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Former Madison mayors join conversation on changing structure of local government

Former Madison mayors join conversation on changing structure of local government

City-County Building

A task force is currently examining the shape of Madison's local government. 

Former Madison mayors, as well as the current one, offered their input Thursday to members of a committee tasked with examining the shape of city government, including potential changes to the makeup of the City Council.

Former mayors Dave Cieslewicz, 2003-2011; Joel Skornicka, 1979-1983; Joe Sensenbrenner, 1983-1989; and Soglin weighed in on the size of the City Council, mayoral powers and how the city and school district should work together.  

Soglin recommended the Task Force on Structure of City Government consider cutting the 20-member City Council in half and making the positions full time. He has argued in the past that the job of an alder has morphed into a full-time position.

“It’s my opinion that the present model … is the one that is the most deleterious in regards to people of modest means serving on the City Council,” Soglin said.

Soglin also said an outcome of having a full-time council would be to reduce the city's large number of committees, a characteristic of Madison government that some complain about.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cieslewicz said he is opposed to a full-time council, which he argued would bring the need for full-time compensation, demand for staff and space constraints.

Larger districts would also bring more money into local politics, Cieslewicz said.

"It’s going to change the campaigns,” he said. “Districts are small enough that you can knock on every door a couple of times.”

All the mayors supported retaining powers of the executive position, including the ability to veto and appoint alders to committees and chair the Finance Committee.

On the issue of the quantity of committees in Madison, Skornicka argued for fewer and called for alders to be members of all of them. But Cieslewicz said participatory government is too much a part of Madison’s DNA.

“This tradition of having citizens on just about every committee is who we are,” Cieslewicz said. "It’s part of the community."

The mayors also discussed Madison’s relationship with the school district. Sensenbrenner said the city, Dane County and community groups need to marshall their energy and resources to work more closely with the school district.

If Sensenbrenner were designing a local government from scratch, he said he would include the school district under the mayor’s purview.

“I think that the schools have been isolated and let on their own all too much,” he said.

In other recommendations, Soglin suggested creating a city administrator staff position and removing the mayor as the chair of City Council meetings. Cieslewicz advocated for improving the city’s relationship with the state and implementing a “fiscal efficiency auditor.”

Skornicka urged the city to re-evaluate resources in the city clerk’s office and consider a task force on public safety during crises such as floods and fires.

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