If you live in Madison, on your April ballot you’ll find a series of questions about the makeup of the city council.
These are advisory questions only. Any changes would have to be approved by the council in separate action and some would require approval in another referendum, which would be binding. The questions spring from recommendations made by a task force that proposed several changes to how Madison city government operates.
Taken as a whole the changes to the council would make our part-time, 20-member council, a full-time 10-member body. Council members’ pay would be boosted from about $13,000 a year to about $65,000, terms would go from two to four years and a 12-year term limit would be imposed.
I think these are all terrible ideas. Here’s why.
First, it’s hard to improve on the current set-up for diversity. Increased diversity is a reason offered for the changes, but the current council is made up of 40 percent people of color in a city that is 20 percent minority. And, given the candidates in the April races, that percentage is likely to increase. It’s hard to believe that a thoroughly different system would not do worse.
Second, the changes are unlikely to produce low-income council members, another stated goal. At least the current system gives lower-income residents a fighting chance. Council races can be won with a couple of brochures and a lot of leg work. Full-time jobs up for grabs in bigger districts will invite more money into local politics and push public office even further away for those who can’t afford to run. And, of course, even if someone of little means did find a way to win one of those full-time jobs, they would no longer be low-income.
Third, this will be very expensive for taxpayers. Twenty council members making $13,000 costs us around $260,000 in salaries. Ten members at $65,000 will cost $650,000, but that’s just salaries. Full-time members will demand the full slate of benefits, each council member will demand at least one staff member and they all will need office space. So, a total budget in the neighborhood of $1.2 million probably isn’t out of the ballpark. With all the needs in our community, do you really want to spend another $1 million on full-time politicians?
Fourth, this will invite big money and special interests into City Hall. Sure, they’re there already to some extent, but since council races are so inexpensive they can’t really be big players in elections. And who has an interest in who gets elected to city government? Well, mostly developers and bar owners. Their influence will multiply.
Fifth, with term limits what will council members do once forced from office? Many of them will peddle influence with their former colleagues as City Hall lobbyists.
Sixth, term limits are never a good idea. Why should voters be denied the chance to vote for a public servant who is doing a good job for them? Long-term alders have included the likes of Warren Onken, Tim Bruer, Shiva Bidar and Mike Verveer. All of them did a great job for their districts and for the city as a whole. It’s senseless to cast them aside just because they reached an arbitrary 12 years. Close watchers of City Hall might note that the city has an informal term limit of a decade for citizen members of committees and commissions, but that is unofficial and often ignored. This would be a hard and fast rule.
So, what will we get out of this if we make the changes? You don’t have to go far to see a prototype. Just walk down the street from the CCB to the Capitol. Do you like how the Legislature functions?
I think I can stop there.
A version of this piece originally appeared in my “Citizen Dave” blog in Isthmus.