Update: We actually didn’t debate this at the City Council meeting Tuesday, March 19. I expect it will be on the next council agenda.
That’s the question the South Milwaukee City Council’s Human Resources and Legislation & Permits Committees considered in a joint meeting Tuesday night.
The vote: 3-2 in favor of recommending to the full Council lengthening aldermanic terms from their current two years to three.
I voted no. Here’s why.
For starters, I am not sure any change is needed at all.
While I am proud to be an alderman and stand behind my record, I like the threat of being voted out of office with some regularity. It’s healthy for a democracy. It forces all elected officials everywhere to be at their best, to be responsive to constituents and responsible in their decision making, at all times. If you’re not, you might be out of a job (albeit a part-time job) every 24 months.
There’s a reason the vast majority of the state’s 190 cities have alderpersons serve two-year terms. According to a 2005 Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance report — the most recent I could find — 162 cities have council members on two-year terms. Seventeen have three-year terms, and 11 have four-year terms.
Many of the cities with three- or four-year aldermanic terms are in or around Milwaukee County, additional data gathered by our clerk’s office shows.
Aldermen in Franklin, Greenfield, and Hales Corners, among others, serve three-year, staggered terms. Cudahy aldermen serve non-staggered three year terms, while Oak Creek aldermen serve staggered two-year terms.
So, where do I stand? Well, I do not favor doubling our terms to four years. It’s simply too long. Three is more reasonable. And I would consider a three-year, but staggered, approach for South Milwaukee.
If we are going to change this, the concept of staggered terms is appealing.
I like the idea of individual aldermen running on their own record. Voters should have the chance to weigh in on me and my performance – not me and my colleague and our performance. That’s essentially what we get right now, with both aldermen from each district up for election every two years. This would change if we went with a system where one alderman from each district could be up for election at a time.
There is also a strong argument to be made for governmental continuity here – avoiding the potential where an entire council, or most of a council, is voted out of office at once. While I like new blood and new ideas on the council over time, having a certain amount of institutional knowledge is also important. The risk of losing much of that all at once is concerning, and it’s happened in other nearby communities. Staggered terms lessens this risk.
The fact that the proposal voted on Tuesday did not include reference to staggering terms is one reason why I voted no. That, and I am not convinced the current system is broken enough – or is at risk to become broken enough — to require fixing.
The issue will likely be on the next City Council agenda Tuesday, and it will require six “yes” votes to pass because the shift from two to three years needs a change to South Milwaukee’s “charter ordinances.” We’ll see what happens.
I also look forward to a broader debate on term lenghts for other elected officials in South Milwaukee, especially more specialized positions like city clerk, treasurer and attorney. They, too, serve two-year terms, for now.
Of course, I’d like to know what you think about this. Post your comments below, and vote in the new poll!