Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Change of Gov't Petition

Babblemur's running it. Tony Palmeri's supporting it.

As I've said before, changing the municipal government's structure is no small undertaking. If the city is going to begin down this path there has to be popular support to do so. That's obvious, but what isn't so clear yet is how much support for a change of government there is in town at the moment. No one can answer this question with an adequate degree of precision. No one should be satisfied with answers like "lots of people" or "everyone I know" because those estimations could actually mean 14 and 6.

There are two ways to gauge support. The first is a public opinion poll. That's expensive and could be subject to interpretation. The second option is the petition. The problem with the petition is that it only gauges if there is enough support to bring it to voters attention. Say the petition effort nets 4,500 signatures (just to be safe). All that says is that 4,500 people in the city of Oshkosh want a change of government. It's possible that the other 55,500 residents are perfectly happy with the current government -- unlikely as all hell, but still possible.

The problem with both the petition and the poll is that it's one thing to get someone to sign a sheet of paper that's put in front of there face or answer a question over the phone, it's another thing all together to get them to into a voting booth (especially for a local spring election).

Right now, the change the government crowd seems to be as motivated by the poor performance of certain city officials as they are by a desire revamp the system. That animosity will wear off as those city officials start becoming distant memories. Folks who might think a change is needed today might not care for one in April, so there is an understandable sense of urgency to the project.

That urgency is causing change advocates to ignore some major foundational issues with their cause. First of all, there needs to be an agreement about what kind of system the government should be changed to. Should the council be aldermanic, at-large, or mixed? Pick one and roll with it. You can't just say we need to change the government and leave at that -- you have provide an alternative.

Second is the effort to educate the public and sell the proposal. Voters need to have a reason to vote for a change, so when an alternative form of government is agreed upon people need to know why it will be better than the current system. You can't just say "The system's broken and needs to be replaced!" and expect that statement to be self-evident. In the past I've asked a lot of questions about what an elected mayor would do in Oshkosh (here, here, here, here, and here) and to the best of my knowledge, none of these questions have been addressed. There's likely more voters out there who have their own questions.

Answering those questions should be a priority of the Oshkosh Democracy Campaign. This will take time, volunteers and money. To date I have yet to see a document that says changing the government would be beneficial for Oshkosh. Maybe the ODC should find an independent party to offer their expertise on the matter or field their own opinion poll to bolster their cause.

I have little reason to believe the ODC won't get enough signatures to put the referendum on the ballot, but the day happens an opposition group will begin to form and the ODC will not only have to contend with making their sales pitch to the average voter, but also arguing against a countervailing message. That will make their hard job exponentially more difficult.

I simply do not think there's enough desire to change the system at the current moment, and I'm basing that largely on there being the absence of any legitimate problem. Right now City Hall is a very popular place to be leaving and I think some new blood will rectify many of the perceived problems with city leadership. But that doesn't mean that the ODC should not bother bringing this issue to the fore.

The city council should let this play out and start an earnest search for a permanent city manager in April. There's no need to rush. This will pass and when it does the council will be able to look for a qualified manager who's not scared off by the prospect of having his or her job eliminated. There's no point in frightening people away right now.

1 comment:

Ronald Kane Hardy said...

JB,

This is an excellent commentary on the City Manager question in Oshkosh, one of the most rational ones I’ve read about the recent discussions.

If I could make one correction, I would like to say that I (“Babblemur”) am not going to run this. I've got a full time job, I have a baby due in January, and my political hands are pretty full right now working for the Wisconsin Green Party. What I am doing is I’m talking to people about this, and people are talking to me about this. I’ve contacted some other people who are looking into the legal aspects of this, and I’ve talked to some people who worked on this effort 10 years ago. I’m looking around to see how many people would actually volunteer to work on this. There is no way that I am going to do a petition drive with only a dozen people. However, if there is a coalition forming to change the form of government (and that does appear to be the case) then I am going to volunteer to work on that effort and I’m going to try to bring as many volunteers to the effort that I can find.

Personally I am impatient, because the window of opportunity to do something for the April ballot is limited, signatures would need to be submitted by January 17. But on the other hand, look at all the ducks that need to get in a row. The legal aspects have to be covered; there should be public meetings to discuss the petition, what form it should take, etc. And there should be at least 40 active petitioners (based on 4,000 signatures) prepared to work through November and December.

All of the other questions are valid ones. How do you gauge citizen opinion? I was told that last time (1996-98) the Oshkosh Northwestern actually paid to have some polls taken. You will never know how people will ultimately vote on something like this, but I have argued that it should be on an April local election ballot because the bulk of the voters in April are people who pay attention to local politics. They are the best judges of a question like this. It also gives the city almost an entire year to dot the I’s and cross the T’s and transition from the City Manager form of government to the Mayor-Alderman form of government.

No one that I know of wants Oshkosh to fail – we all want Oshkosh to be a better place. If a significant majority of the city wants to make this change for the better, then the city will come together to make it happen. If the majority of the city believes that a new City Manager with strong leadership skills and vision for the city is what will take us forward then so be it.

By the way I really like this blog! I’m a “long time reader, first time commenter”. I’m looking forward to reading your insights when the local election season starts… !

Ron “I lost my babblemur blogger login” Hardy