Ms. Webber recalls her memories of the Municipal Building, including participating in committee hearings as a community member and then as a City Council member from 2003-2009. She was especially involved in policies related to transportation and bicycling in Madison.
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INTERVIEWER: Okay, I’m Laura Damon-Moore, I’m here today on February 5th, 2019, talking with Robbie Webber about the Madison Municipal Building, as kind of a follow up to Municipal Restored. Robbie, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your history in Madison and also your history in, and relationship to, the Madison Municipal Building.
NARRATOR: Okay. I originally came to Madison as an undergraduate. I actually transferred here, because of a particular program, and then I left Madison and didn’t really intend to return, but then came back here for graduate school and never left, like so many other people. So this iteration of my life I have been here for, let’s see, thirty-two years, it’ll be thirty-three.
And I was on the Madison City Council from 2003 to 2009. I had always been sort of opinionated and began to be involved with local issues. And people would say to me, you should run for office. And I would say, that’s not going to happen. And then a friend invited me to a training for women in politics. And one of the speakers, I remember that Gwen Moore, Kathleen Falk, and Tammy Baldwin were all at the, were all speakers. I’m not sure who said this, it might have been Tammy, I’m going to guess that it was. She said, “women don’t run for office because they think they have to know everything before they run. But that never stops the men.” [LAUGHTER] And she said, “You only need to know who to ask.” And at that moment I said, okay, I can do this. And through some other details that I won’t go in to, I sort of had the seat almost handed by the former alder who decided not to run. So of course I got on the city council, and I had no idea how much work it was going to be, and all the things I was going to have to know about and stuff like that.
But even before I got onto the council, I had been spending quite a bit of time in Room 260 of the Municipal Building, attending meetings and speaking on issues and listening to the process and things like that.
INTERVIEWER: What were some of the “local issues” that really drew you in that—
NARRATOR: Well, I’ve always been involved with transportation a lot. I was working for Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, and so I was thinking a lot about how people move around, and I had a friend from graduate school who sort of pulled me in to that issue, and into the idea of the overlap between land use and transportation decisions and how people move around and how we live and how to build a city and that kind of thing. And giving people choices on transportation, and many other issues that all come in to that.
So I had been going to speak at different commissions. And you get three minutes to talk. And then you have to sit down and be quiet, and even if some of the commission members say things or ask questions that you could add significant information, you’re not allowed to jump in. Which I was reminded of, multiple times. So when I got elected and I was on the committees, people would ask me, you know, what’s the best part of being on the council? And I had two sort of cheeky answers: one was, “City staff have to return my phone calls now,” and the second one was, “I get to ask the questions. And I don’t get cut off at three minutes.”
INTERVIEWER: Yes, right.
NARRATOR: So I again spent a lot of time in Room 260 on the second floor, sometimes the third floor, we’d get moved around for various different things. And that room was such—I mean, it was such a disaster in so many ways, because it was ice-cold in the summer and it was absolutely steaming hot in the winter. So, I ride my bike to get around, or sometimes I’ll take the bus or I’ll walk, and I’ll be dressed to be outside. And so in the summer I’d be dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, or tank top, or a skirt, or a light dress, and I’d come inside and it was like 65 degrees in there. And I was absolutely sure that I was going to get hypothermia. And then in the winter I’d be wearing a turtleneck, and long underwear and it’d be eighty. And I remember thinking, “I’m going to be dehydrated, I’m going to pass out…” I mean, the heating and cooling was just terrible.
But, I love the room because of the old courtroom, and the wooden benches, and the dais, and everything that it represented, and the wooden table, and the chairs, the wooden chairs, and all that sort of thing. That was my main memory of that building—of that particular room, then sometimes I had meetings in other rooms such as LL110, which is down in the basement. When I was on committees that were staffed by the Planning Department, and number one: nobody could find it. Nobody could find that room. Nobody could find—it was a maze just to get to the offices, nobody could find the room, once you were in the room there were no windows, and it was also a room where you couldn’t see if it was occupied until you were fully in the room. [INTERVIEWER LAUGHS] So people were often not sure what room a meeting was in—
NARRATOR: And they would kind of stick their head in, and they would have to get sort of fully into the room before they realized they were in the wrong place.
INTERVIEWER: Oh no.
NARRATOR: And then one night, in the winter, I had ridden my bike to, you know, to my work, which was only a block away, and then gone to a meeting and I knew that it was going to snow, but I didn’t realize it was going to snow that much. And I came outside, and my bike was parked in covered parking, behind where the post office was. There was an area, a loading dock area with covered bicycle parking. But eight inches of snow had fallen.
INTERVIEWER: Oh no!
NARRATOR: And I thought to myself, there’s no way I’m going to ride my bike home. So I just grabbed the first bus that I could find, and threw my bike on there and figured I’d push it through the rest of the way if they didn’t drop me off close to my house. But that’s because there were no windows, so I didn’t realize that—I was kind of shocked to come out and find that amount of snow on the ground. So one of the things that you ask is, ‘what’s the role of the building’ and to me, even before being an elected official, it was the place where you go to participate in the city process, in the local process. To get information on what’s going on, to really be part of participatory democracy.
And I was always really proud of the fact that people could come in, it was very easy to get to, and you could just come in, say your piece, bring a bunch of papers if you wanted to and distribute them to the people on the committee, and be able to participate in the process. I think that’s important. I think it’s better now, because it’s easier to find things. There were rooms, when they closed it, and they had the art exhibition, there were rooms that I didn’t even know existed.
INTERVIEWER: I’m sure.
NARRATOR: And I had been going to that building probably weekly for almost ten years. And I didn’t even know there were certain rooms. ‘Where did this room come from? I didn’t know this was here.’
INTERVIEWER: It’s a rabbit warren, that’s how I’ve heard it described.
NARRATOR: Yes. Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: As you’re thinking about, you know, these specific rooms and your memories there, do you have any particular moments, particular moments that you’re particularly proud of the way that the process played out, that really stick in your memory as far as the people who came to participate, and when you came to participate and then, being on both sides of the table?
NARRATOR: Um, I’m trying to think sort of how the building played a role…but, the fact that we had City Cable there, and that several of the committees that I was on were cable-cast. I want to say broadcast but it wasn’t really broadcast, but where also you could stream them on the computer or you could watch them on cable. And when I would be knocking on doors, and campaigning, people would actually say that they watched it. And I don’t have cable, I’ve never had cable, so I don’t have that option, and I would say, “Why? Why are you watching that?” [LAUGHTER] And they would say, ‘because I think it’s interesting, you know, I think it’s interesting to find out what’s going on. And I can be cooking and watching…’ And sometimes they would say, ‘I loved what you said at that meeting.’ And I thought, you know, wow, it’s great that people are involved. I’m glad that I said something that inspired them. But I just was really proud of the fact that we had this opportunity for people to, to know what was happening.
INTERVIEWER: Absolutely. That information exchange is still possible that way. What was your impression of the renovated space? What was it like being there on the opening?
NARRATOR: It was, um, I think that there were areas [where] I tried to remember what it looked like before. And I sort of couldn’t believe that it was the same building, in some areas. But then there were other areas that were very familiar. Such as the Room 260, the old courtroom. And I miss the old wooden furniture. That’s kind of too bad. But the room looks a lot better, and I’m sure it feels a lot better. I hope it won’t be so cold in the summer and hot in the winter. And I think they did a really beautiful job. An old, historic building like that, especially one that has so many memories for people, there’s a lot of chance that you’re not going to like the renovation, but I think they did an excellent job.
And I’m hoping that it will be easier for people to participate now, because it’s more comfortable, it’s more open, the directions are easier to follow, it’s easier to find the room that you need to get to. Especially things like Planning, which is important for a lot of people if they’re doing things for their house or for their yard, and they didn’t have a good way to find the right staff people. I know that social services has got better opportunities for meeting rooms and talking to people. I know that they had a lot of trouble previously, with not having privacy for people who were asking for social services, or really needing help. And that’s, you know, difficult when somebody’s in distress, or they’re, they are needing housing assistance or medical assistance or anything like that and they don’t have the privacy to discuss that with city staff.
INTERVIEWER: This might not be directly related to the building’s history, but I’m just curious, about, you were involved in transportation work or interested in that topic particularly in the way that we get around by bike. Can you just tell us a little bit things you’ve seen improved, or things that have changed in that regard?
NARRATOR: Yeah, I can say, actually, regarding the building, I was always sort of proud of the fact that the bike racks were often full. [LAUGHS]
NARRATOR: And, you know, it’s—when bike racks are full, it’s kind of good news/bad news. The good news is lots and lots of people are biking, the bad news is, the bike racks are full, so it’s hard to find a place to park. But I noticed that there was one bike rack that was often not full, and it was the one close—in front of the Municipal Building, but closer to Monona Terrace. And I went over there to park my bike one day, and I realized why nobody parked there. There were trees overhanging, and the birds would drop in the whole, in the whole area would be covered in bird droppings. So nobody would park there.
INTERVIEWER: Yup, makes sense.
NARRATOR: And, I was also really proud of the fact that they had, the City had a municipal bike—before BCycle, there was a fleet of bikes that City staff could check out. To go to meetings.
NARRATOR: Yes. And they were parked on the loading dock, by the post office. Off of Doty Street. And there were signs that said, these spots reserved for municipal bike fleet and things like that. And the bikes had baskets so that you could put your briefcase, or papers, or plans or whatever in there. And people used them all the time. People would check them out and use them all the time. And the other thing that I really appreciated was that they have—I don’t know if it’s still there, but, before the renovation, there was a, on one of the wooden supports, they had mounted this kind of metal thing where you could leave your lock. So if you came there every day, or if you worked in the area or the building and you didn’t want to carry your lock home because maybe you had a fancy bike and you were just going to ride it between the office and your home, you could actually leave your lock there and not have to carry it all the time.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, funny.
NARRATOR: I thought that was a really considerate touch, and it really indicated that the City was thinking about bicycling as a real transportation method, that their employees needed.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, made that accommodation. Anything else you want to share?
NARRATOR: Well, I used to be able to bike around the Square, down MLK, make a left turn on Doty, a right turn onto the parking lot where the post office was, and then up the ramp, onto the loading dock. [LAUGHTER] And just as I, I could like sort of cruise up and come to a stop just in the covered area of the parking.
INTERVIEWER: Very cool. That sounds fun.
NARRATOR: And it was very, we were all very appreciative when it was pouring rain, or when it might rain, or when it might snow, that there was covered bicycle parking.
INTERVIEWER: That’s great. Well, thank you so much.
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