In this corner, wearing the red trunks, Mayor Paul Soglin
The challenger, wearing the black trunks, city alders
Madison alders tonight will win at least one round of their on-going power struggle with Mayor Paul Soglin. They likely can muster the 14 votes needed to over-ride the mayor’s veto to create a full-time chief of staff position, annual pay around 100 grand. It’s item #11 on tonight’s Common Council agenda.
Somehow, a chief of staff is needed to help the alders “combat poverty” and ensure “equity.” Tell me our liberal-progressive-socialist acquaintances don’t have their own dog whistles! State Journal columnist Chris Rickert was correct this morning to exclaim “what nonsense.”
The power struggle within Madison city government goes far beyond a $100,000 chief of staff for the alders, however.
The mayor is proposing a 17-member task force to study the structure of city government. The mayor would appoint 15 citizens; Ald. Rummel would appoint 2 council members. All would be confirmed by the Council. Details here. Soglin is the lone sponsor.
The version listed on tonight’s agenda as Item #106, however, is sponsored by Alds. Eskrich, Rummel, Clear, Bidar-Sielaff, and Phair. Couldn’t find the text. (Hmm.) The Council’s executive committee meets one hour before the full council meeting and the mayor’s version is on that committee’s agenda. Could the exec committee substitute their own resolution for the mayor’s?
A good-government secret plan
Alders began formulating their own “Government Reform Initiative” over a year ago. They considered stripping the mayor of his power to make aldermanic appointments to city committees, reserving it instead for the Common Council president, currently Marsha Rummel. Alders would also take remove the Mayor from the powerful Board of Estimates, the city’s equivalent of the state’s Joint Finance Committee.
Ironically, this supposed better government reform began with at least one clear violation of the state Open Meetings Law. In an April 25, 2016 memo to Soglin, city attorney Michael May wrote:
I am troubled when I review the entire series of actions taken prior to the March 16 announcement of the GRI [Government Reform Initiative] proposal. Madison has a long history of public scrutiny and input on major decisions … In contrast to that history, I found that the GRI was initially developed through a distinct pattern of avoiding public scrutiny and acting contrary to the spirit if not the letter of the Open Meetings Law. …The agendas and minutes of the Subcommittee use broad descriptions of topic areas.
May went on to detail a possible “walking quorum,” which is illegal (members conduct business individually but sequentially to avoid having to publicly notice the meeting). May also noted that agendas for meetings that were publicly noticed were vague. “Neither the agendas nor the minutes have any reference to a change in the structure of the Board of Estimates or the appointing authority of the mayor.”
“Regardless of whether enforcement actions are pursued against those who may have violated the Open Meetings Law, the development of the GRI shows a disregard for the public’s right to know about a major proposal to change the operations of City government. This is not consistent with Madison’s history of openness.” (The city attorney’s full memo: GRI Open Meetings Memo 04252016)
The March 16, 2016 announcement of the Government Reform Initiative listed Alders Clear, Demarb, Zellers, Bidar-Sielaff, Cheeks and Phair as the authors. The Secret Six.
Alders are paid $12,692 annually. The council president $15,444. The jobs are considered part time.
Next election is almost 2 years off
Ultimately, Madison may choose to become a city of the first class. Under state law, it has the population for it (only 150,000 needed) but only Milwaukee is so designated. A city of the first class has some separation between mayor and council. Mayor Tom Barrett, for instance, does not chair Milwaukee city council meetings any more than County Executive Joe Parisi chairs Dane County Board meetings, or Scott Walker sessions of the legislature, or Donald Trump — well, you get the idea. In fact, those executives are permitted to speak before their corresponding legislatures only at rare and specified instances.
Nor do any of those execs appoint committee members. It’s done by the leader of the legislative branch.
Madison city government’s power struggle may not be “counter-productive” as Rickert claims. But it would take the city even more leftward, if that is possible, given the current roster. In the abstract, a more powerful legislative body may well be good government Madison but alders have fouled their own nest with a tainted process.
Did you notice? All of this jockeying for power is being steered well clear of Spring elections.