Alder Grant Foster
210 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: (608) 266-4071
Fax: (608) 267-8669
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Alder Foster’s Updates
Advisory Referendum: Size & Shape of Common Council - 3/19/21
Spring election ballots have started arriving in mailboxes this week and a number of D15 residents have reached out to me for my thoughts and opinions on the referendum questions. You can find a full description of the referendum questions, background on the Task Force on Government Structure, and a link to the full Task Force report here.
Below I'm sharing my personal thoughts on the referendum questions that are informed by the work and recommendations of the Task Force as well as by my experience serving as District 15 alder over the past two years. I encourage all voters to take the time to review the Task Force report, watch the video linked above, and to talk with friends and neighbors about your goals and desires for how you're represented at the city.
While I have developed my own opinions on some of the referendum questions, it's clear to me that none of us can know with certainty what changes might lead to what outcomes. That's a big part of why I strongly advocated for putting these important questions to the voters and I look forward to reviewing the results following the election.
I followed the work of the Task Force closely and along the way shifted my thoughts and opinions about some of the key questions addressed in the referendum. I originally felt that the position of alder should remain a 'volunteer' position in order to attract individuals that have a selfless desire to serve their community rather than attracting individuals that might have more selfish ambitions for a position of power and authority or those that might see it as a stepping stone on a path to become a 'career politician'.
Over the course of the Task Force discussions and deliberations and after serving as alder and understanding the depth and breadth of the commitment required to do the job effectively, I now believe that city residents would be best served by alders that are able to commit a significant amount of time and energy to the work and that our current structure does not lead to that result in many cases. I also agree with the Task Force that the current model effectively limits who can even consider doing the job and negatively impacts fair representation for all members of our community.
As such, I am in favor of those changes that would be most likely to open the role up to the widest number of people in Madison and changes that would encourage and support alders to be able to dedicate the time and energy needed to effectively do the work that Madison residents expect of them. My thoughts on the specific referendum questions below are centered on those big picture goals, but I fully acknowledge that any change could have both positive and negative, intended and unintended consequences.
Question #1: full-time vs. part-time alders
As I said above, I believe that residents are better off with representatives that can commit a significant amount of time and energy to the work. As I shared in a previous post, I spend an average of 46 hours/week in my work as District 15 alder. While the amount of time needed might vary by alder and by district, I believe that it is very difficult and impractical to do even a mediocre job representing constituents and doing the work without spending at least 20-25 hours/week.
In order to really try and meet the needs and expectations of residents in both managing the current affairs of the city and to work on policy changes that would actually improve conditions for city residents, I believe alders need to be able to invest something like 35-45 hours/week. While there are some alders that do that today, it typically requires being retired or independently wealthy or having significant support from others to be able to do so.
It's important to note that there are several current alders that do a very good job while simultaneously managing a full-time job. But these alders are very much the exception in their ability to manage such significant professional and city obligations in balance with their personal life and obligations. It is much more typical that well-intended people who want to make a difference, run and win and then quickly become overwhelmed by the unanticipated demands and complexity of the job. Sometimes this results in resignations and other times alders stick it out and try their best to manage what can feel like an unmanageable workload. Often these alders are unable to be fully prepared for meetings and lack the time and capacity to work on the very things that drove them to seek the position in the first place.
This issue also directly impacts who can even consider running in the first place. While I believe that managing the work of alder on top of a full time job is unrealistic for many people, it is simply not possible for others. Those alders that do manage such an intense workload almost always have jobs that allow for a fair amount of flexibility in their schedules. In practice, the current structure limits access to the role of alder and provides better representation to those with more means.
For those reasons, I support acknowledging that the role is indeed a full-time job and I support paying future alders a modest full-time salary. I believe that the work of alders is as important and valuable as the work of teachers or cooks or engineers. While fairly compensating for the work we want done will not guarantee world-class representation, I believe it would open the door to more people being able to do the job effectively and would result in an increase in the capacity of individual alders and of the common council as a whole to take on the incredible amount of important work that is before us as a city.
The downside to raising the compensation of alders is that it would result in an increase in city expenses. This is no small consideration when trying to balance impossibly tight budgets with needs that seem to expand more quickly than do our revenues.
But on balance, I believe that the increased expense of raising the compensation from $13,700 to $45-71,000 per year for alders would be a relatively small increase in the total city budget of $350 million - approximately $5/resident/year. I believe this would be money well spent in order to give Madison residents more meaningful representation and to increase the capacity of the common council to effectively govern the city.
Question #2: size of council
Of all of the referendum questions, I feel most strongly about this one - I believe that decreasing the size of the council will lead to worse representation. The current size (20) allows for candidates to run and win a campaign by knocking on doors and gaining the support of their neighbors. If the council size were reduced to 10, it would make campaigning more dependent on money to run ads and would increase the influence of lobbyists and powerful organizations as they could focus their resources on fewer races and fewer elected officials. I believe that in general more representatives with smaller districts will provide residents with better representation.
On the other hand, more paid alders cost more money and there is clearly some diminishing return to the benefits of increased representation through more alders and smaller districts. A common council that had too many members could also become more unwieldy and could have negative impacts on getting the work done as well.
As much as we'd like to be able to pin down the 'sweet spot', there's no great way to determine that. I support either keeping the size the same (20) or increasing slightly the number of alders.
Question #3: 2-year vs 4-year term
The benefits of moving to a 4-year term largely revolve around increasing stability in the membership of the council. Such a change could allow for council leadership terms to be extended (currently the president and vice president only serve 1-year terms) and would perhaps give candidates that are considering a major change in their full-time work more security. Running a campaign as an incumbent also necessarily takes away from the time and energy that would otherwise be spent on doing the work of alder. State representatives are typically out of session completely during campaign season; something that is not practical (nor desirable) at the local level.
On the other hand, keeping the terms at 2-years, gives voters the best opportunity to make changes to their representatives and to hold them accountable. If a representative is not doing a good job as alder, allowing them to serve for 4-years is not in the best interest of their constituents.
I don't have very strong feelings on this one, but probably lean towards keeping the terms at 2-years to promote a greater sense of accountability to residents. And while it can take a lot of energy to campaign every two years, it's also a good opportunity to reconnect with constituents and reaffirm their priorities.
Question #4: term limits
This one didn't receive much discussion at the Task Force. While it seems like a decent idea on the one hand to prevent someone from holding office too long, the actual evidence doesn't seem to show that term limits do much good. I do think it can be problematic for someone to serve too long as alder, but this might be best addressed through the normal process of elections. If someone is doing a great job representing their constituents and voters want them to continue, I'm not sure that a limit is helpful.
I don't have strong feelings on this one, but will probably not vote for creating term limits at this point.
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