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Sara Eskrich, left, and Sheri Carter were sworn in as new alders at the City-County Building in April of 2015. If she decides to run for re-election in 2017, Carter will be one of a small number of incumbents facing a challenger.

PHOTO BY MIKE DeVRIES

Though a blizzard is on the way, spring is on the minds of local politicians as they line up support for the local election on April 4, 2017. The deadline for nomination papers to run for the Madison City Council is Jan. 3 and observers are keeping track of who will — and won't — be running.

The number of City Council members that run for election unopposed varies, but has been increasing since 2011. City officials say fewer people are running for office and turnover typically occurs only when an incumbent decides not to run for re-election. Few sitting alders are challenged.

Mayor Paul Soglin has decried the lack of contested council seats, most recently during the 2017 budget debate. He disagreed with the notion that a lack of contested seats means constituents are pleased with the council.

But even if people were satisfied with their representation, Soglin said he does not think it's “wise” to have so many uncontested races.

“The whole basis for our City Council, as well as the mayor, is that citizens participate,” Soglin said. “Citizens run, we have a campaign, we have a dialogue, we settle it at the ballot box.”

But that hasn’t happened much in recent years. According to data from the Madison City Clerk’s office, six districts were contested in 2015, five incumbents chose not to run and two incumbents were defeated. Two of the contested races held primaries. 

The number of contested districts in 2015 was down from 12 in 2013 and 13 in 2011. There were three primaries in 2013 and five in 2011.

Madison’s City Council has 20 alder seats, representing each district in the city. All seats are up for re-election in odd years.

As of Thursday, 15 incumbent alders have declared their candidacy for the April 4 election. Four newcomers have filed to run:

  • John Terry Jr. will challenge District 8 incumbent Ald. Zach Wood
  • Steve Fitzsimmons will challenge District 10 Ald. Maurice Cheeks
  • Jose Rea has filed in District 14, where Ald. Sheri Carter has not yet filed to run for re-election
  • Arvina Martin has filed in District 11 where interim Ald. Ald. Tim Gruber will not run for re-election

The deadline for incumbents not seeking re-election is Dec. 23. All candidates must have their nomination forms to the City Clerk’s office Jan. 3.

It is difficult to pin down the reason why fewer community members are running for local office, City Council President Mike Verveer said, but he noted the compensation and hours involved as possible deterrents.

Alders receive a yearly salary of $12,692 after a $4,440 increase in 2014. The council president receives $15,444 per year and the president pro tem receives $13,692.

“As I look at our own City Council lack of candidates and those contested races over the last few election cycles, I would like to think it’s because the communities are pleased with a job well done,” said Verveer, who has represented District 4 since 1995. “But I would be naive to think that that would be the case.”

It’s not just Madison’s City Council that has experienced waning interest. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities, in collaboration with the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, found civic engagement is low across the state in a 2016 report.

Regardless of population, less than 5 percent of municipalities reported two or more candidates running for an elected seat and in a little over half of communities, there was one or no candidate for each seat. The results were worse in smaller municipalities.

At the county level, just four of the 37 Dane County Board of Supervisors' seats were contested in the spring 2016 election. There were seven contested seats in 2014 and eight in 2012.

In a departure from the norm, Madison school board members running for re-election actually will face challengers in April. The board has seven at-large members who serve three-year terms and seats 6 and 7 are up this spring. Both seats will be contested.

Soglin said he thinks many voters feel that if they disagree with the City Council, they can count on him to represent a different viewpoint. Soglin attributed that to polling done in his last campaign and from neighborhood activities.

However, Soglin does not recruit City Council candidates.

“There’s a difference between making these observations about democracy and having the mayor, who is the executive branch, handpicking members of the City Council,” Soglin said.

To others, it is no surprise that the city’s legislative branch and the executive do not always get along.

Some of the most contentious issues came to the forefront during the budget debates, particularly over funding a new Midtown Police District Station. Soglin blamed alders for their “own failure” in city budgeting and called out a “cabal” of four alders that includes Shiva Bidar, Mark Clear, Matt Phair and Cheeks.

Clear called the mayor’s comments “redirection, half truths and outright lies.” He said the current relationship plays into people’s feelings of distrust in the government and the perception that city government is dysfunctional — “far from true,” Clear said.

Soglin said some of his "battles" with the council are what might turn people off from running for local office. 

"That’s not their vision of public service, but then again, it would be less likely to happen if we had some changeover," Soglin said. 

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Arvina Martin, who is running for the open District 11 seat, said she is not “thrilled” with the current dynamics of Madison’s local government but said she wants to give back to her community.

“If you’re a part of your community, you have to be invested in it,” Martin said.

Dave Glomp, a longtime resident of Madison's southwest side, previously ran for City Council and the Dane County Board but lost both times. He disagrees with the City Council on public safety issues and said having so few uncontested seats is a "recipe for stagnation and staleness."

But he said despite his belief that constituents should be involved in their community, he will not be running.

"I don’t know if I feel at my age that it’s somebody like me that should be on the council or someone with new fresh young ideas," said Glomp, 70.

Current events at the state and national level of government can affect interest in local government, too. Clear said the approval of Act 10 in 2011 changed how people viewed politics, especially in Wisconsin.

“Ever since that day, even local offices, local races, I think there’s just more people who are disgusted by the whole thing, regardless of their political persuasions, and are less interested,” Clear said.

Local government by definition is a level of elected leadership closest to constituents. Neighbors are more likely to see direct change in their area — whether that’s new sidewalks, more snow plows working after a storm or changes to trash pickup schedules — because of decisions made by alders.

Cheeks described an ideal form of government at the local level, closer to public service than politics.

“When people look at local politics, I think people have aspirations that it’s the most civil, most engaged, most pragmatic, collaborative, optimistic way to be a part of government,” Cheeks said.

But when local government begins to resemble state and national politics, it can be all the more jarring for those optimists-at-heart.

“The more that local government is made to look as sort of ugly and divisive as state and national governments, the more off-putting it is to people,” Cheeks said. "It creates a barrier to getting great candidates, to inspiring people to serve and to be a part of really important work shaping their community.”

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.