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Thursday, December 01, 2022

Madison to hold referendum on smaller, full-time Common Council

The Madison Common Council has explored options to undergo the largest structural change in decades as they look for voter opinions on having a smaller, full-time, higher-paid city council. 

A non-binding advisory referendum on the ballot April 6 asks voters to mark their preferences on if the council should:

  • stay part-time or become full-time positions 
  • be increased or decreased in size 
  • change from two to 4-year terms 
  • impose term limits of 12 years 

Additionally, the referendum asks voters if the council should move to full-time with pay between $45,000 and $71,000. Currently, pay for council members is part-time and budgeted at about $14,100 each, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

If pursued after the advisory referendum, the shift to a full-time city council would mark the second city in Wisconsin to do so after Milwaukee, according to the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. 

If this advisory referendum is passed, citizens will face a binding referendum in Spring 2022. If approved through the binding referendum, the changes would take effect in Spring 2023, according to the City of Madison. 

Much of the push for structural change follows a review by the Task Force on Government Structure, an 11-member body that makes recommendations to the mayor and city council on how to increase government efficiency. 

Members of the task force noted in their final report that the structure of the council currently excludes some citizens from the decision-making process and can isolate those without the resources to participate.  

"There’s overwhelming evidence that the current structure excludes a significant swath of our population from democratic processes and institutions and that is primarily our low-income folks and communities of color," task force member Justice Castañeda told Wisconsin Public Radio.

The task force recommended a full-time, 10 member council consisting of 4-year terms for alders and 2-year terms for leadership positions. They also recommended a salary of $67,950 annually. 

Some say that the recommendation will help remedy the overrepresentation of some districts on the council. 

“Because the council doesn’t have enough time to do its job, it creates more boards, committees and commissions — 38 percent of whose members come from the five most affluent districts,” task force Chairwoman Eileen Harrington said in a meeting. “Madison has long standing inequities. The policy problems are deep and hard. A part-time, low-paid council does not provide the time or depth needed to solve these difficult problems.”

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The recommendations would also increase council spending by about $1 million for salaries and benefits, administrative positions, supplies and office spaces, according to City Finance Director David Schmiedicke.  

The referendum to make some of the changes to the city council on the April 6 ballot is only an advisory, but a strong show of support for the measure could land it on future ballots for a formal, binding vote.

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