All Things Madison | Madison's Special Election in Layman's Terms: What to Know Before Tuesday's Election Day
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Madison’s Special Election in Layman’s Terms: What to Know Before Tuesday’s Election Day

If you feel ill-prepared to vote in Tuesday’s special election, you aren’t alone. A good chunk of the city cites their confusion surrounding the topic of mayor versus manager, so All Things Madison set out to have a conversation with Mayor Paul Finley to break down this topic in laymen’s terms.
All Things Madison | Madison's Special Election in Layman's Terms: What to Know Before Tuesday's Election Day

Like you, I’ve seen all the signs and I’ve read all the mailers. I’ve seen the contention between opposing groups on social media, and I’ve heard from an array of friends and neighbors regarding their strong feelings one way or another.

More than anything else though, I’ve heard from Madison residents who say that they’ll likely not vote in next week’s special election because they just don’t know what’s “actually” going on. They don’t feel educated enough to cast a vote, but at the same time, they’re still perplexed about what a city manager actually is and why different groups feel so passionately about it either way.

Earlier this week I sat down in person with Mayor Paul Finley to ask him some nit-picky questions about what this special election is all about, where this all came from to begin with, and what the city will look like moving forward with our current governance system versus electing a new format with a hired city manager.

{Psst: Let me pause. In case you’re not sure what you have the opportunity to vote on on Tuesday, May 9th, here’s the skinny. Madison city council members have called a special election to offer city residents the opportunity to vote to change the current form of mayor-city council governance to manager-city council government.

If this sounds too political and over your head (statements I’ve heard many times recently), take a moment to carefully read through this article as a starting place. Our city is made up of “non-political” people just like you (AND ME), and our votes truly matter in a small town. Who we elect in our city often impacts our daily lives way more than voting for high positions.

Our mayor and city council are responsible for working through an annual $60M budget; That’s so much power, and how they spend it impacts the roads your children drive, the youth baseball facilities your kids and grandkids play at, the entertainment options you enjoy, and so much more. Please turn your political interest on for about five minutes and give this a read.}

Though I shared from the beginning of my time with Mayor Finley that I desired to understand objective facts only, I subconsciously believed at the beginning of our interview that he was surely very “pro-city manager”. After all, why would the city council put forth the effort into holding this special election if this wasn’t something that city leadership wanted?

What I learned though is that city leadership actually feels quite divided as well, which is representative of the city as a whole. After over an hour of deep discussions about the upcoming election, I’m still not sure which way Mayor Finley would vote next week (which is a good thing!) Our time was spent talking about A versus B, and he was an open book regarding what one avenue would look like versus the other.

So if not all city leadership is on board with potentially switching to a city manager style of local government, why are they giving city residents the opportunity to vote in this election?

I learned that the answer is quite simple: The council-manager form of local government is very common throughout the United States, and city council members desire to give the residents of our community the opportunity to vote on if this is something they’d like for our city or not.

“We aren’t afraid of having the discussion about what the best way is to move forward,” shares Mayor Finley. “We’ve had plenty of people get this city to where it is today, but this (city manager style format) is just another avenue to look at and consider.”

He continued to share that “if you want your city to continue to be the best it can be, you have to continue to look at all of your options for how to do that, which is exactly what we’re doing by bringing this option to the table.”

This entire topic began creeping its way onto the table after the 2020 Census. Madison has grown at an impressive pace, increasing its number of residents by more than 25% from 2010 (~40k residents) to 2023 (~60k residents). Because the city must redistrict anyway following the 2020 Census, the city council determined that now was an ideal time to literally poll the city to see if they’d like to make a switch to council-manager governance.

{Big thanks to Mayor Paul Finley for taking a solid hour to sit down and have a very candid chat with me about this topic. I asked hard questions because I can’t tell a good story if I don’t understand it myself, and he was very patient in sharing what is going on. He also respected my wishes to speak about it from a non-biased but objective point of view. Much appreciated, Mayor Finley!}

"If you want your city to continue to be the best it can be, you have to continue to look at all of your options for how to do that, which is exactly what we're doing by bringing this option to the table." - Mayor of Madison Paul Finley

All Things Madison | Madison's Special Election in Layman's Terms: What to Know Before Tuesday's Election Day

If this concept passes, Madison will be redistricted from seven current districts down to six districts.

The city council will lose one seat but bring in its seventh member via the elected city mayor, who will serve as city council president. While each elected city council member will continue to represent his or her district, the mayor will be representative of the city as a whole and serve as a figurehead throughout the community.

“We want the city to feel empowered with this option to vote and to understand that there are other avenues and other options for how cities like Madison run things,” shared Mayor Finley.

If the manager-council format is favorably voted upon, it would not go into effect until November of 2025. Residents will vote again for city council and mayor in August of 2025, and elected officials will begin their positions in November 2025 with their first job to hire a city manager.

A city manager would be responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of Madison.  His or her duties would generally include:

  1. Budgeting and financial management
  2. Personnel management
  3. Infrastructure management
  4. Policy development and implementation

Many view the city manager option as a desirable way of ensuring that the task of running our thriving city is done efficiently and consistently because it’ll be managed by someone who would be hired (and could be fired) based on his or her performance of doing the job well. 

Because a city mayor only has to be 18 years old and have lived in the city for 90 days, many who are outspoken about desiring a city manager fear that Madison’s strong trajectory could shift quickly if someone is elected who isn’t well-versed or experienced enough to run a city with as much growth happening as Madison is. Some believe that having a city manager can be beneficial because it provides a level of professional expertise and objectivity that elected officials may lack.

However, others argue that having a city manager can be problematic because it can create a disconnect between the community and its elected officials. City managers are not accountable to the public in the same way that elected officials are, which can make it difficult for residents to voice their concerns or hold the city manager accountable for their actions.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of a city manager will depend on the hired individual’s qualifications and experience, the specific needs and priorities of Madison at the time, and the overall structure of Madison’s government.

When asked what Mayor Paul Finley thinks about the divisiveness that this special election has brewed, he says that “there are really good, solid people on both sides of the fence with this, and I think it’s great that they really care. They feel like they are finally getting to cast a vote for how their city is run, which has made them take a really hard look at how things are going.”

Finley says that many residents don’t realize that there were five different mayors from 1988-2008, which many would view in hindsight as a con due to the changing of hands so many times. Finley was elected mayor in 2008 and then again in 2016 and 2020.

“We’ve had the same focus moving forward for a long time, which has paid off,” shared Finley. “One of the biggest reasons that some are in favor of a city manager is that they recognize that a new mayor will eventually be in this seat, and they don’t want Madison to go in a different direction than where it’s currently headed.”

He says that at the end of the day though, there are pros and cons to both options for moving forward.

“There are different ways to get to an end result, and you as community members get to decide which avenue the city is going to take.”

He firmly believes that the city of Madison will be strong either way because ultimately the city is “much more than just one person running it.”

“I am proud of where we are at this point, and there are a lot of people that have gotten us here since the 1980s. Collectively we’ve accomplished a lot, and I’m confident the city will continue to be strong with a quality person that will help us keep going.”

ELECTION DAY: Tuesday, May 9th, 2023 from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.

Click here to read more about Madison’s current governance format, find your voter information, and more!

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All Things Madison | Madison's Special Election in Layman's Terms: What to Know Before Tuesday's Election Day