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Voters to weigh smaller council

Aldermen split, but set advisory referendum April 3

Jan. 18, 2012

The April 3 election ballot just got a little longer in Wauwatosa.

Voters will be asked an advisory referendum question about their interest in reducing the size of the city's Common Council.

The results won't tie the council into taking any specific actions. However, voters will end a 20-year debate on whether the Wauwatosa's legislative body is too large and set the council on a path to changing that, said Alderman Dennis McBride, who proposed the referendum.

If the referendum passes that will just lead to tireless debate on council size, structure and representation on numerous committees, Alderman Michael Walsh said.

The council could better use the time that will be spending putting itself under a microscope to look at the proposed high-voltage power lines, development projects such at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Innovation Park and the Burleigh Triangle, fixing sewer backups and preparing for the next budget cycle, he said.

"That's what they sent us here for - tackle those issues," he said.

Walsh moved to put the referendum on file, essentially requesting the council drop the issue, and he nearly had enough support to do it.

After lengthy debate, Mayor Eric Meaux had to break a 7-7 tie and decided not to sideline the referendum.

"It seems to me that we're at an impasse," he said.

A few council members then threw their support behind putting the question to the voters and the referendum was sent to the ballot on a 9-5 vote.

Alderwoman Jill Organ worries that most residents don't understand the time commitment of serving on council and the representation they receive on various committees with two aldermen per district.

Eight people - one from each district - sit on the Budget and Finance and Community Development Committee, considered the panels where the heavy issues are hashed out. Alderman also sit on Employee Relations, Legislation Licensing and Communications or Traffic and Safety Committees. Add to that liaison appointments to other boards and commissions and Budget Committee deliberations each fall and that's a lot of work, she said.

Perhaps its time for changes to the way the council operates, a hard decision for a body to self-impose, Alderwoman Linda Nikcevich said. But with a vote from residents it could be the encouragement to push streaming more of the minor complaints and questions to services such as the Citizen Request Tracker on the city's web site and bring more of the weighty discussions to the full council rather than a committee.

Besides, fewer aldermen on committees means fewer people to talk, so meetings could get shorter, Nikcevich said.

How they voted

The following is a breakdown of how members of the Common Council voted when asked to put an advisory referendum on whether to reduce the council's size on the April election ballot:

In favor: Don Birschel, Kathleen Causier, Peter Donegan, Dennis McBride, Linda Nikcevich, Bobby Pantuso, Jeff Roznowski, Jason Wilke and Craig Wilson.

Opposed: Cheryl Berdan, Tim Hanson, Jacqueline Jay, Jill Organ and Michael Walsh.

Not present: Brian Ewerdt

Tosa Talk

"There's a lot of people here that tout themselves as small government conservatives and I'm not hearing that tonight," - Alderman Dennis McBride, in response to the gaining support to take no action on a referendum question on council size.

"When both don't agree, we've basically cancelled out the vote for our district," - Alderwoman Linda Nikcevich mentioning a drawback of having two representatives per district.

"If we send this to referendum it just going to go on and on and on. There's a lot of other things we could have talked about as passionately," - Alderman Bobby Pantuso, referring to the ongoing debate on council size.

"This could be limiting the number of people who would want to run because of the time commitments. If you have a full-time job and a family how are you going to add all those extra hours." Alderwoman Jacqueline Jay on the increased workload that would fall upon remaining council members' shoulders if seats were eliminated.

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