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Questions asked, some answered at city manager presentation

By Maria Rakoczy

Jason Grant, a representative of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), gave an informational presentation Wednesday evening at the Madison Library on the Manager-Council system.

A referendum is set to go to a public vote on May 9 proposing the transition of Madison’s government from a Mayor-Council system to a Manager-Council system. The vote is the result of a successful petition sponsored by Madison Forward that was approved by two probate judges in February. The change would retain the office of the mayor but place him as president of the city council with a contributing vote and with more ceremonial duties. The number of city councilmembers, in turn, would be reduced to six after redistricting from the current seven districts to six. A city manager would be added to the city government, appointed by the city council, and would assume the daily management duties of the mayor.

The issue has been a popular topic around the city. It has been the subject of numerous public comments at city council meetings, a public meeting hosted by Don’t Mess with Madison PAC on April 10, and a public debate hosted by Republican Women of Madison Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, Grant presented to Madison residents the benefits of the Manager-Council system. He suggested that a Manager-Council system will result in a more efficient, stable, and consistent municipal government.

Grant argued that the city manager offers more efficient processes as merely an executor of city council policies. The manager will be responsible for seeing through the implementation of the city council’s approved budget and ensures that the council’s vision and policies “are carried out fully and faithfully by staff regardless of personal or political sentiment toward the Council’s vision or policies.” The system will require fewer staff to manage the responsibilities of the mayor’s office by consolidating those duties in the two positions of mayor and manager.

“[Mayors] set up authorities and committees, generally to help make sure they can manage it because there’s no way they can do all their work as an elected mayor, including running a city. So, the actual size of bureaucracy grows under mayor-council versus council-manager,” Grant explained.

Grant reported that this produces the additional benefit of reduced bureaucracy and corruption, citing research from existing Manager-Council systems showing they possessed fewer ethics issues than a Mayor-Council system.

As an apolitical figure, the manager could additionally offer more stability, free from the pressures and polarization of political affiliation. The manager then has more flexibility to hire and fire city staff based on professional qualifications rather than political party. Grant argued that the manager’s lengthy contract and restricted ability to implement personal political goals means the individual in the office of manager must be more farsighted than nearsighted in his vision for the city. The result could be greater consistency in vision and policies long-term.

Though great focus is on the manager position, Grant asserts that the whole system is a team.

“It is by far collaborative. You have to work together,” Grant said.

Grant fielded questions and criticisms from the audience including inquiries into the role of the mayor in the council-manager form, the number of bureaucrats under the manager and mayor, and the size of city appropriate for this system.

Attendees of the meeting debated amongst themselves the legality and ethical integrity of a city manager government for Madison. Accusations were also levelled at the current city council of supporting the city manager form and inviting Grant to promote it. The meeting remained civil but energetic as citizens engaged in discourse on the pros and cons of the new proposed system.

More events are planned in anticipation of the May 9th vote with a public debate hosted by I Vote Madison on Wednesday, May 3 at 6pm at the Madison Library.

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