The Madison City Council’s Task Force on Structure of City Government has been meeting for nearly two years.
They’ve been charged with examining whether changes to city government could help make the City work more effectively for all of its residents, and, particularly, for people of color and low income backgrounds.
One task force member, Eric Upchurch, says that because alders currently work part-time, those who have the ability or privilege to work for that pay tend to be over-represented in City government.
“All in all, we got a chance to see how the structure of just the way in which we hold meetings, where we hold meetings, what we require people to do in order to be a part of our committees, a part of our council, a part of our meetings,” Upchurch says. “It is selecting for people who have the privilege of the time and transportation flexibility that often is not present with families, especially low-income families, and especially in transportation-challenged areas.
One solution to that problem would be making aldermanic positions full-time, which the task force recently recommended; but, that raises concerns that corrupt, “career” politicians could become entrenched at the local level.
Still, Upchurch believes corruption would exist regardless of whether the position is full-time or part-time.
“There are already opportunities for collusion, for corruption, for coercion, and the elected officials are not exempted from that as it stands right now. So, I think there are other mechanisms to mitigate corruption and to address that than forcing people to volunteer,” he adds. “I don’t think you get less corruption by not paying people, I think you just get a different type of corruption in addition to unheard voices.”
While the task force did recommend reducing the size of the Common Council from twenty to ten members, Upchurch also stresses that the task force was divided on this recommendation, and that he hopes the full council takes the broader thought process into consideration.
Beyond examining the number and nature of aldermanic positions, a majority of the task force’s recommendations centered around the representation on the City’s boards, commissions, and committees — or BCCs.
Justice Castaneda said the task force’s findings in this area were profound.
“The lack of equality and equity across these committees was staggering,” he says.
Castaneda also says the task force found that having a greater number of boards, commissions, and committees does not necessarily lead to more representation, but rather undermines local democracy.
“You get this situation where all the decisions in the City of Madison are being made by a very small representation of the population, and it’s been done in the veneer of representation and representative democracy, and it just is the opposite of that,” Castaneda notes. “Having all of these committees was actually a way, and it is a way, to not have as much representation on decisions that are being made.”
Given that lack of representation, the task force also recommends that the City eliminate or combine BCC’s that are redundant or no longer necessary, and allow for constituents to being engaged online by sending video comments to council members.
The task force’s recommendations now head to the full Council.