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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Tuesday, January 26, 2021
<p>The City-County building serves as the seat of Madison's local government.</p>

The City-County building serves as the seat of Madison's local government.

Letter to the Editor: Restructuring the Common Council would make it less accessible. It could still be a good idea.

The Task Force on Government Structure began meeting in 2018 with the goal of studying local government and drafting recommendations to improve its efficiency and make it more equitable. These are the recommendations that made it into the final report, per the Wisconsin State Journal:

  • “Reduce the council from 20 to 10 members. The city has had a 20-member council since 1993.
  • Have members serve full time. Currently, members work part time.
  • Pay members’ salaries at 80% of the Dane County median income for a family of three, or $67,950. Currently, members are paid $13,570, although the council president and vice president get $16,513 and $14,460, respectively.
  • Move from two-year terms for council members to four-year terms and hold the elections in the same year’s voters elect a mayor.
  • Limit council members to three consecutive four-year terms.
  • Increase leadership terms from one to two years.”

The most important of these recommendations are to decrease the size of the council to 10 members to give each member a full-time workload, and then compensate them accordingly. Cutting the number of members on the council to 10 members obviously decreases representation­­ — bigger districts mean that the voices of concentrated minority groups could get swallowed up by their majority neighbors. The compromise is to pay council-members on a full-time basis.

The basic argument for paying council-members full time is that the commitment that being on council currently requires may not be feasible for people who rely on working 40+ hours a week. By only being compensated $13,570 a year, they would be unable to support themselves if they quit their jobs or reduced their hours to devote more time to council.

This is reasonable at first glance, but I have serious doubts about whether it would achieve its intended effect.

Paying members $67,950 a year suddenly transforms being on city council from a mundane volunteer position to a prestigious and lucrative one. The bump in compensation would certainly attract poorer Madisonian's, but it would open the floodgates to wealthier professionals seeking a career change or a bigger salary. Doubling the size of districts also inherently raises the barrier to entry and thus the minimum amount of campaign dollars necessary to mount a respectable campaign. This only serves people with sufficient personal savings and access to deep-pocketed personal networks — not the poor or marginalized.

Compounding this effect is the fact that losing reelection is no longer merely a bruise to the ego but a severe disruption to a council member’s personal finances. Paying council members full time intensifies the losses associated with losing reelection, incentivizing more fundraising for campaigns. If contributions from friends and family aren’t enough to bridge this gap, I think we could very well see contributions from businesses, developers, and political groups playing a much bigger role in electing representatives.

On the other hand, this year has made it clear that the common council desperately needs a dose of professionalism. A record-setting budget deficit, a toxic atmosphere, and constant distractions — like a $10,000 investigation to figure out whether a council member said a naughty word — seem like good reasons to cut half of these people out of the picture. If the task force recommendations are implemented, we might be able to attract the caliber of representative we deserve by getting access to candidates who are currently unwilling to serve because of the low compensation. 

Zhou is a junior studying Finance. Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com

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