District history: Early resistance to transferring infrastructure control

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Work on the Northeast Interceptor in 1937.
Work on the Northeast Interceptor in 1937. It took over three years from the formation of the District until control of the City of Madison’s intercepting systems and treatment plants were transferred to the District.

Although the November 1929 petition requesting that a metropolitan sewerage district be formed in the Madison area stated that the City of Madison’s treatment plants and interceptor sewer system would be transferred to the District at the time it was formed, that did not happen. The City of Madison continued to operate the Burke and Nine Springs treatment plants during the early years of the District. At that time, the District was busy constructing a temporary treatment facility in Middleton, constructing a pumping station and interceptor system to transmit Middleton’s wastewater to the west side of Madison, and making the maps of the District that were necessary to allocate costs.

Transfer discussions begin

In July of 1932, a subcommittee of the Madison Common Council was formed to investigate the transfer idea. The subcommittee filed its report in January 1933 and recommended the transfer of facilities. At a Council meeting on Jan. 10, it was explained that the city would be compensated for the cost of the facilities.

Proponents of the transfer noted that the wastewater from the state hospitals on the north side of Lake Mendota needed better treatment and other suburban communities would need treatment facilities which may result in discharges into Lake Mendota. If those entities did not have access to a treatment system, they may build their own treatment plants which would discharge into Lake Mendota.

At this time, it was felt that as early as 1940 that water may need to be withdrawn from the lake to meet the water needs of Madison. There was significant opposition to the transfer proposal by Council members. The concern of these aldermen was that the city would be losing assets and would not have any control over what the District did with them.

Election complications

To complicate matters, there was an election for mayor that year. The current mayor, James Law, had been appointed in late 1932 to fill the unexpired term of Albert Schmedeman who had been elected as governor of Wisconsin. Mayor Law’s chief rival for the position was Joseph Rupp. Mr. Rupp felt that the Council was being influenced too much by several city department heads. He had a special dislike for Mr. E. E. Parker, the City Engineer, who was also serving as Chief Engineer of the District. Mr. Rupp stated that if he became mayor, he would oppose Mr. Parker’s appointment as City Engineer. Mr. Rupp was against the transfer of assets while Mr. Law was in favor of it. Mr. Law eventually won reelection.

A special meeting of the Council was scheduled for Feb. 9, 1932, for the purpose of conducting a public hearing on the transfer issue. Four days prior to the meeting Mayor Law issued a long statement discussing the issues in support of the transfer. His statement was printed in both the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times newspapers. This did not quiet opposition to the transfer.

One alderman issued a statement that included his urging citizens to attend the meeting so they could “hear about the sugarcoated pill they are now trying to get the citizens of Madison to swallow.” The same day the Wisconsin State Journal published an editorial from its editors recommending passage of the resolution to transfer the facilities and praising the abilities of the District’s Commissioners. At the public hearing, several prominent members of the community spoke in favor of the transfer and two citizens spoke in opposition.

To address concerns about loss of control of the facilities, several aldermen suggested that the Council’s legislative committee work with the proper state legislators to increase the number of District commissioners to five with two of them being appointed by the Madison Common Council.

Flip-flops in April

Both Madison newspapers reported that after a meeting of the subcommittee in the Mayor’s office on April 11, 1932, it was expected that the Council would act on the transfer at their April 13 meeting. It appeared that the transfer would be recommended and that the Council would approve it. This optimism did not last long.

At the April 13 meeting, the Council, acting as a Committee of the Whole, referred the resolution back to the subcommittee and directed it to hold another public hearing on April 17. Although there evidently was significant opposition to the transfer, the Council approved the transfer by a vote of 11 to 7 on the morning of April 18. This was one of the last actions of the “lame duck” council as the newly elected council took over at noon that day. The next day, the Capital Times reported that the mayor would sign the resolution authorizing the sale of the assets.

However, political pressure to avoid the sale of the assets must have been great. The Wisconsin State Journal reported two days later that the mayor had now proposed to the new Council that rather than transferring the assets, the city enter into a contract with the District to have the city treat the wastewater from areas outside of the city. The next day Mayor Law vetoed the transfer resolution. Although the Capital Times had strongly supported the transfer, on April 24 it published an editorial supporting the mayor’s veto.

The Attorney General weighs in

Independent groups continued to make presentations in support of the transfer in early May. These included presentations by the Madison Clean Lakes Association and the Madison Technical Club. The Council was not dissuaded and on May 12 approved a contract that would have the District paying the city the cost of treatment of wastewater from outside of Madison at the Madison treatment plants.

The District Commissioners announced that they would not sign the contract until it had been considered by the State Board of Control. The Board controlled the money that would pay for construction of facilities needed to transmit the state hospitals’ wastewater to the existing sewer mains. The Board was concerned that having that wastewater treated at a City of Madison facility was not allowed by law. They asked the State Attorney General for a legal opinion. The need for quick action on the transfer issue became apparent when it was learned that the money for the state’s sewer work would not be available after July 1.

On June 9, 1933, Attorney General James Finnegan declared that the District had no legal right to sign a contract with the city to treat wastewater from entities outside of the city. This meant that the State Board of Control would not sign a contract to connect the hospitals to the sewerage system. Since the Council members were very much in favor of keeping the wastewater from the state hospitals out of Lake Mendota, they felt their only recourse was to transfer ownership of the treatment plants, interceptor and pumping stations to the District. Opposition, however, was still strong, and the transfer resolution only passed on a vote of 11 to 9.

On June 10, 1933, Mayor Law signed the transfer contract. The District’s Commissioners signed on June 13. The Commissioners now had to decide how to integrate the city employees into the District and determine what improvements were needed in the facilities.

Visit the History section of our blog for additional articles in the series, as well as “Flow of history…” articles documenting the early years of wastewater treatment in the Madison area.

Written by Paul Nehm