Kristin Czubkowski wrote a very interesting piece and follow-up blog post in the Cap Times last week about the idea of the Madison Common Council shrinking in size and becoming a full-time body. This idea is in response to a serious issue with our alders: Doing good work at City Hall is becoming time-intensive as districts become more densely populated. As more committees are formed, more meetings are required which last longer than ever thanks to full agendas.
Case in point: I serve on the city's Plan Commission with Alders Julia Kerr, Lauren Cnare and Tim Gruber. Last Monday's Plan Commission meeting went three hours (it was what we call a short meeting). Tuesday night's Common Council meeting went eight hours. By midweek, those alders had already spent eleven hours in two meetings. Mix in what they do to prepare for these meetings, attend other meetings, keep in touch with constituents and neighborhood associations by phone and/or email and we're talking nearly full-time hours, all for about $7,000 a year in compensation (about $5.38 and hour if you figure an average of 25 hours a week).
And those three alders I've mentioned are the lucky ones. None of them are up for a re-election fight this spring. Imagine being Joe Clausius, Larry Palm or Brenda Konkel and having to mount a re-election campaign on top of all of this. It's no wonder fine public servants like Tim Gruber choose to not seek re-election so they can spend more time with their families and lives outside of City Hall.
But is it really necessary to shrink the Common Council and make serving on it a full-time job? Do we risk leaving this task to the jobless, childless and lifeless by continuing on our present course? Asking around, I see that most alders are considering other alternatives. Common Council President Pro Tem Mark Clear (who serves on five committees in addition to the Common Council) notes that alders are looking into "more support staff, or a 311-type customer service center could help reduce the workload on alders." My alder, Satya Rhodes-Conway (she currently serves on eight additional committees) replies, "I think having relatively small districts (and thus more alders) means better constituent service and a broader range of experience and opinion on the Council."
Here's a big idea: Instead of shrinking the size of the Common Council, why not increase the size? More alders means fewer constituents to serve, fewer committees to serve on and less time needed to do the job. Many hands make light work. Combined with the changes Ald. Clear suggests, this can be done with a minimal additional cost to the taxpayer and our Common Council will run better.
Over on the county side, there has also been talk of shrinking the size of the Dane County Board. A few years' back, East Side Supervisor David de Felice introduced a measure to reduce the board from its current 37 supervisors to 19. It didn't receive much support at the County Board, but the Wisconsin State Journal loved it so much that it trumpeted the idea on its opinion page on January 24, 2006, April 2, 2006, May 5, 2006, March 7, 2007, November 6, 2007 and November 20, 2007.
Of course, in 1963, the Dane County Board was made up of 90 supervisors (source: "Forward! A History of DANE: the Capital County" by Allen Ruff and Tracy Will - a must-read!).
The supervisors I talked with weren't that keen on the idea. West Side Supervisor Carousel Bayrd summed up her opposition to the idea as:
"First, if you decrease the number of supervisors, then you increase the size of each district. At some point, the district is not walkable and instead of it being a grassroots race-- where anyone can run for office, you don't have to be connected, you can just literally walk out your front door and work your butt off and get out there. I think that is a wonderful thing. If the size of the district is not walkable, then it turns into a money race and a connection race-- who has more money for mailing and ads? who has more connections and better endorsements? I think it would be a shame to change county board office from a true local, grassroots position to a more politically connected one.
Second, we are working well now, with 37 people and not full time. We do great work in committee, we do our budget in 1 meeting, we work well together. And, we have a nice cross section of different professions on the county board because we allow people to work and serve on the county board."
First-term Sup. Dianne Hesselbein, who represents the far West Side and parts of Middleton, echoed Bayrd's concerns about what larger districts would mean. She also offered an idea that already seems to be working elsewhere:
"I was on the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School Board and we were wireless. You would show up with a laptop (not provided by the district, or the district would provide you one for a meeting), and the entire meeting was on the laptop. There is such a huge juggle and filing of paper to be done. I'm investing in more file cabinets just to hold all the paper...It's all a hodge-podge of paper so it is so important to be organized."
(As an aside, while I certainly have observed the mountains of paper required for 37 Dane County Board Supervisors per meeting, I doubt that all of them would take to using laptops very well. This idea may need to wait a couple more decades.)
While I most definitely wouldn't advocate growing the County Board back to 1963 levels, this body would also benefit from having more members. If you've ever spent any time observing politics in rural Dane County (as I have a few times working on County Board races), you will understand the richness in political diversity throughout the County. While in Madison the political spectrum runs from Classic Liberal to Leftists who believe Dennis Kucinich is a sellout, outside the city it doesn't take long to find such creatures as gun-loving progressives and Republican-voting artists and artisans. If you don't believe me, I invite you to spend a few hours in one of the taverns in Mount Vernon (sometimes you've got to go where nobody knows your name) and report back to me. This kind of political funkiness needs better representation on the County Board (as well as fewer districts that take more than a half-hour to drive from one end to the other).
A Quick Note About Mike Verveer
I've known Mike for about 20 years - going back to when he was a leader in the Wisconsin Student Association (what ASM is now). Of course, you've probably read by now the news about him being in the vicinity of marijuana smoke at a downtown establishment. While he's not the saintliest person ever, he is, as a politician, the most goody-two-shoes person I've ever seen in local politics (I say that, of course, with much affection). If he says he didn't smell anything, he didn't smell anything. As the officer in the story should have said, there's nothing to see here, people. Move along (and that goes double to anyone who'd use this story to question his judgement or ties to downtown taverns).