No local issue in recent years has a caused a bigger storm in the student community than the debate over whether to add a student as a voting member to the Alcohol License Review Committee. Students said it was their right. Barb Mercer, head of the Dane County Tavern League, said it was unfair.
The council was set to vote on it early this month, but lead sponsor Ald. Bryon Eagon went straight to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. The mayor felt students were not entitled to have a mandatory representative, but he agreed to appoint a student as a voting member anyway.
As a student, I'm glad Mayor Dave made this choice. It will probably prove to be good policy. However, as a believer in republican (lower case) government, I find it disappointing to see how dependent city policy is on one man.
In many ways, progressive Madison resembles a European-style monarchy. The king is called the mayor, and the council is a group of his advisers.
Although the "advisers" are elected by the people, it is often the mayor alone who calls the shots. He decides what committees they serve on, whether important or peripheral, and how many. He can determine how large a role they play in crafting policy.
But the monarch's power doesn't stop there. He also gets to pick city department heads and which citizens serve on city committees. These are selected based on their knowledge of a given area, their participation in civic affairs or - if nothing else - a mayoral hunch.
Just look at the ALRC. The committee includes three alders and a dozen representatives of various organizations, including the police department, the Tavern League and the university. Does the Tavern League, which represents certain bars in the area, really have a right to help decide whether nonmember bars get alcohol licenses?
Maybe not, but previous mayors have decided that its input is beneficial to discuss alcohol policy, and perhaps that its presence fosters an environment of conciliation between the regulators and the regulated.
In the case of the ALRC, students didn't have any representation until this past spring, when student Ald. Eli Judge, Eagon's predecessor, suggested that one be tapped as a nonvoting member. The mayor obliged.
This year students made even more noise to give that member voting rights, and the mayor decided to do so. It was a smart thing to do politically, and Cieslewicz hopes adding a student voice to the alcohol debate will stimulate student participation in other issues.
According to the mayor, students, like the tavern industry, have a specific interest in alcohol regulation and deserve a seat at the policy table. "Students expect somebody to represent the student point of view," he says. Cieslewicz hopes including students in the alcohol dialogue will stimulate student participation in other areas of city policy.
Pretty sound reasoning from a benevolent king. Is it really fair to refer to the Madison mayor as a monarch when he seems so dedicated to inclusiveness?
Yes, because it's only one person's interpretation of inclusiveness. Others who are elected to oversee city government have little say. Although the council must approve every citizen appointment the mayor makes, alders who vote against his appointments run the risk of being denied future committee assignments.
And that's simply the way Madison government works. The mayor is the main actor in policy. He or she has almost absolute power to delegate authority, even within the legislative branch.
Just compare us to Milwaukee, where members of the City Council make six-figure salaries and have full-time staffs. Here the mayor's office budget ($802,708 this year) is more than eight times greater than that allotted to the council office ($97,439). The mayor has a staff of 12 people; the council has a staff of two. [Correction, posted 11/19/09: The mayor's office says it has a staff of 11.]
Like a monarchy, Madison's system is based on the premise that we'll have a good leader at all times. Such a mayor consistently makes the right choices and exercises his power in wise ways. But the mayor gets to make a lot of choices and have a lot of power.
Madison's current system is the equivalent of having the president appoint the heads of House and Senate committees as well as the cabinet. Even some who trust the mayor, such as Ald. Michael Verveer, are receptive to a different system, in which the council would form a committee to negotiate aldermanic appointments.
Another council member, Ald. Michael Schumacher, has suggested letting the council make half of the citizen appointments on city committees.
The least we can do is compromise. Let's have the people we elect to legislate have more say in legislation.
Because no matter how much we love our king, it's not a good idea to let him rule it all.
Jack Craver is a senior at UW-Madison and editor of The Sconz (thesconz.com), a local political blog.