This post has been updated.
Last session, the Madison Common Council voted to raise its own pay by $4,400. On top of other raises, it boosts the pay of council members from $7,772 a year in 2013 to $12,692 after Tuesday’s elections. The raise makes sense. With the number of hours they are expected to work between full council meetings, committee meetings and constituent support, the average alder is probably making somewhere around minimum wage.
There were hopes that raising alder wages would get more people to run. That the promise of a more realistic salary would increase the diversity among a body of candidates who previously needed to either be affluent enough or driven enough to work a demanding, high-profile job for very little money.
But, even with the substantial pay bump, a huge number of alders are still going unchallenged this Tuesday.
For a few races that’s understandable. Some incumbents would be really hard for even a well-qualified challenger to beat. Ald. Mike Verveer has been representing the downtown District 4 since many of his current constituents were in diapers. Others, like Shiva Bidar-Sielaff and Chris Schmidt, have also served several terms and are respected in their district and on the council as a whole.
What surprises me are some of the first-term alders who are going unchallenged. District 2 Ald. Ledell Zellers won by only 74 votes in a district where control has switched back and forth between preservationists and pro-development representatives. District 15 Ald. David Ahrens has often been an odd man out. He voted against the city budget, citing debt concerns. On the Garver Feed Mill committee, he voted against the plan that was favored by the majority of community members. They both represent rapidly changing districts but neither has a challenger.
Perhaps the pay bump isn't enough of an incentive; it has never been a job one takes for money. If they were really looking to make being an alder attractive for someone without a lot of money, maybe they should have reconsidered former Ald. Bridget Maniaci's plan to provide health insurance for council members. Getting onto the city’s rather nice health insurance plan would have made it easier for someone to serve as an alder who doesn't have a partner with a steady benefits plan. Since not all the alders would have taken the health plan, I don’t think it would have cost the city that much more than a pay increase.
Although the job of an alder doesn't get a ton of attention, we do have a lot of them vying for attention for a city this size. But I don’t think cutting the number of alders would be a good idea either. While I can buy the idea that the Dane County Board is potentially bloated, alders in Madison regularly work with their constituents. Arguably the most important role they serve is acting as the customer service department for the city, and that’s a time-consuming job. Trimming the number of council members would require making alders a full-time position or adding new city staff.
I’ve seen what small, full-time councils look like in other cities. The races turn into any other nasty political race with big money. I like our neighborhood representatives. I just wish they better represented the changing face of Madison.
Ald. Mark Clear sent me a message pointing out that the pay raise was only approved two weeks before candidate declaration forms were due. That is a pretty quick turnaround time to start up a campaign. We'll have to wait and see if higher pay brings out more candidates in the next election cycle. — A.T.