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Wauwatosa to consider reducing size of city council

Question about County Board size also may be included

Jan. 4, 2012

How many people does it take to represent Wauwatosa? That's a question that could be posed to the city's voters in a referendum come April.

Alderman Dennis McBride has proposed a binding referendum that would ask Tosans whether the number of Common Council seats should be cut in half.

Right now, 16 people - two aldermen per district - represent the city. A referendum question would give voters the ability to drop that number to eight.

The issue of council size has come before the council itself at least four or five times in the last 20 years, and it never really gets resolved, McBride said.

"We keep coming to this spot that it gets defeated narrowly," he said. "No one is exactly happy, so it comes back."

With the aldermen not able to come to a definitive conclusion, it's time to take it to the constituents, he said.

Efficiency touted

Members of the Legislation, Licensing and Communications Committee on Tuesday were split on whether the issue needs to be addressed, and, if it does, what the right method for doing so is. The matter will be back for further consideration next week before moving to the full council for final action.

McBride made a case that a smaller council would lead to healthy competition in the form of more contested races, increased accountability to the voters and greater efficiency in government operations. He also pointed to an independent economic development study the city has been implementing that suggests a smaller council would be more responsive to development proposals.

"One of the drumbeats we've heard over the last year … economic development, economic development, economic development," he said.

Under his proposal, any reduction wouldn't go into effect until 2016. That way, the candidates who win in April can serve a full four-year term and the candidates elected in 2014 would serve two years. All 16 aldermen would have the benefit of incumbency before running against each other for eight seats in 2016.

Three routes exist

By law, reducing the council size can only happen if the council passes a charter ordinance, City Attorney Alan Kesner said. He will draft language to present to the committee next week. It would take a two-thirds vote (11 aldermen in favor) of the council to approve a charter ordinance. That ordinance could be effective following a binding referendum April 3, or it could just go into effect following a council vote, without a referendum being held.

If the people didn't like the council's action, they would have 60 days before it goes into effect to petition for a referendum, Kesner said.

A third option would be an advisory referendum. That would give the council a clear indication of the public's preference and aid it in making a decision on the matter.

Current system defended

Alderman Tim Hanson made it clear he believes the existing 16-member system works.

In the cases of illness or death, resignations or obligations that take an alderman away from a council meeting, there's a second representative to provide back up, he said.

"Those are things I don't think you can put a price tag on, and I think our constituents deserve that," Hanson said.

It doesn't make sense to give more power to fewer people, he said. If that happens, it won't be long before people will want more pay because they're taking on more responsibility.

If the council size is reduced, Hanson would an assurance the aldermanic salary would stay at $4,200, guaranteeing some cost savings.

People do want to have a say on this issue, Alderman Jeff Roznowski said. As he's started campaigning for re-election he's talked to people who are interested in smaller government.

The council is only one government body that could see fewer numbers. There's also a push for a smaller Milwaukee County Board.

The committee, at the request of Alderwoman Linda Nikcevich, also will discuss a possible advisory referendum on the County Board size next week.

Next step

WHAT: Legislation, Licensing and Communications Committee will talk about whether to put referendums on the April 3 ballot about the size of the city's Common Council and the Milwaukee County Board.

WHEN: Jan. 10, time to be announced. Check Wauwatosa.net after 5 p.m. Friday for an agenda.

WHERE: City Hall, 7725 W. North Ave.

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