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Saturday, July 31, 2021
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'The system is broken': Madison’s local government is inaccessible to those that need it most

A quiet summer night in Madison, Wisconsin came alive as over 1,000 demonstrators gathered at Capitol Square to protest the police shooting of 29-year-old Black man and father of three, Jacob Blake. The air smelled of vinegar and lighter fluid as protestors lit dumpsters on fire before being confronted by Madison Riot Police. 

The aftermath of the Aug. 25 riot was predictable, just like every disruptive protest that occurred over the summer. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway was joined by several city alders to denounce the violence that occurred while urging residents to pursue alternative methods of self-expression — like public service. 

“It’s time to work together to put our energy and our anger into more productive measures. There are so many options - reach out to your state representatives, county supervisors and city alders about legislative changes, and attend hearings and committee meetings,” Rhodes-Conway said in a statement

The problem is, activists and officials alike say that it’s not that easy.

“It’s bullshit. [The Mayor] is saying ‘show up,’ but when these people show up, I don't think she would actually stand by that,” said Alder Max Prestigiacomo of District 8.

Prestigiacomo, a UW-Madison student representing the campus area and Langdon Street, ran for the Madison City Council as a freshman. He is no stranger to the shortcomings of the council.

“I think it's a cop-out for a politician to say ‘Hey, if you're in the streets, and you're angry, then get involved.’ The real problem is that people have to be in the streets because the system is broken in the first place.”

The system in question is a city council composed of 20 alders elected from 20 wards who serve two-year terms. The council is assisted by boards, commissions and committees. The county board, which works adjacent to the council and serves the entirety of Dane County, consists of 37 supervisors representing 37 districts from DeForest to Stoughton. 

Meetings follow agendas comprised of ordinances, proposals and resolutions, and the authority for establishing an agenda for council meetings rests with the council. An ordinance, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center, is a “local law, enacted by the proper authorities, prescribing general, uniform and permanent rules of conduct relating to the corporate affairs of the municipality.” A resolution, on the other hand, is a “a formal expression of opinion, will or intent from an official body that often addresses a matter of special or temporary nature” and can be adopted simply by a majority vote. 

When an elected official, be it an alder or supervisor, has an idea for a piece of legislation, they first have to introduce it as a proposal. Proposals can be passed, rejected or sent to committees like the Finance Committee for further consideration or development. Eventually, these proposals make their way back to the council in the form of a resolution where it can be voted on. If an alder does not like the changes that were made to the proposal in committee, they can make a motion to revert the resolution back to its original form.

If this all sounds a little confusing, it’s because it is. 

“When looking at city government, we need to realize that it was designed to exclude certain voices from the conversation, not just students, but those from marginalized backgrounds,” Matthew Mitnick said. “If you just look at the history of Madison, it was built for the white male to succeed in politics. I think you can still see elements of that structure today.”

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Mitnick, the Chair for the Associated Students of Madison and member of the City Council’s Public Safety Review Committee and Protest Policy Subcommittee, has had more than his fair share of experience serving the city. And he realizes just how difficult it can be to get involved when you don’t know where to start. 

Student representatives across the board echo this sentiment: No one teaches you how local government works.

Supervisor Elena Haasl of District 5 on the Dane County Board had to endure their own crash course on the board’s inner workings when they was first elected. They remember feeling lost, not sure where to begin or how to accomplish the things they set out to do when they ran for the position. 

“Honestly, it's a pretty steep learning curve. For a while, I just kind of felt helpless because I had to keep relying on information from staff and my colleagues,” Haasl said.

That element of confusion doesn’t just apply to newly appointed and elected officials; it affects residents that want their voices heard, too. Mitnick, Haasl and Prestigiacomo all spoke on “barriers” that keep long-time residents and students from being able to participate in the process, whether it be information or time. When Mayor Rhodes-Conway asked protestors to show up to committee meetings and speak to their alders instead of demonstrating in the streets, she was proposing something that most constituents simply do not have the hours, knowledge and resources to accomplish. 

“You’re bullying people into voting, but you’re just engaging in the process, and the process is unacceptable,” said Prestigiacomo. “Let's talk about how meetings go till like 1 a.m., 3 a.m. in the morning. How are working-class people supposed to be giving their input?”

While Haasl and Prestigiacomo are paid a part-time salary, Mitnick is not compensated for the  tens of hours and all-nighters he puts into his various committee involvements each week. Committees, aside from select groups like the Police Civilian Oversight Board, don’t offer childcare, compensation or incentives for the residents that do devote their time and effort. If a resident works a full-time job, especially second or third shift, they are almost immediately disqualified from being able to participate in the process. If a resident works two or three jobs, then they may not even have the time or energy to stay informed. 

Not to mention that while any resident can submit an application to serve on a committee, it often takes someone appointing you to the position directly. Mitnick stressed the need for “connections,” as he himself received an invitation after he ran for City Council in 2019.

This becomes problematic when councils and committees, and even the Mayor, specifically look to minorities and residents from low-income areas to serve and speak. Elected officials seem to expect free labor from demographics that are pressed to represent themselves, but often become belligerent when those populations show up. Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores, a woman of color who was recently nominated to serve on the Civilian Oversight Board, was herself called a c*nt by an alder at a City Council meeting when she was registered to speak. 

The Task Force on Government (TFOGS) presented its findings to the Madison City Council in September, the conclusion of over 90 meetings and countless surveys and public meetings over a two year period. The task force looked at possible inequities in Madison’s government, including in the structure of its Common Council, Board, Commission, Committee system and in resident representation and engagement measures. The results were fairly damning.

“These inequities act as impediments to full participation and representation and, therefore, that the City’s structure is fundamentally unfair to residents of color and low income,” Assistant City Attorney John Strage read from the report. “The Task Force on Government Structure noted Madison’s current government structure works best for people with the time, resources and knowledge to actively participate.”

In particular, alders from some districts are able to devote all their time to their position due to being independently wealthy or having an unrestrictive full-time job. Alder from other areas often do not have this same luxury, and only have so much time to devout to responding and reaching out to their constituents. This system, as the TFOGS found, unfairly impacts low income residents and minorities. 

While city officials and residents alike acknowledge that the system is broken, there is not a clear consensus on how to fix Madison’s local government. Mitnick finds value in the committee system, but thinks it can be streamlined. Haasl wished that there was a better way to engage with their Dane County constituents and inform them of upcoming proposals and resolutions. 

Prestigiacomo takes issue with the sheer number of commissions and committees, with estimates putting the city at 102 such panels, and believes that the Madison City Council should pursue a hybrid model instead of strictly part-time or full-time alder positions to ensure accountability.

“I don't think there's a single aspect of the boards and committees that accurately uplifts marginalized communities into that discussion. Most people say it's broken, but like they don't have the energy or want to push for [something different],” Prestigiacomo said. 

Still, everyone agrees that a simple way to increase participation and accessibility is to continue holding meetings online, even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. The option to attend virtually is invaluable for those that are home-bound or unable to commit to sitting through an entire meeting. 

“We should continue to use Zoom even after we can begin meeting in person again. It just makes it more accessible for me, or even people with disabilities, that they can tune in and not have to worry about how they're going to get to a physical space,” Haasl stated. 

By next spring, the Madison City Council will decide whether or not to implement suggestions from the TFOGS. Recommendations from the task force’s Final Report include allowing video testimony and properly staffing committees among other ideas on how to increase resident engagement. 

However, student representatives are worried that some of the proposed changes, such as reducing the size of the City Council and making the position full-time, will eliminate the student voice in local government. When the same suggestion was made to decrease the 22-member council in 1970, Alders Eugene Parks and Paul Soglin, both students at the time, argued that the full-time proposal would erase student representation and “reward second-rate politicians.”

In the end, the Alder, Supervisor and Chair are all committed to making lasting changes in the structure of Madison’s local government, as long as room is left for students. 

“I don't know what my ideal counselor would look like, but the whole system is broken and needs to be overhauled. There's no way I'll be voting to maintain the status quo,” Prestigiacomo said. 

They all hope that post-pandemic, the City and County will adopt measures that increase accountability and accessibility while leaving room for students. The option to attend virtually should be available for all meetings, COVID or no COVID. Outreach should be key and residents should be aware of important agenda items. Residents should be compensated or provided incentives for work done on committees. If time-commitment and pay is increased for some city alders, it should not mean that community voices are replaced with career politicians. 

Everyone is in agreement. Changes should be made, and soon.

“I think that people need to understand that city government was built to exclude voices from the conversation and we need to recognize that, and create an environment that is easy and accessible for all,” Mitnick concluded. 

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