Plain Talk: Do we want a City Council of politicians or civic-minded citizens? | Dave Zweifel

I’ve pointed out in this column over the years, probably ad nauseam, my belief that one of the biggest problems in state government is that the Legislature was allowed to essentially make itself full time.

This was done by legislators voting themselves a series of pay raises  that, coupled with generous per diem benefits, health insurance and pension contributions, made the job lucrative enough to make a decent living.

Today, the Legislature is comprised of a sizable number of members whose only job is that of career politician. The arguments for this profound change from a historically part-time job to a full-time position were that in modern times governing had become so complicated and demanding that it required the full-time attention of those elected to the Assembly or state Senate and several full-time staffers to help them with their supposedly demanding workload.

Elected jobs that offered full-time pay and benefits would attract not only more but higher caliber candidates, the arguments continued.

Take a look at today’s Legislature and tell me that this theory panned out. I would submit, without reservation, that when legislators served part-time, came to Madison for a few weeks to pass a budget and act on urgent matters facing the state and then went home to work and live with the people who elected them, they did a much better job than the meddling, micromanaging and self-aggrandizing politicians so prevalent in today’s full-time Legislature. 

Citizens who ran for office as late as the 1970s did so not only to promote their political agenda, but out of what apparently is now an outdated notion that it was an honorable public service thing to do. They did get a stipend to reimburse their expenses and the use of a small staff to answer the phones and respond to mail. But, otherwise, the small-business owners, farmers, lawyers and myriad of other professionals did their work for their fellow citizens and went home.

I say all this because it appears that Madison’s City Council is on the same path. The city’s alders have been aggressively raising their pay, contemplating hiring full-time staff, and insisting that the job has become too demanding without adequate compensation and administrative support.

That’s why I applaud Mayor Paul Soglin’s call for a special citizen committee to take a look at just what kind of City Council the citizens of Madison want. Yes, the mayor’s initiative is controversial. He wants to appoint all the members — from 11 to 15 Madison residents — to the committee and wants to exclude any council members from participating, a sure way to raise the alders’ hackles.

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But it’s an idea worth considering, and it should be done before the 2020 census and redistricting. Do Madisonians really want their council to morph into a full-time body comprised of career politicians instead of remaining a part-time job for civic-minded citizens of all stripes?

That question needs to be answered now before the council becomes another Wisconsin Legislature.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. [email protected] and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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