In spring of 2021, Madison residents gave their opinion on the job of city alders through a set of non-binding referendums.
Essentially, these four questions were opinion polls, intended to gauge the perspective of voters before moving ahead with any changes. And they came from a city task force analyzing the structure of Madison government, which has been working for years to address how the city can work more effectively for all of its residents.
Now, some alders are looking to take that feedback and put it into action, using the results of last spring’s election to create binding referendums this spring.
Alder Grant Foster says that the task force found multiple components that limited the access of city government to segments of the community.
“…they highlighted some information around membership of our city boards, committees, and commissions. So disproportionately (represented) a lot of folks from downtown, isthmus area, near west. (They) had a lot of representation, but there were a lot of areas and districts that had very little representation, if any representation, ” Foster says.
Currently, alders make about $13,000 a year, and work as alders part-time. The first question on last year’s ballot asked whether elected alders should work full-time and be compensated as such, increasing the pay to around $45,000 to $71,000 a year. In a memorandum written by city attorney Michael Hass in November, the results of last year’s election showed that many people who voted were fine with the current structure of city government. 58% of those polled voted no on this question, though it was presented as a two part question that some saw as confusing.
Alder Keith Furman is the chair of the current work group charged with implementing any suggested changes to the structure of city government. He says that getting a straight yes-or-no answer to the questions was not the sole purpose of the non-binding referendum.
“If you look at the individual questions, there’s certainly a lot to learn. If you look at the full-time, referendum question number one, the results were 58% to 42% on whether or not the council should be full time. I absolutely agree that it really wasn’t explained well. I think all the questions were not necessarily given a good opportunity for the community to learn more about it, it all happened rather quickly. But the idea behind the non-binding was to really feel out the temperature, so we could really get an understanding of where are people, even with a limited amount of information, where our current structure is,” Furman says.
The second question looked at the size of the council, asking if the council should be larger, smaller, or stay the same size. The three-part question had an overwhelming majority choosing one answer: keep the size of the council the same, which received 70% of the vote.
The third question looked at creating four year terms for Madison alders, expanded from the current two year term. With the most even split of the questions, 55% voted no to expanding the term length
The final question looked at adding a term limit to alders of 12 consecutive years. While this was largely voted in favor, with 71 % voting yes, the question was worded to only be for full-time alders, which would need to be implemented first.
If the council wants to add any referenda to the spring ballot, they have less than a month and just two remaining meetings to decide to do so.
At least one alder – Keith Furman – says that he intends to try and put the wheels in motion at the council tomorrow night, enabling the council to meet their deadline of January 25th. But what parts of the many possible changes to the council’s structure were not apparent.