Jump optional

Lt. Col. Charlie Merkel of the 115 Fighter Wing addresses the Madison City Council meeting Tuesday. The meeting went into the early morning hours Wednesday. 

After an eight-hour meeting that stretched into early morning Wednesday, the Madison City Council approved a resolution that does not explicitly oppose placing a squadron of F-35 jets at Truax Field, but asks the Air Force to “reconsider” Madison as a preferred location.

The resolution may have passed in part because of “ambiguous” wording that left some alders with different interpretations of what the measure was meant to do. It was approved on a 16-3 vote with one abstention.

The resolution, which was reworded early Wednesday, is unclear about whether the council supports bringing the F-35s to Madison or under what conditions.

It suggests that, if noise and other impacts highlighted in an environmental study are confirmed, the city is asking the Air Force to reconsider its decision to designate Truax Field a preferred location for the jets.

According to the Air Force’s environmental impact study draft, more than 1,000 homes near the Dane County Regional Airport, where Truax Field is located, would be subjected to higher daily noise averages. The homes are in neighborhoods with a disproportionate number of residents who are low income and people of color, officials have said.

Ald. Zachary Henak, 10th District, said some people thought the resolution supported the F-35 program while others thought it was a stand against the F-35s. He voted against it, in part, because of the mixed interpretations — and also because it was unclear about how much the environmental impact study would need to change to trigger a stand by the council.

“The language wasn’t crafted in a way where everyone felt they were voting on the same piece of legislation,” Henak said.

Before the measure passed, the council was split in a 10-10 vote on whether to support one of two competing resolutions that were originally proposed.

The first resolution — which was co-written by Alds. Rebecca Kemble, District 18, and Grant Foster, District 15, and sponsored by four other alders — opposed Truax Field as a preferred location for the jets because of the adverse impacts found in the environmental study.

The second resolution, sponsored by Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, District 1, and six other alders, had softer language. It asked the Air Force to “re-evaluate” Truax as a location if the final environmental impact statement “does not provide strategies to affirmatively mitigate the noise and/or reduce the number of training flights.”

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Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway broke the tie in favor of Harrington-McKinney’s resolution, then council members amended the measure to include some of Foster’s stronger language.

The final resolution said the council requests that the Air Force “reconsiders the selection of Truax Field as a preferred location until and unless the findings of the (environmental impact study) are shown to misrepresent the significant environmental impacts.”

Foster said the resolution lost some of its “punch” but still asks the Air Force to pick a different location if the environmental impact study confirms the negative effects of the F-35s. Foster voted in favor of the proposal.

“The stance would be that we’re asking that Madison is not a preferred location, in other words that they don’t come here,” Foster said.

But Kemble, who voted against the final resolution, said it was “ambiguous” and did not take a strong stance against the F-35s.

“It says reconsider,” Kemble said. “It doesn’t say that we’re requesting them to pick another location. It’s ‘we’re requesting them to reconsider the selection,’ to take it under consideration, not to take any action.”

Foster acknowledged that the final version may have been unclear. “Perhaps when it stands alone it’s more ambiguous,” Foster said. “Maybe that’s why it was able to pass.”

Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, said he was happy with the final proposal because the council did not definitively reject the F-35s.

Henak said the council should not be making significant decisions after 2 a.m. The meeting, which started at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, ended about 2:45 a.m. Wednesday.

“There were a number of times that I think people were unsure of what they were actually voting on,” Henak said.

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Emily Hamer is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. She joined the paper in April 2019 and was formerly an investigative reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.