April 6, 2021 Non-Binding Advisory Referendum on the Size and Shape of Madison’s Common Council
The spring 2021 ballot will include 4 non-binding referendum questions as part of a multi-year City initiative to investigate whether changes to the structure of Madison’s government could improve representation and engagement for all of Madison residents. So far, City efforts to consider answers to these questions have included a comprehensive review of the history of Madison’s government by an eleven-member Task Force on the Structure of City Government (TFOGS), made up of community members and Alders. I was a member of the task force. The Task Force and its subcommittees met ninety (90) times over a two-year period. The committee’s work culminating in a Final Report with recommendations to the Mayor and Common Council. (View Final Report of the Task Force on the Structure of City Government))
Although the referendum is advisory only, it will help direct the next steps on these questions.
I’m including the full language of each of the questions below, adding in some information from the Final TFOGS report and my opinion on the questions.
It wasn’t easy for the TFOGS or me to come to this conclusion, but I believe it’s time we transition the council to full-time. As discussed in slide 2 above, the critical work of Alders shouldn’t be treated as a hobby.
Alders’ responsibilities are vast and time-consuming. Due to the volume of policy and legislation we manage, we have to become educated on a lot of different topics. We receive thousands of e-mails a year, many of which require research and thoughtful replies. It’s not uncommon for there to be meetings at least 3 nights a week that can last over 2 hours. Those meetings require preparation work and follow-up.
One of our most important responsibilities is working on and voting on an annual capital budget (~$161M in 2021) and operating budget (~$350M in 2021).
District 19 has been incredibly fortunate because I have flexibility in my life to spend 20-40 hours/week on this position, but not every district is that lucky. To do this job well under the current system Alders need to have flexibility in their family life and jobs to devote the necessary attention. When we talk about making the position full-time so it’s open to a more diverse group of people, we aren’t just talking about BIPOC, though that is really important. The Alders who are able to devote the necessary time to job tend to be retired or self-employed. It’s incredibly difficult for individuals raising children and managing a regular 9-5 job to do this job, and we are missing out on the value of those perspectives.
I think it’s also important to look at the 2021 election:
- 5 Alders are not running for re-election (District 5, 6, 8, 10, 16) and 1 Alder resigned mid-term (District 7)
- 3 retiring Alders are being replaced by candidates that have NO opposition.
- The Alder who was appointed to fill the vacancy in District 7 is running for a full term with no opposition.
- 4 Alders are running for re-election without an opponent
After a year like 2020 with strong public participation and protests, a big question I’m asking is why aren’t more people running for this position? From experience, I can tell you, elections with an opponent makes candidates a lot better at understanding their district.
I’m not 100% convinced making the position full-time is going to solve all the issues with this position, but I think it’s time we give it a try because the current configuration isn’t doing a good enough job giving enough people an opportunity to be Alder.
I’m honestly conflicted on this question and TFOG struggled with it as well. The City is Madison is an outlier when it comes to council size. (City Memo with chart on other council sizes)
District Alders represent approximately 12,500 people based on the 2010 census. If you were to decrease the size of the council, what does the workload look like? How can an Alder candidate realistically knock on every door during election time?
Having more Alders doesn’t necessarily make the job easier: Every Alder still needs to be educated on what they are voting on.
TFOGS ultimately recommended a smaller council (10 members) based on the cost of full time Alders. I’m not convinced that’s the right way to make the decision. That said, many other cities bigger than Madison have far fewer than 20.
I’m supportive of increasing the term to 4 years. It takes a long time for Alders to get acclimated in the position. Learning the system and building relationships in the community and with staff takes time. By the time a first term alder gets the hang of the job, it’s time for a time-consuming election campaign.
This suggestion is an attempt to minimize people’s concerns about making the Alder position a “career”. I’m OK with term limits if it helps people feel more comfortable with full-time Alders. I do think it’s a bad idea to vilify the idea of career politicians though. There are certainly plenty of bad examples of career politicians, but there are also some very good examples as well.
As you can see, I have wrestled with these ideas and, especially in the case of Question 2, I am still wrestling. If you have thoughts you’d like to share or questions to discuss, I am interested in hearing community perspectives.