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After some wrangling, Sensenbrenner sets Tosa town hall meeting

Dec. 12, 2011

U.S. Rep. F. James "Jim" Sensenbrenner Jr. in January will hold his first Wauwatosa town hall meeting since the one he abruptly adjourned amidst shouts from protesters in March. The upcoming visit required a change of venue and resulted in some finger-pointing about what went wrong last time around.

Sensenbrenner, R-Brookfield, sent a letter to Mayor Jill Didier on Dec. 1 requesting use of the Wauwatosa Public Library's Firefly Room, the same space the last meeting was held. The room had exceeded the capacity of 125 people and an overflow crowd lined the hallway to the library entrance.

It is the Library Board, not the mayor, who has the authority to approve requests for use of library spaces, she said. The board denied the request, which led Sensenbrenner's staff to suggest the city was keeping the representative's constituents from having an opportunity to meet with him.

"The decision to deny our access to your public meeting room is misguided and only results in penalizing the citizens of Wauwatosa," said Loni Hagerup, the 5th District director.

She went on to say it's the responsibility of the congressman to alert local police of his meeting, but that providing adequate safety and security falls to the city. To Sensenbrenner and his staff, that meant making sure the meeting space didn't get overcrowded.

Didier said there "are differing opinions on who should monitor the room for capacity" and that's ultimately what led to the Library Board denying use of the Firefly Room.

Groups who are granted use of the space receive usage policies ahead of time that spell out the group's responsibility to designate someone to monitor the size of the crowd, Didier said.

"That policy had not been adhered to," she added. "They wanted the city to do that for them."

For the mayor's part, she had gathered City Hall staff following last March's meeting to talk about how "the changing dynamics" of government and politics made it likely that town hall meetings and public hearings would gather much larger crowds than have gathered in the past.

The meeting last spring occurred at the height of the controversy over Gov. Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill that ended up eliminating collective bargaining for unions other than police and fire.

School auditoriums suggested

At the time city staff gathered they recommended that future town hall meetings find a different venue.

"That's too small a venue for a town hall meeting in these times," Police Chief Barry Weber said.

He believes one of the high school auditoriums would provide more space.

Hagerup said spaces like the Muellner Building, Wauwatosa Women's Club and Civic Center auditorium all came with rental fees and were therefore unacceptable.

Didier said she has offered numerous alternative possibilities. On Dec. 8, the mayor waived the fee for the Civic Center auditorium and a meeting was set for 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 30. Because municipal court will be in session on the upper level, the meeting will not lead to additional overtime pay for custodial staff.

The auditorium between City Hall and the library offers space for 300 people and fire officials have verified that and looked at safety aspects of the room, Didier said. In addition, Sensenbrenner will have use of a sound system to better be heard and library patrons won't be disrupted.

"This will better accommodate a larger crowd," she said.

Hagerup said she's pleased with the outcome because constituents won't have to travel outside their community to meet with Sensenbrenner.

"We felt this was a free speech issue and needed to be addressed," she said, adding that the congressman has held an average of 100 town hall meetings per year for 30-plus years and "this is the first community in which we encountered these kind of problems. I'm glad they have been resolved."

Rep should pay for security

As for providing security, police were on hand to oversee parking and traffic issues at City Hall and uniformed and plainclothes officers were at the March meeting in case of problems, Didier said.

Weber also pointed out that Sensenbrenner was not willing to pay for security. If there are available officers on duty, they may be able to be at the meeting. However, with tight local budgets - ones that have been slashed by higher levels of government, Weber said - elected officials should pay for help like the school district does for afterhours athletic events.

At a glance

WHAT: U.S. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. will hold a town hall meeting to talk about federal issues impacting Wauwatosa residents and to answer constituents' questions

WHEN: 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 30

WHERE: Civic Center auditorium, 7725 W. North Ave.

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