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How do you want to be represented?

Tosans' opinion on council size sought

March 20, 2012

Whether the city of Wauwatosa government could operate more efficiently with fewer elected officials is a question the Common Council has considered many times - and one it will pose to voters in an advisory referendum April 3.

In a voter forum sponsored by the Wauwatosa Chamber of Commerce last week, four current and former local elected officials debated the pros and cons of reducing the Common Council from its current size of 16 aldermen.

Moderator Rob Henken, Public Policy Forum president, posed questions to the panel, including some submitted by audience members, ranging from how reducing the size of the council might shift the balance of power between the mayor and council, to whether a hypothetical cost savings to the city is a significant factor.

Panelists included current 4th District Alderman Dennis McBride, the sole proponent on the panel for reducing the size of the Common Council; former mayor Jim Benz and former alderman Joe Ptaszek, who both argued against changing the existing system; and former alderman Craig Maher, who suggested the reasons proposed for reducing the size of the council are flawed.

Change good for competition

As his main reasons for supporting downsizing of the council, McBride highlighted confusion among residents about which elected officials represent them, the city's declining population and the populations and comparatively smaller council sizes of surrounding communities, the city's failure to take a consultant's key recommendation in 2009 to shrink the council, and, most importantly, a need for competition.

"The city of Wauwatosa deserves competition. We deserve, as residents, to hear the clash of ideas, the clash of opinions, the vision that each person has," McBride said, "rather than having an unopposed alderman be re-elected over and over again without competition."

Why change what works?

On the other hand, Ptaszek, seemingly the most vehement opponent among the panelists, emphasized the need to ensure that the decision to change the existing system of government is not made based on "light and transient" reasons.

"Show me how this government has not functioned efficiently, how this government has not functioned appropriately," Ptaszek said.

Until that becomes apparent, Ptaszek said, he is concerned that the only thing a reduction in the size of the council would achieve is a decreased level of representation and connectedness for constituents.

Likewise, Benz indicated that one of an alderman's most fundamental responsibilities - communicating with constituents and addressing their concerns - would be impeded if the number of elected officials is decreased.

Should the public support the concept, the Common Council would determine whether to follow the recommendation, and, if so, exactly how the size of the council would be reduced. The main option that has been considered is to have only one alderman for each of the existing districts, for a total of eight aldermen. Another possibility that has been discussed is increasing the number of districts to 12, with only one elected official per district.

At the time Wauwatosa was established in 1897, McBride explained, state statutes dictated that local governments have two elected officials per district, based upon the idea that larger governments were more democratic. Only four governments in the area still follow that guideline, with the view now that smaller governments are able to operate more efficiently.

Maher argued, however, that the efficiency of a government has little to do with its size. Inefficiencies would be better addressed by examining ways to streamline at the committee level, he suggested, or possibly by considering a different form of government altogether - for instance, a city manager-council model, rather than mayor-council model.

One thing that panelists could agree on was that the debate is not about the money - an estimated $34,000 savings in annual base salaries, which panelists indicated was insignificant to the argument.

Should the number of elected officials be reduced, the Common Council has committed to not increasing aldermanic salaries due to any increased workload.

Residents still deciding

The consensus of the public on the issue remains to be seen. For 4th District resident John Weber, the forum was mainly about becoming more informed.

While McBride, one of the aldermen representing his district, was quick to note the inefficiencies of the current system, Weber noted, "I hadn't been aware of any great inefficiencies with the size of the council."

Although he hasn't made up his mind on how he will vote, "I'm not in favor of making a change just for the sake of making a change, and right now that's kind of the way it looks to me."

Likewise, 8th District resident Bob Brunow plans to fully consider the opinions presented during the forum before committing to a yes or no response on the referendum.

"Regardless of how it all turns out, it's my wish that the citizens of Wauwatosa benefit from any change, if there is a change," Brunow said.

AT A GLANCE

On April 3, Wauwatosa voters will be asked to respond to the following advisory referendum:

"This is an advisory referendum question on whether to reduce the number of representatives on the Wauwatosa Common Council. The Council currently has sixteen (16) members, two (2) from each of the eight (8) districts. A 'yes' vote would indicate that the voters are in favor of reducing the number of positions at this time. A 'no' vote would indicate a desire to retain the current Council size."

A 'yes' majority vote does not guarantee that the size of the council will be reduced, but does ensure that the council will commit to diligently considering provisions to put such changes into effect without requiring any further referendum vote.

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