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Madison voters widely support City Council term limits; reject full-time body, longer term lengths

Madison voters widely support City Council term limits; reject full-time body, longer term lengths

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Madison advisory referendums

Poll worker Jenni Cardell processes absentee ballots at the Wil-Mar Community Center Tuesday, which included four advisory referendums asking voters about proposed major changes to the structure of the City Council.


145 of 154 precincts
Question 1: Full-time City Council
No 29,598 58%
Yes 21,073 42%
Question 2: City Council size
Remain the same 35,231 70%
Be reduced 8,198 16%
Be increased 6,724 13%
Question 3: Increase council terms to 4 years
No 28,202 56%
Yes 22,515 44%
Question 4: Term limits for council members
Yes 36,178 71%
No 14,665 29%

Madison voters Tuesday overwhelmingly supported term limits for City Council members and keeping the size of the legislative body the same, while rejecting proposals to move to a higher-paid, full-time council whose members would serve longer terms.

The results of four advisory referendums included on the spring election ballot could offer direction to the City Council as it weighs some of the biggest structural changes to city government in decades.

Voters were asked whether they wished to:

  • Keep the council part time with members paid about $13,700 annually or move to a full-time council with pay between $45,000 and $71,000
  • Decrease, increase or keep the same the size of the 20-member council
  • Increase term lengths for council members from two years to four years
  • Implement term limits of no more than 12 consecutive years.

More than 70% of voters favored implementing term limits and keeping the 20-person council the same size. But the questions on full-time, higher-paid positions and longer term lengths were rejected by voters, both by double-digit margins.

Eileen Harrington, former chairperson of the now-dissolved Task Force on Government Structure, whose work prompted the advisory questions, said it didn’t shock her voters didn’t get behind a full-time council and longer term lengths — two changes the task force recommended be made.

“I’m not surprised that without any of that background information or context that voters would not support these changes,” Harrington said.

The task force spent 20 months examining the structure of local government. In a report to the council in early 2020, the task force concluded the current system is “fundamentally unfair,” particularly for people of color and low-income residents, and one that favors people with the time, resources and knowledge to participate.

Harrington said she felt there wasn’t a “meaningful effort” from the council to educate the public on the task force’s work before the vote.

Among its various recommendations, the task force suggested moving to a full-time, 10-member council with members paid $67,950 annually and elected to four-year terms.

Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, who served two terms from 2003 to 2011, has been a vocal critic of the proposed changes and advocated keeping the current “citizen body” structure.

“I hope Madisonians don’t just see this as something they rejected but also as something they support,” he said of the vote results. “I hope there’s a renewed appreciation for their neighbors who step up to work on the council for little money or recognition, but just to serve the community.”

Cieslewicz said he was surprised to see the appetite for implementing term limits, but it’s something he opposes because “people should get the opportunity to vote for who they want to vote for.”


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