Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Change of government referendum defeated by council

I was pleased to see the resolution to place a change of government referendum questions on the November 2007 ballot defeated by the Oshkosh Common Council, 2-5, this evening (those voting for it were councilors Tony Palmeri – who was also the resolution sponsor – and Paul Esslinger). I opposed this resolution for a number of reasons, many of which were stated by citizens and councilors during the meeting.

Let me preface my statements by saying I DO believe the form of government issue needs to be resolved before a search for a city manager is conducted. But I also believe this approach tonight would have been the wrong one.

My first problem with Councilor Palmeri’s proposed referendum had to do with the timing of it. A spring 2008 is much more prudent and, as I understand it, if a mayoral form of government were to be approved it would become effective the following spring, which would more appropriately coincide with the expiration of Mayor Tower’s current term. That makes good sense.

I was also opposed to a special election at a cost of $20,000, especially one in which voter turnout would undoubtedly be pretty low and where there were too many pieces to the puzzle which were missing in the proposal offered by Palmeri tonight. I also agree the council needs to focus on budgetary matters right now; not get bogged down with trying to get information out to the public about a referendum question it has approved. Additionally, I am opposed to a term for full-time strong, elected mayor being four years. I believe that is far too long, especially when this would be something Oshkosh has not had in 50 some years and we not only would have to adjust to it, but work out the other chinks in the armor we’ve recently experienced.

My final reason for opposing this resolution was because I believe the most successful forms of mayoral government, such as is being discussed, are those which also have aldermanic districts. Clearly they do work and the issues raised by some from the early days of Oshkosh and beyond do not exist today. This talk of horse-trading and such would hold no more water under a mayoral/aldermanic form of government than it does under the city manager/at-large council form of government. I would respectfully suggest that anyone who thinks horse-trading and behind-the-scene deals haven’t been going on under this form of government, is either sadly mistaken or extremely naïve. And I refuse to believe that progress in Oshkosh would come to a grinding halt if we had district representation as opposed to continuing with one that is at-large. Progress and development are booming in places with mayoral/aldermanic forms of government; they are enjoying great success. One look at those communities should quickly dispel the myths and rumors to the contrary. Interesting to note that Tony Palmeri has been an advocate of aldermanic districts for as long as I’ve known him, so I don’t know why he would have proposed something that excluded them from his proposal. It was disappointing. I know he's suggested that is a piece that could be addressed another time, but why undertake another related referendum some other time and run the risk of further confusing voters? From a common-sense and efficiency standpoint it makes more sense to handle both issues at the same time.

At this stage of the game I am willing to give either form of government a try. Perhaps with a new city manager coming in fresh from outside the city, things at City Hall would be a little different; or maybe a different form of government altogether is in order. There are plenty of good arguments on both sides of the fence. But either way, we need to resolve the form of government issue before attempting to recruit city manager applicants in a nationwide search.

That being said, it seems pretty clear a citizen-led petition drive will be getting underway in the near future. I would encourage those doing so to wait a little while longer and work toward placing a referendum on the spring ballot where they have more time to get public input and to address the various issues raised during tonight’s meeting. By waiting until spring, they’re also bound to get a more accurate reading on the citizens’ feelings. I would also recommend that a mayoral term, at least initially, be only two years and district representation be a part of the mix. For those who prefer having at-large councilors, strike a compromise and have some district representatives and a few at-large council members. Bear in mind, that would likely expand the council by a few members, but that may not be the worst thing to happen to Oshkosh either. And having an interim city manager for six months to a year (or so) is not going to bring us to a screeching halt either. But to rush things and do them haphazardly could have serious ramifications. So let’s take our time and do it right.

A programming note: In coming weeks we will explore the more popular forms of city government and what the pros and cons are of each with Stephen Hintz and Jim Simmons. Hintz is the former Mayor of Oshkosh and common council member. He is retired from the UW Oshkosh faculty where he as Director of the Masters of Public Affairs program, Chair of the Department of Public Affairs, and Associate dean of the College of Letters and Science. He is a partner in Public Administration Associates, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in local government recruitment and management studies and an acknowledged expert in local government, organizational theory, and intergovernmental relations. Simmons is a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He has been a member of the UW-Oshkosh Faculty Senate since 1993, has served as its president for five years and as a member of its executive committee for seven years. He’s served on about 30 university committees, 10 college panels and in a host of departmental administrative and governance roles. He’s been president of the Wisconsin Political Science Association twice and served in other leadership roles for that group. He is the editor of the “Wisconsin Political Scientist” and a Center for Voting and Democracy founding member. He has also assisted in past citizen-led efforts to change the form of government in Oshkosh.

So if anyone has any questions for them about the different forms of government, please submit them to us at hosts@eyeonoshkosh.com.


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