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Mike Johnson: Soglin right, council wrong on disclosing donations
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Mike Johnson: Soglin right, council wrong on disclosing donations

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A recent Madison City Council vote left me pondering a line from "The Simpsons" TV show: “Y'know, a town with good legislation is like a mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it!”

On June 18 the Madison City Council voted down a proposal from Mayor Paul Soglin that would have made a small step in the right direction for better government. The proposal would have required that businesses with city contracts over $25,000 disclose if they make political contributions to advocacy organizations (Read: lobbyists). In a community still suffering from the political machinations of the state Legislature and its backers, a proposal like this appeared to be slam dunk, especially with urging from organized labor and clean government groups to pass it.

Not so fast, my friend; the council voted down the proposal 11-9, with the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce and county Republicans applauding the defeat. Some may point to political contributions as a deciding factor: Nine of the 11 who voted "no" received campaign contributions through the chamber, about 25 percent of all the money raised by those nine this past spring. But what is more telling is where many of their contributors live — outside of Madison — and what industry employs them — real estate and property management. I bring this up not to bash our neighbors or their preferred type of employment, but to point out how this poses a threat to both open government and fairness for our residents.

Let’s compare the council’s recent actions to their words only a month ago in response to Assembly Bill 183, which would strip Madison tenants of many of their protections against poor treatment from various types of landlords. The council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the bill, which was lobbied into existence by the regional apartment association based here in Dane County. These types of connections would have been exposed under the failed disclosure ordinance; however, the council's 180-degree flip on their righteous indignation prevented this improvement. It’s like their own version of "Who’s Line Is It Anyway?" where the votes don’t count and the resolutions don’t matter.

What may be most troubling about all of this is the thinly veiled reasoning of some in the business community who opposed the ordinance, suggesting that this type of disclosure would lead to a “witch hunt” on business. I have a feeling what the real concern would be is losing customers who might object to their support for state-level advocacy of policies that harm Madison. There has been a major push for transparency in consumer products, like Buycott, an app that allows shoppers to see if the product they are purchasing is tied to any less-than-stellar companies or advocacy groups.

Why isn’t that appropriate here in Madison? Legally, as city staffers pointed out, Madison cannot vote down a contract bid based on political contributions. What we can do, of course, is say that businesses getting taxpayer money from Madison while contributing to groups seeking to harm our city’s ability to provide quality services shouldn’t be getting our personal dollars. Maybe the council isn't up for a good vote, but we could ... with our wallets.

Mike Johnson is co-chair of Progressive Dane.

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