By Brian E. Clark
MADISON – The state Building Commission approved a plan Wednesday to proceed with the sale of two pieces of surplus property worth $4.5 million, but not before two Republican legislators tried to delay the process over what they called “unanswered questions.”
The pair, Reps. Jeff Fitzgerald of Horicon and Debi Towns of Janesville, said they wanted more time to investigate how a contract with a Chicago real estate company was negotiated and voted against the plan. That company, Equis, has donated money Gov. Jim Doyle’s re-election campaign. Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, also voted against the sale, but for different a different reason. He said he is not convinced the state should sell high-value property in downtown Madison.
Also during the meeting, two Republican members of commission — Fitzgerald and state Sen. Carol Roessler — said it was ultimately the body’s decision to re-bid a contract at UW-Milwaukee, which resulted in a lawsuit by the firm that initially won the work.
Prism has filed a lawsuit seeking $5 million in damages, claiming it “was not politically popular with the person who made the key decision” on the Kenilworth Building project. The suit accuses former DOA Secretary Marc Marotta of engineering the second bidding process. A group whose members donated to Gov. Jim Doyle’s campaign won the contract during the second process. The group consists of Weas Development, KBS Construction and Hammel, Green & Abrahamson.
But Roessler said she wanted to make clear it was the commission’s idea to re-bid the contract.
“It was our decision,” Roessler said. “We were dissatisfied with the initial process.”
Fitzgerald agreed with Roessler. But he also complained the commission receives limited information on the projects it considers and said the deals are negotiated behind closed doors, leaving the body with only an up or down vote.
“I also think the public is losing confidence with what’s going on in Madison with procurements and the selection of contractors,” said Fitzgerald, who added that he believes the Building Commission should also have a role in choosing contractors.
Discussing the $4.5 million in state land sales, Fitzgerald said he was angered that newspaper reporters seemed to know more about commission deals than he did.
“But that might be my fault,” he allowed. Still, he said, getting information on commission agenda items two days before meetings did not give him enough time to properly consider them.
The state has said it wants $4.2 million for the Central Services Building at 202 S. Thornton Ave. The other piece of property on the agenda was four acres of vacant land at the Racine Correctional Institution. Its price tag is about $300,000.
Gov. Jim Doyle, who chairs the commission, was frustrated by Towns’ and Fitzgerald’s efforts. He told the pair to ask questions of Rob Cramer, commission secretary, who attended the meeting.
Cramer apparently satisfied Sen. Carol Roessler, R-Oshkosh, who asked the secretary to explain news reports that said Equis – which was paid $572,000 to identify $36 million worth of surplus state properties to sell – could collect up to 25 percent of the sale of some properties. The deal to unload the land was negotiated between Doyle and the Legislature.
Cramer said the reports were correct, but said the 25 percent section of the contract had never been invoked. And both Doyle and Cramer said it never would be. With that assurance Roessler voted to proceed with the sales, as did Doyle, citizen member Terry McGuire, Sen. David Zien, R-Wheaton, and Rep. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse.