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Alderman Asks for Referendum on Reducing Size of Common Council

McBride proposes a binding public vote in April on whether 16 aldermen are needed.

Having just announced he's running for another term in office, Ald. Dennis McBride has introduced a resolution that could end up putting him out of the job.

McBride has proposed a binding resolution to be put on the April 3 ballot asking voters to decide whether half as many Common Council members would be enough to govern Wauwatosa.

The city is now — and is by charter — divided into eight aldermanic districts, each represented by two council members who are elected for four-year terms on a staggered, two-year schedule.

McBride's resolution, he said, would reduce that representation to one alderman per district, if Wauwatosa citizens wanted it so.

"The topic has come up at least five times," McBride said, "but it never seems to go anywhere with the council. So I said, 'You know what? Let's put it to the voters.'

"When I talk to voters, what they say, when they think about it at all, is that they don't think we need 16 people on the council," he added.

Part of McBride's reasoning is that there are in some ways too many cooks in the kitchen.

"There are 16 of us who feel the need every week or so to call the city administrator or another member of the city staff on some matter," he said. "That's about twice as many people as ought to be bothering those people."

McBride also said he believed that having so many council seats led to too many uncontested elections.

"We don't have enough competitive elections," he said, "and I think in a democracy elections ought to be competitive."

McBride said that one argument against reducing the council is that a large number of bodies are needed to cover committees — but his response is simply that the committees are also too large, with up to seven or eight members on some panels.

But for Ald. Don Birschel, chairman of the Legislation, Licensing and Communications Committee, which will hear the introduction of McBride's resolution Tuesday night, two aldermen per district are needed to ensure that voters have adequate representation at all times.

He recalled investigating the question as a member of a citizen's committee when it came up in 1992, and he found that Wauwatosa was right in the middle in terms of the size of Wisconsin city Common Councils and the number of people represented per district.

"If I recall the figures correctly," he said, "I think the range was from around 4,900 to 6,000 people per alderman, and Wauwatosa was at about 5,600."

He also noted that during his tenure on the council, several sitting members have passed away and a number have resigned from office, including one instance in which one alderman died and the other from the same district was forced to leave because of a change in the demands of his job.

"The 8th District was left without representation," he said. "We often have very important matters that arise, such as last spring when we discussed the union contracts, when it would be just wrong to have no elected representatives in a district."

Birschel did say, however, that he believes the city could compromise not on the number of aldermen per district but on the number of districts themselves.

"I think the simplest way to do it would be to consolidate them into six districts of four wards instead of eight districts of three wards, leaving us with 12 aldermen," he said. "I do believe we would shortchange the electorate by reducing the council by half and especially by having only one representative per district."

There is no proposed language for McBride's resolution ready to be presented Tuesday night because City Attorney Alan Kesner, who would draft it, has been out of town since the issue was brought up.

"We're going to throw it to the committee for discussion," Kesner said. "They'll have to tell me how they would want to do it — whose seats would be eliminated and when.

"If they want to change the size of the council, it would require a charter ordinance."

McBride, Birschel and Kesner all said they expected no vote Tuesday night from the full council, which meets later in the evening. But if the measure were to come to a final vote of the full council, it would have to be done by its Jan. 17 meeting in order to make the deadline for adding an issue to the April ballot.

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