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Downtown liquor

Pedestrians make their way along the 500 block of State Street in Madison in 2014. Madison Paul Soglin has suggested a referendum on whether to issue more liquor licenses in the Downtown.

Concerned about the proliferation of liquor-selling establishments in Downtown Madison? Interested in direct democracy and citizen action? Mayor Paul Soglin might soon be looking for your help.

Soglin made clear Thursday that he wasn’t just sword-rattling when he suggested last week that it might be time to “take this matter of the issuance of liquor licenses to public referendum.”

Soglin in recent years has been worried about the Downtown becoming — as he once termed it — “a giant beer garden,” and frustrated by the City Council’s willingness to continue issuing new liquor licenses to restaurants in the area. It did so again earlier this month when it approved a license for a Taco Bell “Cantina” planned for the site of a former regular Taco Bell, 534 State St.

“Someone is really out of touch here,” Soglin said. “Either it’s the City Council or it’s the City Council.”

Soglin’s referendum idea was a single sentence contained in a statement accompanying his veto of the Taco Bell license. The mayor also pointed to the millions of dollars the city has spent over the years to “enhance and beautify” the Downtown — an investment he contends makes sense only if the Downtown continues to offer lots of places to shop.

“I really don’t like legislation by referendum,” Soglin said, “but at this point, given the public safety issues and the cost ... it’s something I would consider.”

Police have seen calls for service in the Downtown spike around bar time on weekends, and Ald. Paul Skidmore, a member of the Public Safety Review Committee, said about one-fourth of police overtime is being used for problems Downtown.

Soglin said the “one simple question” on the ballot would be whether the city should issue more liquor licenses in the Downtown, and its result would be binding.

Under state law, it would take about 18,500 signatures — or 15 percent of the number of votes cast for governor in Madison in the last gubernatorial election — to force the City Council to adopt an ordinance, or to place a binding referendum on the ballot on whether to enact the ordinance. If the referendum were to pass, the ordinance would be enacted.

“The council could also set up a non-binding referendum and agree to abide by the results, but there is no legal way to make them keep their promise,” said city attorney Mike May said.

Council President Marsha Rummel said Dec. 11 she thought there would be enough votes to override Soglin’s veto of the Taco Bell license. On Friday, she warned against assuming that she would be against a referendum to ban more liquor licenses Downtown.

Skidmore, who voted against the Taco Bell license at the Alcohol License Review Committee and the council, was open to such a referendum and bemoaned how common it is to see liquor for sale at Madison drug stores and other retailers.

“Our philosophy is we haven’t seen a liquor license that we don’t want to approve,” Skidmore said.

Amid concerns that more fast-food restaurants might seek liquor licenses, the ALRC voted to create a subcommittee to work with staff to recommend license conditions for restaurants that don’t usually sell alcohol.

“I suspect there will be some additional discussion at the meeting next week on the Downtown license issue,” ALRC chairman Tom Landgraf said, but he wanted some time to think over the referendum idea.

“As a member of a city committee, I’m always interested in getting meaningful citizen input into the matter of alcohol issues and policy,” Landgraf said. “While the referendum is one way, there may be others that don’t have only a no-yes option at the end. ... In public policy issues, sometimes the slow maybe gets a much better result than a quick yes or no.”


Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.