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Dispute could stall city attorney office’s renovation

Milwaukee’s city attorney had to try five times to win Common Council approval to move his office back into City Hall.

Now that construction is poised to start, some aldermen are rethinking that decision.

The Office of the City Attorney moved out of the eighth floor of City Hall in 2006 to accommodate a multimillion-dollar façade restoration and has operated on the seventh and 10th floors of the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building since then. Since 2009, the city attorney has sought permission to move back.

The Common Council approved the return last year and allocated money for demolition and prep work that must be done before the bulk of construction can begin.

When the Common Council approved the money, said Alderman Nik Kovac, it was understood that part of the eighth floor would be used by the attorneys during the day and open to the public at night for special occasions. That space is at the narrow end of the triangle-shaped City Hall.

But when Deputy City Attorney Vince Moschella brought to the city’s Capital Improvements Committee on Thursday a request for $1,937,300 to continue the renovation, the blueprints showed offices rather than public space.

Kovac and Alderman Robert Bauman, both members of the CIC, said they took offense.

Standing among boxes of filed paperwork, Bob Jorin, of the City Attorney’s office, talks about space and storage problems in the law library on the eighth floor of Milwaukee City Hall. The attorney’s office has been temporarily moved next door at the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building. City lawyers must make the trek to City Hall to access the files. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

Standing among boxes of filed paperwork, Bob Jorin, of the City Attorney’s office, talks about space and storage problems in the law library on the eighth floor of Milwaukee City Hall recently. The attorney’s office has been temporarily moved next door at the Frank P. Zeidler Municipal Building. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

“They just blew the dust off their old design,” Kovac said, “and said, ‘See? Here’s the only design that works.’”

Kovac said he wants a compromise but is firm that part of the eighth floor should be open to the public.

“We agreed we need a new design, or at least the council agreed,” he said. “It would be nice if the city attorney recognized the intent of the council.”

But Bauman, chairman of the CIC, said the refusal to bend to the Common Council’s request could become an obstacle to the project’s next phase.

“They might have just talked themselves into another lengthy delay, maybe years,” he said.

The space on the eighth floor could be used to showcase Milwaukee for visiting dignitaries, Bauman said, or to host special presentations.

If City Attorney Grant Langley insists on the design without public space, Bauman said, the CIC might not recommend the council allocate the $1.9 million until after 2016, when the city attorney is up for re-election.

Bauman and Kovac said they believe Langley will not run for re-election. A new city attorney, Bauman said, might have a different opinion about that space.

But Langley said he has not decided on re-election. Furthermore, he said, the assertion that his office agreed to include public space and then reneged is wrong. There simply is not enough room, he said, to fit his department on the eighth floor and include public space.

“If that’s what they feel is necessary,” Langley said, “then I don’t see how the reconfiguring of the eighth floor would work.”

Moschella said that in the past few decades, the balance between attorneys and support staff members has been shifting, and there are now 39 attorneys, about 10 more than there used to be. Attorneys need more space than support staff members, he said, so it would be impossible to fit everyone without using the narrow space for offices.

If some staff members stayed in the municipal building, Moschella said after the meeting, then that would hinder communication and be worse than the current situation.

“That,” he said, “would be a horror show.”

And any delay in the project, Moschella said, would wear on already fraying nerves.

“We need to get out of here,” he said. “It’s horrible over here.”


About Beth Kevit, [email protected]

Beth Kevit is the Milwaukee city beat reporter and also covers real estate. She can be reached at [email protected] or 414-225-1820.

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