Madison doesn’t need a full-time City Council earning five times as much pay with less accountability to voters.
City residents should reject an advisory referendum on the April 6 ballot that would turn our citizen servants into professional politicians with longer terms.
A big reason proponents say they want to change the council from part- to full-time is to encourage greater participation in city leadership positions by people of color. A part-time council is “fundamentally unfair” to minority groups and the poor, advocates claim.
But this ignores that 40% of council members are people of color now — almost twice the percentage of Madison’s minority population. And well over half of the energetic field of 22 candidates seeking 11 competitive council seats in this spring’s election are people of color, including some single moms.
So in all likelihood, our part-time City Council will only become more diverse after April 6. The part-time pay of $13,700 a year doesn’t appear to be a deterrent. If anything, it proves that the people who run for this important job are doing so for the right reasons. The soonest a full-time council could be enacted would be 2023.
Sheri Carter, Madison’s first Black female City Council president, doesn’t support a full-time council. Neither does her opponent in the spring election, activist Brandi Grayson, who is Black. Neither does Ald. Samba Baldeh, a Black immigrant who rose to City Council president and the state Assembly. He fears a full-time council will reduce African American representation.
In theory, a full-time paycheck could make it easier for people of modest means to give up their day job to serve. But how would they get elected? The higher pay and benefits for city service would only encourage more of Madison’s political establishment to run and raise more money in donations, increasing the cost of campaigns. That would make it harder for less-connected people with less money to win.
Another reason proponents cite for a full-time council is that many members work long hours and deserve full-time pay. We don’t doubt that council members work hard. But many members work full-time in their day jobs now and are still effective in representing their districts.
A better way to ease the burden of public service is to make meetings more convenient and less frequent. Madison should start by reducing its enormous number of city committees, which total more than 100. Steering more constituent calls to a hotline for help with frequently asked questions makes sense, too. And continuing to allow more video conferences after the pandemic will save travel time and allow, for example, a parent of young children to attend more meetings from home.
Madison voters should reject full-time salaries for council members as high as $71,000 year. They also should vote “no” to four-year terms. It’s not like most council elections require lots of campaign money to win a seat now. Going door to door is key, and helps keep local leaders more in touch with their constituents.
Voters will be asked if the City Council should reduce, increase or keep its size of 20 members. Twenty is a lot of people on a government panel. If that’s what’s required to avoid a full-time council, so be it. City residents should vote for keeping the size the same or going smaller.
A final question on the referendum will ask about 12-year term limits if the city does become full-time. A term limit would at least be a check on endless service for the wrong reasons. But the current council isn’t loaded with lifers. Only three of 20 members have served that long, and one is retiring.
Instead of turning the council into a full-time body with better pay than state lawmakers get, city residents should stick with part-time neighborhood representatives. The current City Council obviously is not serving for the money. Let’s keep it that way.