Madison City Council (copy)

Madison's 20 alders are paid to work part-time though many say the job requires 40 hours per week. 

The task force charged with recommending changes in how Madison government is structured is toying with an idea that would reduce the number of alders from 20 to 10 and make them full-time with an annual salary of up to $70,000.

It's a lousy idea.

All we need do is look a block away and observe what's been going on in the state Capitol to understand how it would change city government for the worse.

Ever since the Wisconsin Legislature voted itself enough pay, benefits and per diems so that legislators didn't need a real job, the place has gone into the pits.

I'll be the first to admit that people who take the plunge and get themselves elected to city councils, village and town boards, school and county boards sacrifice much — countless hours at meetings, listening to complaints and sometimes taking unpopular stands.

And, sure, many qualified people don't run because of all those sacrifices and the time it takes them away from home and family.

But, if you think that turning them into full-time professional politicians will solve that problem, you're dreaming.

When it was composed of part-timers — people who made their livings running family farms, small businesses, practicing law and even teaching — the Wisconsin Legislature was famous for its enlightened legislation and groundbreaking ideas. They'd pass a budget and deal with pressing issues that required new or changed laws, and then go home to work and live with their constituents. Most of them were people who were willing to make sacrifices because they had ideas and wanted to make a difference.

When its leaders pushed through pay raises and enough bennies — health insurance, pensions, office expenses and bloated staffs — those part-timers were soon pushed out of the picture, replaced by politicians who could afford to spend all their waking hours in the Capitol.

But, worse, they faced extreme pressure to keep their jobs at election time. When a part-timer was defeated, he or she still had a job. A full-timer, though, needs to keep that job or trot off to the unemployment office. That, in turn, has led to the poisoning of our elections with burgeoning campaign dollars, misleading attack ads and underhanded tactics.

If you think that unrelenting sacrifices keep people from running for office, wait until they need to raise tens of thousands of dollars just to get into a race.

The focus becomes not what the politician can do for the betterment of the community, but on what needs to be done to stay in office.

Certainly, a growing city like Madison does need to find a way to take some of the burden off of public servants. More staff help and cutting the frequency of endless meetings would be a good start.

But, full-time? It's an idea we will all come to regret.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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