Wauwatosa council again debates how large it should be

Published on: 10/24/2012

The decades-long debate over the size of the Wauwatosa Common Council was renewed this week.

Meeting as a committee, the entire council Tuesday night reviewed the history of the political structure of the city, and discussed alternatives. While no action was taken, aldermen who spoke expressed as much support for the status quo - 16 council seats, two for each district - as a reduction, in spite of a referendum in April in which voters made their preference for a reduction clear by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

Too much for voters?

"We owe the voters some response for their 72 percent vote," said Council President Dennis McBride, who chaired the meeting and represents the 4th District.

McBride cited a number of communities all over the country that have fewer representatives. "We're not that special that we can't do things more efficiently," he said.

He noted that he and others often run for their seats unopposed.

"I don't think that's right," McBride said.

"We have more alders than any other community in Milwaukee County. Why?" asked 6th District Alderman Jeffrey Roznowski, who noted the average among county municipalities is eight.

And even Milwaukee, the largest city in the state, has 15 representatives, fewer than Wauwatosa. "I think it's a luxury," Roznowski said.

Third DistrictAlderman Greg Walz-Chojnacki said he had an open mind, but the large number created confusion; many citizens don't know who represents them, he said.

"We do owe it to the voters to answer these questions, to look into it further," he said.

When more is better

But 3rd District Alderman Tim Hanson started a theme that would carry through the discussion: "More voices, more heads, is better for everyone," he said.

"Since Wauwatosa is Triple-A bonded, I don't think you should mess with it. It's working," he said.

Alderman Bobby Pantuso, of the 5th District, agreed with Hanson. "I personally feel the 5th District - and I'll go ahead and throw in the 1st - would really be underrepresented if there were just two alderman (between the two districts)."

"If you ask people if they want less government, of course they're going to say yes," he said, but suggested that a preamble, left off the referendum ballot, might have changed the vote.

He added that the issue should be framed differently: "Rather than show me why 16 is the wrong number, show me why 16 is not the wrong number."

The recent Meijer approval process - which saw the proposal go from committee to council, back to committee and back to council - was an exercise in good government and was successful in meeting city standards partly because of the council size, he said.

"Someone's going to have to convince me that less is going to be better," agreed 2nd District Alderwoman Kathleen Causier.

Second District Alderman John Dubinski, who was appointed to the council this summer, said he voted during the spring referendum for a council reduction. But now his thinking has changed, given his experiences.

"I had no idea how much work went on behind the scenes," Dubinski said.

Illness, absence, even death of a council member were all cited as reasons to keep two per district. It's easier to reach an alderman when there are two, some said.

In addition to those cited, 5th District Aldermen Joel Tilleson, the 7th District's Cheryl Berdan and the and 8th District's Jason Wilke spoke in favor of the current size.

"I don't care what anybody else has," said Berdan. "This works for Wauwatosa."

She said the negotiations over the power line route, which affects her district, easily absorbed the time of two representatives, between community meetings, phone calls, and other contacts. "If it's not broken, let's sure not fix it."