Madison City Council takes stand against F-35 fighter jets

Emily Hamer | Wisconsin State Journal, April 1, 2020

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Despite not being able to hear from many residents who wanted to speak, the Madison City Council on Wednesday took a clear stand against placing F-35 jets at Madison’s Truax Field.

During its first-ever virtual meeting — that stretched from Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. to Wednesday at 2:50 a.m. — the council adopted an advisory resolution that opposes the fighter jets and calls on the secretary of the Air Force to station them elsewhere. The measure was approved just after 2:30 a.m. on a 13-5 vote, with two absences.

For the council’s first foray into conducting a fully digital meeting amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the Zoom video conference went relatively smoothly, with only a few awkward pauses and miscues.

Council members’ faces could be seen inside of their homes as they talked, and members of the public could speak without video on items if they registered in advance. A few residents needed to update their version of Zoom before speaking, and one man was hard to understand because of a poor signal. But for the most part, the online nature of the meeting did not impede business.

The length of the meeting was a bigger problem.

Nearly 90 members of the public wanted to testify on the new F-35 resolution during the meeting but were unable to because of the late hour. More than 400 people registered for or against the resolution, but did not wish to speak. Some in support of F-35s were not from the Madison area — one was even from Texas.

Ald. Zachary Henak, 10th District, called on his council members to delay a decision because the early-morning hour put an “undue burden” on resident participation.

Supporters of the F-35s coming to Madison had asked the council to delay consideration of the resolution because they said the COVID-19 outbreak would limit the opportunity for public comment.

But Ald. Rebecca Kemble, 18th District, said the resolution was “extremely time sensitive” because the Air Force could make a decision on where to place the F-35 jets any day. Ald. Keith Furman, 19th District, noted that alders have received thousands of emails on this, so the public has not been cut out of the process. Henak’s motion to delay failed on a 4-15 vote.

In September, the council passed a similar resolution but with weaker language. That resolution only asked the Air Force to “reconsider” Madison as a preferred location “until and unless” the draft Environmental Impact Study is shown to misrepresent the impacts the jets will have on the community.

Kemble said the final study confirms “significant environmental impacts,” including heightened noise, adverse effects on children, PFAS contamination of ground and surface water PFAS, decreased property values, and disproportionate impacts on communities of color and low-income residents. The Air Force has said basing the jets at Truax would expose about 1,019 households to average daily noise levels above 65 decibels, a level deemed “incompatible” with residential use — though not uninhabitable.

Supporters say the negative effects of the F-35s have been exaggerated and that the planes will boost the local economy, create dozens of jobs and ensure the viability of Truax’s 115th Fighter Wing and its estimated $99 million annual economic impact.

Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon in a statement called the council’s decision “tone deaf.”

The resolution has no binding effect on the Air Force’s decision, but council members have been told that the Air Force takes people’s feedback into account.

Also Wednesday, council members clashed on a resolution that gives Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway extra powers during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. The resolution passed on a 13-6 vote, with one abstention.

Ald. Patrick Heck, 2nd District, said the resolution will give the mayor the flexibility to “act nimbly” during the crisis. But Ald. Grant Foster, 15th District, said it’s a “step too far”, giving the mayor too much power.

The resolution allows the mayor to amend, create or adopt city ordinances “in order to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic” on the city. It also gives the mayor the power to suspend enforcement of ordinances, extend deadlines, waive penalties and issue permits or licenses.

The ability to create ordinances is usually reserved for the council. At its meetings, the council can affirm, rescind or amend any of the mayor’s orders.

Rhodes-Conway said she’s not sure if she’ll need to use the powers, but she needs to be prepared because “the worst is definitely yet to come.”

“I didn’t declare an emergency because I wanted to have more powers,” Rhodes-Conway said.

The powers expire June 2.

Police to Milwaukee
In other business Wednesday, the council also decided to uphold its decision to send up to 100 police officers to Milwaukee for 10 days in July to help provide law enforcement during the Democratic National Convention, assuming the convention still happens.

Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District, asked that the city consider sending a smaller number of officers if it does sign an intergovernmental agreement with Milwaukee to provide the law enforcement. The resolution does not specify how many officers would be sent.