Public service workers have time been snubbed by society time and time again and, in the last 24 months, have received the evil eye from Wisconsinites. The thought of giving the people who give up so much to ensure the cities, counties and states throughout this nation function to their best abilities any more than the shallow earnings they already receive is often met with a snarky comment or a stark “no.” And last month, Madison proved itself to be no different.
And when, as The Wisconsin State Journal reports, the Madison Board of Estimates voted Nov. 19 to halt action on a proposal that would have increased the salary of the City Council president to a mere half of what Mayor Paul Soglin makes ($62,750), it tugged at my heart.
Maybe the twinge came from my nerdy love for city news and for the characters behind the scenes that I’ve seen make everything from Mifflin and Freakfest to the Downtown Safety Initiative realities. Maybe it came from the shame in knowing City Council President Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, District 5, currently makes only $10,352 each year, or regular council members earn a derisory $7,772 annually.
Either way, the fact we pay the people who are arguably some of the city’s most valuable and talented assets next to nothing is disgraceful.
I won’t lie — upping their pay would require some serious number crunching and a potential overhaul of the current council structure that would result in bigger districts and less alders sitting on the voting body. It might mean pulling funding from other areas of the budget that would not be possible without the hard-working men and women who ensure those proposals are put into place.
But that redistricting wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Twenty members currently sit on the governing body, and reducing that number down to between 10 and 15 would be a drastic change in alders’ responsibilities, but one that would be manageable. As it stands, many districts have large overlap in constituent type and needs, making a merger of similar districts an unfavorable, but reasonable, possibility.
While these solutions would require hours upon hours of discussion (one thing alders are certainly experienced in…), the value these individuals bring to our city requires no debate at all. While alders are an underused resource, there is no doubt they will go to bat for any and all of their constituents. Their job description might be listed as part-time, but there’s no question they put in the hours of a full-time constituent champion, and then some.
During my time in Madison, I have lived in Districts 4 and 8, represented by Alders Mike Verveer and Scott Resnick, respectively. Both of them make themselves ridiculously available to their largely student constituent base.
When I lived in Verveer’s district, he showed up to false alarm fire alarms in the middle of the night in the middle of the week just to make sure everything was under control. He also has previously served as arguably the largest proponent of allowing students to keep the Mifflin Street Block Party their own, going head to head with Soglin at times. Resnick aided me in settling a landlord-tenant dispute, sending a message to local landlords reminding that students are tenants, too, and their student status is not a pen invitation for exploitation. Both also played integral roles in ensuring first-time voters knew their voting rights and locations ahead of the November elections.
These are just minute examples of the value alders contribute to this city. The time and effort every alder puts in is remarkable. As a former city editor at The Badger Herald, I got just a small glimpse into the constant and sometimes dreadful meetings our representatives sit through on a nightly basis, with discussions sometimes lasting into the 3 a.m. hour.
And while there’s no doubt these individuals know exactly what they’re getting into when they run for their sometimes highly competitive seats that does not mean it is not our responsibility as their constituents to recognize the work they do for us. Without them, the budgets that ensure snow is removed from the streets, Madison Police Department officers are patrolling the downtown area and street lights are on in dark areas for students who are walking home from the library late at night would not be possible.
For now, the city has indefinitely tabled the proposal to bring Cnare and future council presidents’ salaries up to a reasonable mark, and the discussion to ensure alders are being compensated for their time and effort has not even begun. The best thing you can do as a responsible constituent is to write to your alder, the mayor’s office or the Board of Estimates and ask them to bring these proposals to life and to open up a responsible discussion on how these changes can be implemented without impacting the quality of life Madisonians have grown to adore.
To find who your alder is and contact information, check out Madison’s Common Council website.
Pam Selman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in journalism and political science.Correction: The original column listed the current City Council president as Ald. Lauren Cnare, District 3. Cnare’s term ended earlier this year, and the current council president is Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, District 5. The online version of this column has been changed to correct the error.