in other ways.

He said the 8th floor is the grandest space in Milwaukee and should be used creatively. The Fire and Police Commission, Kovac said, has expressed interest in using part of the floor, and that group would need only a few weeks’ worth of deep cleaning rather than major changes.

For now, the only obvious change on the 8th floor is to a sign taped to one of the office doors. It used to say the city attorneys would be gone until 2008. Someone used a pen to scribble that year out and write 2010. That year also has been scribbled out and replaced with until “further notice.”

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