Full-Sized Common Council or Full-Time Pay for Alders? We Need Both

By Dan Backes

In 2018, the Madison Common council created the Task Force on Government Structure. With the 2020 census looming, the council wanted to re-examine how city government works and implement any changes to coincide with the decennial redistricting of the city. In February, the task force released its report. There are several ideas worth examining in the report, but the most significant ones are the recommendations that alders be paid a full-time wage and that the council be reduced to 10 members from 20. 

As a stand-alone matter, moving to a full-time wage for alders is a good step. As members of the task force highlighted, being an alder is a full-time job and if it doesn’t pay a full-time wage then it is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, for a working-class person to hold a seat on the council. To establish what the full-time wage would be, the task force recommends a salary of 80% of the median income for a single parent of two (currently $67,000). This number seems reasonable enough, though 100% would be preferable. The report doesn’t include any mention of why 80% was chosen, but based on the other task force recommendation to be discussed here, it seems safe to assume that the answer is cost.

The second recommendation made by the task force is that the council size be reduced from 20 to 10. Unlike the section on paying alders a full-time salary, which has a very clear paragraph listing the benefits of the change, the report seems to try very hard to avoid making a strong case for why the council should be smaller. In the paragraph outlining the argument made by smaller council proponents, the only benefit cited is that fewer, larger districts would mean residents would be less likely to cross district boundaries during a move. Since underprivileged people tend to be more transient, the report argues, larger districts would increase the ability of underprivileged people to maintain a relationship with their alder as well as serve on the council themselves. This seems like a small benefit at best and would be extremely dependent on how the district boundaries were drawn and how far the typical move is. A change as drastic as halving the size of the council warrants much stronger justification.

Reading the report closely, it’s clear that the task force sees reducing the council size as financially necessary in order to pay alders a full-time wage. It’s difficult to convey the bizarre way the report sees the two as tied together without ever trying to make the case directly. The second paragraph touting the benefits of a full-time council mentions in passing that, “[alders] would likely have  larger districts.” No reason is given as to why that might be the case. The paragraph highlighting the benefits of a smaller council ends with,

“Ultimately, Task Force members reiterated that the City’s current system of representation is not fair to those residents whose alders cannot work full-time and that, if reducing the total number of alders is necessary to achieve the goal of full and fair representation, then achieving that goal outweighs any negative effects that may come with having a smaller Council”

Why would reducing the number of alders be necessary to “achieve the goal of full and fair representation”? From earlier in the report, 

[T]he Task Force noted the interconnectedness of [having a smaller council] with that of whether to move to a full-time Council. For example, the Task Force noted that if the City decides to move to a full-time Council, then it may, for financial reasons, decide to reduce the size of the Council.

Emphasis added. Suffice to say that the task force clearly believes, and wants the reader to believe, that a full-time council of 20 alders will be cost prohibitive. This is so obviously incorrect it’s easy to understand why the task force was unwilling to make the argument directly. Paying 20 alders a salary of $67,000 costs $1.34 million a year. That amounts to two tenths of a percent of the city’s $634.6 million current operating budget. The police department alone saw its operating budget increase by $6 million from 2019 to 2020. $1.34 million yearly is a paltry amount of money for the city and if paying alders a full-time salary is as essential for representational fairness as the task force makes it out to be, it would be money well spent. The cost of council payroll is not a valid reason to decrease the size of the council.

Financial arguments aside, the task force’s claim that “achieving [a full-time salary for alders] outweighs any negative effects that may come with having a smaller Council” has it completely backwards. Decreasing the size of the council would more than erase any benefits of paying alders a full-time salary. The lack of full-time salary is only one of several barriers facing working people who want to run for office, many of which are exacerbated by larger districts. Running a campaign itself is a full-time job that requires a lot of know-how, connections, and money that most people do not have. Larger districts require more time knocking doors, more connections made in the community, and more money spent on ads and literature. Larger districts make it easier to dilute the working class vote via gerrymandering. The task force itself acknowledges in its report that larger districts will increase the influence of money and decrease the influence of “small groups of residents.” Tellingly, they cite the latter as a benefit of reducing the size of the council. 

Alders should be paid a full-time salary because it is a full-time job and people should be paid for their labor. It is clear that the city can afford to pay all 20 alders a full-time salary. Reducing the size of the council is utterly unnecessary and must be rejected. Paying a full-time salary may make it marginally easier for working people to be represented on the council, but influence over the council is more important than representation on it. It is clear that a smaller council will greatly reduce the influence that people can have over their alder. Fortunately, changing the size of the council can only be done via binding referendum. If the council decides to put such a referendum on the ballot, it must be vigorously opposed.

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