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Friday, April 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Power to the Madison Common Council
City's new budget could mean a new order

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The city budget just passed may be historic not only in its redirection of the mayor's agenda, but in its significance as a harbinger of an institutional power shift.

A quick recap. In October Mayor Paul Soglin introduced a budget in which his major controversial initiatives were a dramatic cut to the city's commitment to help fund the Overture Center, an increase in bus fares (including a 16% increase on fares for the working poor), a new program to bus homeless people out of the city, a lip-synching video to rival Grand Rapids', and a study to create a biodigester.

When the Common Council was done working over Soglin's proposals, he got the biodigester. Everything else is gone.

What's significant is how the council did it. They came together in unprecedented fashion to essentially craft their own budget. Council leadership, which this year is alders Shiva Bidar-Sielaff and Chris Schmidt, convinced a supermajority of their colleagues to get behind two sets of omnibus amendments, one for the capital budget and one for the operating budget.

By getting at least 14 alders to sign on, they created veto-proof majorities. They learned from last year, when the mayor surprised everyone in the wee hours of the morning, just before a final vote on the budget, by threatening a veto if he didn't get what he wanted. The council caved last year out of shock and awe. This time when the mayor grumbled about a veto, they were ready.

This worked so well that it's likely to be the norm going forward. That's a good thing, but it could be better.

One reason Madison has such a seemingly chaotic budget process - one in which the mayor (whoever that happens to be) is usually dominant - is the culture of the council. The Madison Common Council is a strange legislative animal. It resists leadership, caucuses or coalitions of any kind.

In some ways that's admirable. Alders tend to vote more on the merits of a given issue than with friends or against enemies, though no legislative body can be immune to some of that kind of thing.

But the problem with this individualism is that it resists organization and so makes the council weaker in conflicts with the mayor. The mayor is one of one. He knows what he wants. The council is made up of 20 individuals, often with conflicting ideas and agendas.

Part of the problem is that the council elects new leaders every year. As a result, unlike the county board, which elects chairpersons seemingly for life, the council has a president who's largely a traffic cop, directing the agenda at the meetings and doing little else. Just when a president starts to figure out the bigger picture, she has to step down and be replaced by a new president who starts the learning process all over again. The mayor usually chuckles at this and rubs his palms together. I know I did.

If the council reelected leaders for multiple years, they would create stronger presidents with more ability to stand up to the mayor and represent the council's point of view.

Another helpful reform would be to strengthen the committee structure. The omnibus amendments that were so successful this year were hammered out legally but in private. This is work that should be done in the open, but in committees long before the budget ever reaches the council floor for a vote.

Some have suggested that the council needs to be smaller and full-time. I don't agree. A smaller council would mean full-time salaries, staffs and offices. It would be expensive and so would the campaigns. Right now anyone who can raise a few thousand dollars can get elected to the council. I would hate to see that go away. There's enough money in politics.

By electing its leaders for multiple years and bolstering the committee process for considering the budget, the council can start to become a stronger player.

Finally, I don't think we can separate what now appears to be a historic shift in the balance of power from the personalities involved. This has been coming for a while. The last several council presidents - Tim Bruer, Mark Clear, Lauren Cnare and Bidar-Sielaff - have been especially strong leaders. And Schmidt, if he is in line to take over next year, might be the strongest of the bunch.

The council sees the chance to offer a clearer, more consistent direction and a more optimistic, progressive vision. It is taking that chance, and that's good for Madison.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at

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