Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Legislative Affair

From Mobile, Alabama, to Las Vegas, Nevada, from Key West, Florida, to Portland, Orgeon, appointments to city committees occur mainly through the legislative body, whether they are called city alders, council members, or commissioners. In Madison, however, citizens and alders are appointed by the mayor and approved by the Common Council. Alders do not have the authority to appoint residents or their fellow alders to city committees. The only exception is the Common Council Organizational Committee, whose membership is appointed by the presiding Common Council president. Is it time we re-evaluate this pratice? I suggest yes!

In recent times some Madison residents have questioned whether the Council is too accommodating to the executive branch. Equally some alders have experienced the frustration of not being (re) appointed to committees and may have concluded that if a mayor "likes" or agrees with the political views of alders and residents, they get their choice appointments. However, until we change this practice, a mayor has the right to make such decisions while the Council only has the right to deny confirmation. Consequently, critizing an incumbent mayor of merely exercising his/her authority makes little sense.

By the way, when I talk about the mayor and Council leadership, I am referring to them as positions rather than to the particular individuals currently holding office. For purpose of disclosure, I serve on over ten committees and have done well under the current system. I have no particular ax to grind. But I do believe the current appointment process needs fixing.

Let's start with alder appointments to city committees (I'll share my thoughts on citizen appointments in a future blog). Neither governors nor presidents appoint members of the legislative branch to committees because the prevailing logic of separation of power is an important aspect to preserving a vibrant democracy. Why should this be any different at the local level where the proximity between elected officials and their constituents is the closest? Alders are elected to the Council to work on policies, which takes primarily place in our many city committees.

Alder assignments on committees are, therefore, a critical piece of implementing the will of the people. Why would a legislative body not want to be involved in determining which of their members serve on what committees? Instead we have a peculiar set-up where alders are elected and then "told" by a mayor on which committee they will serve. Granted, we are asked for our preferences, and I'm confident each mayor is mindful of these preferences and the respective professional experiences of the alders. But that's really neither here nor there. The point is that the paternalistic nature of committee assignments interfere with the purpose of a legislative body. It creates too much dependency on the political agenda of a mayor and reduces the necessary checks and balances needed to keep a democracy alive.

Furthermore, having to depend on a mayor for committee appointments can create an insiduous culture of tacit accommodation. A mayor who does not have the authority to appoint alders to committees would have to work much harder at persuading the legislative body of the merits of his/her intentions and actions. He or she could not use alder appointments as a carrot or stick to garner votes. When that happens now, we tend to criticize mayors for behavior when, in fact, the organizational condition creates and dictates such behavior. Therefore, changing the way alder appointments happen will have a long-lasting, positive effect on the future politics of Madison. In my opinion, a Council that has the authority to appoint its own members to city committees will assert itself more and exercise such responsibility with more accountability.

So who should make alder appointments to city committees? There is a myriad of models to choose from across the country. In our City it could be Council leadership, a special Council committeee comprised of alders, or the current Common Council Organizational Committee. Each option has its own strengths and issues. None of them will eliminate the political nature or (perceived) preferential treatment of alder appointments to commitees. That's not the intent for this suggested change and would be quite naive to expect. What is intended is to restore and/or create a stronger balance of power between the legislative and executive branch of our local government. This should provide more genuine opportunities for constructive disagreement between a mayor and a Council.

Let's keep a mayor's mitts off of appointing alders to committees and make such appointments truly a legislative affair.