Mayor Paul Soglin

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin watches the proceedings during the first meeting of the new City Council on April 18. Soglin, entering the second half of his current term, is proposing a 17-member task force to examine the position of mayor and structure of the council.

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

Mayor Paul Soglin wants Madison to rethink how it should govern itself.

Soglin has proposed a task force, composed of 15 residents and two council members, to examine the structure and practices in selected cities and consider powers and duties of the mayor, a full-time, part-time and volunteer council; and the city’s vast committee system.

The task force would not consider a city manager form of government or any structure in which the mayor isn’t chief executive officer. It would be expected to offer recommendations by Dec. 31, 2018.

Some council members support a public conversation on governance but may seek to adjust or substantially change the initiative proposed by the mayor.

The mayor and the full 20-member council face re-election in spring 2019.

Soglin’s proposal, introduced to the council Tuesday night, follows his criticism of council actions, including pay increases and imminent first-time hiring of a chief of staff, that signal an evolution from a volunteer to a full-time council.

In recent years, the council has also exerted more independence and tangled with the mayor over big items in city budgets.

Soglin said he’s concerned about the council’s “significant” changes to its own authority and “ongoing” major revisions in city government.

“Longstanding council members and I have very different opinions about the authority and power of the executive branch,” he said, adding that changes have been occurring “without the kind of thoughtful public discussion this city deserves.”

Council President Marsha Rummel did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday, but earlier said a conversation on governance is needed.

The mayor’s proposed task force will be considered by committees before the council makes a decision on whether to create it.

An idea with history

The issue isn’t new. In March 2016, Alds. David Ahrens and Mark Clear announced a proposal to strip some mayoral powers, including removing the mayor as chairman and a voting member of the city’s finance committee, and smaller changes that revised titles and committee names.

Soglin voiced strong opposition, threatening a veto and a ballot initiative, and vowed to create a special citizen committee to study the authority and roles of the city’s executive and legislative branches. The resolution introduced Tuesday is his formal follow through.

The name changes offered by Ahrens and Clear have been approved, but more substantial proposals were delayed pending a more comprehensive study, Clear said.

“Now is the appropriate time to get that examination started,” he said. “However, I have a different vision for that process than what the mayor is proposing, and I expect that other council members do as well.”

The city hasn’t had a formal committee to examine the best structure of local government since the 1980s, Soglin’s resolution says.

In thinking about how to come at the issue again, Soglin considered spending considerable funds to hire an outside consultant to help with the effort but he has dropped that idea. A fiscal note in the resolution says no appropriation is required.

Soglin said he has no clear preconception for an outcome. “I go back and forth between a large volunteer council and a small full-time council,” he said.

No template

for Madison

The mayor makes $139,894, while the council president makes $15,676, the vice president $13,898 and members $12,883. The mayor’s office budget is $1.39 million for 2017, about $56,000 more than two years ago. The council’s budget is $629,550, about $169,000 more than in 2015, not including the new chief of staff position.

The structure of government among large cities in the state varies greatly, said Curt Witynski, assistant director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities:

  • Madison, Milwaukee, Manitowoc, Green Bay, Wausau and Appleton have a mayor–council form of government with no city administrator.
  • Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Beloit, Janesville and Oshkosh have a city manager-city council form of government with no mayor.
  • Kenosha, Racine, Wauwatosa and West Allis have a mayor and council with a city administrator helping run day-to-day operations.

The size of councils vary greatly, and Milwaukee has the only full-time council, Witynski said.

Madison, however, has no state peer in profile and population. The resolution directs the task force to look at structure and practices in selected cities nationally with a population range of 250,000 to 500,000.

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Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.