Madison’s Police Oversight Board is considering whether to change how the board is composed. And specifically, whether to remove racial quotas on the board’s membership from city ordinance.
The change was introduced by Madison City Attorney Michael Haas, who says that, though the Police Oversight Board is free to discuss the new ordinance, the full common council will decide on the change.
“The proposed ordinance would slightly change the language that the city council originally passed governing how members of the Civilian Oversight Board are appointed. Essentially what it does is take out a requirement that members come from different racial backgrounds, and changes that language to say the city will strive to obtain membership of individuals of those backgrounds,” Haas says.
The Madison Police Civilian Oversight Board was established in 2020, after years of discussion and months of set-up work. When the common council created the board, it wrote into city ordinance that the board must contain at least one Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and LGBTQ member. Additionally, the council also adopted an ordinance to have at least half of the board members be Black.
Last summer, local conservative blogger and former local politician David Blaska filed a lawsuit against the city, saying those membership requirements amounted to a “racial quota.” Blaska, a white man, said that he was discriminated against due to his race when he applied for and was denied a seat on the board.
At the time, Blaska told WORT that the ordinance was unconstitutional.
“I can think of no other governmental body that bases membership on race, and there’s a big reason for that,” Blaska says.
Blaska was represented in the lawsuit by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL, a conservative legal firm. WILL argues that the ordinance, as written, is unconstitutional, and violated Blaska’s civil rights.
Haas says that the lawsuit is still ongoing in federal court, and no hearing date has been set. Haas says that attorneys representing the city have been in talks but have not reached any settlement in the lawsuit.
Dan Lennington is WIILL’s deputy counsel, and the lead attorney on the lawsuit. He says WILL would be willing to drop the lawsuit if the council removes race-based membership requirements from city ordinance.
“If it’s passed on May 10, we will agree to drop the lawsuit in return of attorney’s fees and damages. That will depend on further negotiations and reduce this to a settlement agreement,” Lennington says.
City attorney Michael Haas:
“We did review (the language) in light of the lawsuit. We do believe there is a way to accomplish the same goals that the city council has without having language that could be subject to a court challenge,” Haas says.
The ordinance cosponsors, including Alders Yannette Figueroa Cole, Juliana Bennett, and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, declined WORT’s request for comment on the matter, saying that the ordinance change was a legal matter to be handled by the city attorney.
The ordinance change is expected to go before the full council on May 10th.
Photo courtesy: WORT Flickr