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Proposed Power Play By Madison City Council Would Weaken Mayor’s Hand

March 21, 2016

A major and consequential fight is underway between Madison’s Common Council and Mayor Paul Soglin.  At the heart of the matter is how the city should be allowed to engage in a discussion of such gravity that if impacts each taxpayer.

Last week two city council members dropped a political bombshell that among other things would strip the mayor of the power to make many committee appointments.  In addition the proposal would disallow the mayor from serving on the city’s finance committee.  No matter how one views the plan, or from which perspective it is evaluated, one thing is mighty clear.  What came out of thin air last week amounts to a gigantic spinning of the balance of power within city government.

Clearly there are two looming questions that need to be answered.   First, how is it that such a massive idea did not have more public attention prior to an email from its sponsors and then a call for reporters to attend a press conference?  Second, what is the best way for city interests to be protected?

Make no mistake about who the movers of this proposal are, as neither Alderpersons Mark Clear or David Ahrens are shy potted plants.  Both are well versed in how to get media attention and understand how to use the levers of city government for their fullest impact.

So we all should find it troubling there was almost a willful maneuver to deny a wide-ranging public discussion during the ramping up stage to the announcement.   If there is such a need for the proposed changes why did not Clear or Ahrens sit down with the likes of the editorial board at the Wisconsin State Journal or ask for time with Neil Heinen and allow for a city-based conversation?  Something this dramatic and profound surely would have piqued the interests of any news organization in the city.    It would have sparked a great deal of public discussion.

For a city council that prides itself on being democratic the absence of public involvement up to the point of the two alders sending an email is most troubling.  It is simply galling.

There is no doubt that the strife between this city council and mayor runs deep.  Budget fights that make the news, and those struggles that never make the papers but are known to the ones who follow such events, underscore the turmoil that exists.

Knowing the background of the budget battles is why many residents and taxpayers of Madison can rightly conclude this proposal is an attempt by those who can not agree on budgeting matters through the normal process to now want a change to leverage a better outcome.  The headline-grabbing power play amounts to two alders with an axe to grind.  We might recall that these two urged the council to proceed with caution about adding an additional member to the Transit and Parking Commission but are now willing to go public with a sea change of an idea that has not even had the public airing this city expects.

Those who take time to follow our local government know it is wise to have one person (the mayor) who can set the larger goals for the city.  At the same time it is important for the mayor to rein in the council who care for their local neighborhoods but have proven not to be as fiscally mindful of the city as a whole.   Fiscal accountability in local government should not be undermined to allow for those with a wish list on the council (be it now or in the future) to make these changes to how government functions.

Voters and taxpayers of Madison need to demand of their alders some questions.  The answers need to be specific and direct.

Ask your alder when they first learned of this matter?  How is it that something this significant was so unknown by so many?

Press your alder to define their views and thoughts about the proposal.  Do they see a need for the mayor to lose control of making appointments to the Board of Estimates or serving on it?  Do they think allowing the council to have more leverage serves either the needs of neighborhoods or the taxpayers?

This matter merits allowing Madisonions a full understanding of where alders stand prior to any council proceedings.
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