Monday, January 26, 2009

My Concerns About the Appointment Process for City Of Madison Committees: Part of a Waning Commitment to Citizen Input?

Recently, a Madison citizen named Bob wrote to a community listserve about his attempt to volunteer his services on a city committee:

"I submitted an application for one of these committees listed many months ago. A position was open then and even again later on. Now it is open yet again -- a third time. However, I never heard a word about my application the first time other than that it was received. I certainly don't feel inclined to resubmit an application each time an opening is announced particularly when I got no response the first time. I have plenty else to do. Perhaps responses to requests for committee membership would be better received if a decision from the city one way or the other were issued to those who take the time to complete an application. I know for myself that since I got no response that I am not inclined to submit an application again. I have a long history of community service in places where I've lived, but if people aren't interested in what I have to offer, I can certainly find other things to do. I'm never short on things to do. I wish the city the best in filling these positions. I think they are important which is why I applied the first time. Feel welcome to reactivate my original application." Other citizens on various neighborhood-based listserves then responded with their own stories, resonant with Bob's experience.

I, too, have faced a wall of silence that's lasted now for several months in regards to my inquiries about the mayoral committee appointment process. Mayor Cieslewicz is someone for whom I placed my own reputation on the line to support in a highly-contested four way race when he first ran for office back in 2003 (he proudly displayed my endorsement blurb in the third most prominent place on his website), and he was someone I have called a friend for over 20 years. But, given the current climate around committee appointments, in which it appears there has been a spirit of retribution for anyone has publicly disagreed with the mayor, I guess I must have done something to place me outside of the circle of consideration.

I have only the following theories:

I have continued to be an outspoken advocate for minority voices in our community in the years that have followed, and suggested a compromise in the debate over the creation of the Department of Civil Rights that resulted in a delay to the process, while the mayor undid some of the damage that was done by moving ahead with this initiative without fully involving leaders in Madison's ethnic minority community in the process. In that case, the mayor apologized for his actions, and thanked me for helping to move a log-jammed process forward, but I might have ruffled feathers, nonetheless.

I did not endorse the mayor's re-election bid two years ago, but that was, in part, because I moderated a civil rights-related debate on my radio show and needed to remain neutral. The concerns I mention below about the mayor's attitudes toward public process have popped up briefly from time to time on my radio show, but that's part of my job--to raise difficult questions about the conduct of our elected officials--and I do that across the board.

Beyond that, I have never been what you'd call a "harsh critic" of the mayor, so I'm not sure exactly where I might have fallen out of favor. Maybe I'm just simply too liberal for him, maybe I'm friends with the wrong people, maybe I'm not considered enough of a loyalist for any one of these reasons. (One analysis says that the mayor is pushing away people he believes to be on the political fringes as a means of positioning himself more firmly in the political mainstream.) But if that's the case, then we've entered the truly dangerous territory of de facto blacklisting of people based on their beliefs and associations--or equally distressing, the mayor's office is rewarding its supporters with the kind of patronage that would do Chicago politics proud.

Mayor Dave has a great deal going for him, and I don't mean to diminish the breadth of his accomplishments on matters of substance. Maybe it's because he is genuinely such a nice guy, that he feels he needs to prove he's a force to be reckoned with in order to do his job properly. But political style is equally important in the context of leadership, and using the appointment process to discourage dissent is simply inherently undemocratic, and all too reminiscent of recent discredited practices at the State Capitol. Political considerations go hand-in-hand with being an elected official, and it's only natural for an official to reward the work of those who have been loyal to him--but only up to a certain point, and not at the exclusion of appointing people based on their experience and qualifications.

The almost Nixonian implications of the current climate--in which perceived "enemies" of the mayor, who might disagree with him on but a single issue are forced off committees, or excluded from consideration--may provide short-term political capital, but doesn't help the mayor in the longer term. Instead of coming across as strong and in-charge, though, he's coming across as paranoid and out-of-touch. In fact, these actions are wreaking havoc on his credibility, and causing profound doubts in many of us who supported him in previous elections. Many of us supported him precisely because we believed that he was incapable of using such strong-arm tactics, that it wasn't part of his basic make-up.

It's hard to know, but as someone who's been involved in electoral politics at all levels for all of my adult life, my gut tells me that something is awry here, and lines are being crossed that simply shouldn't be crossed. It pains me to even ask these questions, but hearing that others are going through the same thing, causes me to put some of my long-felt concerns into words.

Ironically, in my own case, I could be wrong. It's possible that my personal concerns about being on the outs with the mayor are totally offbase, and that my application has somehow just gotten lost in the shuffle. But we still come back to the matter of countless calls and emails going unanswered--something else that numerous citizens reported had greatly frustrated them, in the recent email flurry--something that was rarely the case with the mayor's predecessors. Maybe there's a "reasonable explanation" for each one of those other people who have felt left out of the process, too. But the fact that a climate has been created in which there is a growing perception that the mayor is engaging in inappropriate and unethical behavior in the area of committee appointments says in and of itself that something is happening here that shouldn't go unanswered. This behavior may or may not be illegal, strictly speaking, under existing law and city procedure, but it's doing damage to both the reputation of city government and the mayor himself, nonetheless. If a nice guy like Mayor Dave can be seen as engaging in this kind of abuse of power, maybe it's time for some kind of systemic change in the process by which committee appointments are determined.

I mention several times below that the behaviors I'm describing are atypical, and that this is not the Dave Cieslewicz I know. If I'm right about that, he'll respond in a way that directly addresses these concerns, instead of attacking the messenger. If not, I'm hoping that he'll at least think twice before doing this to anyone else again. With all of that in mind, here's my analysis:



By John Quinlan

An Open Letter to the Community:

I want to echo Bob's concerns, and those of countless other citizens, as stated above. At a time when there's growing disinterest in people running for local office because of all of the financial hurdles and the increasing incivility of local politics, the last thing we need is for people offering their valuable time and expertise for appointed positions to have those offers fall into a black hole. Like Bob, I've been frustrated that my own application for public service on a city commission has so far been ignored, and that my repeated attempts to get a response from the mayor's office on its status have met with a prolonged silence.

Perception that the Mayor is Playing Politics with these Appointments

To be up front about this: though I'd love to be presented with evidence to the contrary, my own worst fear is that the mayor is playing politics with these appointments in a way that concentrates his power and lessens the input of these citizen-based committees. Some of that has been done by allowing city committee and commission vacancies to go unfilled for a period of months and even years, and some of it has been in the choices he's made in filling appointments, which have tended to have been made independent of any consultation with the leadership of those bodies.

Whether the issue is transit or equal opportunities, my anecdotal experience is that the mayor is appointing people he feels comfortable with, not necessarily people who are have the requisite experience in the necessary areas. Inherently, the people being excluded are those who may have independent thoughts and alternative ways of doing things that the mayor might not otherwise have considered. The mayor cannot be an expert on all things, and the diverse opinions and experiences of Madison's appointed officials should not constitute a threat, but an opportunity for him.

Greater Concerns about a Growing Disregard for Public Process

In the bigger picture, this seems to manifest as doing an end-run around public process and then justifying it in the language of political courage or principled leadership. That meant that instead of allowing a public debate around the future of the city's decades-long investment in public transit, the mayor attempted to short-circuit the process by drawing a line in the sand. Very few of us love process for the sake of process. But Madisonians jealously guard their direct role in democracy, and ultimately resent anyone seen as quashing that role, no matter what their margin of victory in the last election.

The mayor and his staff need to understand that they're no longer working in the context of a legislative office, which runs considerably differently from the Madison mayor's office. The mayor must constantly and actively seek out community input, and must rely on a "kitchen cabinet" of community advisers who will give him the straight dope about what's happening out in the community, even if that makes his job more complicated in the short term. I witnessed the transition to the new administration, and saw them overwhelmed by what seemed like the chaos of a community seeking the new mayor's ear. And yet, I think that their tendency was not to find a way to effectively channel the cacophony of community voices, but to institute mechanisms that often shut them out. The business of a legislative office and the fulfillment of a legislator's responsibility to her/his continuents can be managed in the context of an appointment calendar and a set of discreet tasks as a means of following up on constituent concerns. But by contrast, the mayor's office only serves people effectively if the community is seen as a river that flows through the very heart of the office, as messy and inconvenient as that reality may be. Tending to the myriad needs and divergent viewpoints represented by the presence of that river requires a way of doing things that involves allowing that river to flow. Trying to dam it up, and prevent the flow of public input into the process from occurring, may make the flow of that river of democracy seem to slow and become more manageable and controllable in the short-term. But ultimately, the water behind the dam will rise, and an even more chaotic and swiftly flowing stream will take its place.

Two Cases in Point: The Debate Over Public Transit, and a Growing Disregard for Minority Community Views and the MEOC

In the case of transit issues, public process has proceeded along a somewhat convoluted route, but has still had a discernible impact, despite the mayor's efforts to dam up the process of public input. But life might have been considerably easier for the mayor, the transit commission, and the rest of us had the mayor allowed the process of public input to flow naturally in the first place.

In the case of equal opportunity issues, the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission (in its new home as part of the Dept. of Civil Rights) has historically been a place where minority community leaders have felt that they had direct input into the city's decision-making process, with the recognition that virtually all city decisions have implications for our community's commitment to social justice and equal rights. However, in countless recent decisions, the mayor and the council have done an end-run around with the commission, refusing to recognize that issues like community policing are inextricably connected to issues of racial justice, for example.

Appropriating the Language of "Political Courage" in Justifying the "End-Runs" Arounds Public Process

The justification for doing an "end-run" around public process or committee input is usually one of manufactured urgency or a view of the citizenry that assumes the worst of their ability to come together in the interest of the common good. In the case of the transit debate, strong-armed Common Council members who opted to disregard the transit commission's role in setting fares were declared by the mayor as showing great "political courage." And that sounds suspiciously like double-speak to me.

Just as "national security" was the battle cry for the short-circuiting of democratic freedoms post-9/11, so the current economic crisis is becoming an excuse to circumvent the democratic process in the name of allowing our local government officials to make the necessary difficult decisions on our behalf, supposedly in our best interests, without regard for public input. Every year or so, some politician raises the specter of long-ago public debates that stretched on for decades as a means of circumventing public process in the here and now. It's a tired old, out of context argument that fails to see the many accomplishments that have come from Madison's traditions of citizen and neighborhood involvement. My worst fear is that the current mayor and Common Council are once again viewing public participation as inevitably leading to division and discord, delaying the specific budget cutback decisions they view as inevitable. And so they're inclined to cut corners.

What they don't seem to understand is that making these decisions on the basis of across-the-board cutbacks or other bureaucratic shortcut devices may not work in the midst of today's economic crisis.

Those decisions need to be made, wherever possible, in a way that recognizes the increasing need for supportive services for those in extreme economic need that accompanies economic downturn. And so, at least in the short-term, resources from one area may need to be taken disproportionately from another to better utilize scarce resources in another. Some city programs may require an increase in city funding, at least in the short-term.

Public Input and Consensus Important in Desperate Economic Times Now More Than Ever: Giving Citizens the Benefit of the Doubt that We'll Do the Right Thing

Those are difficult choices, and, yes, debates will ensue that sometimes pit people with competing interests against each other. But side-by-side with this reality is a long history of Madison's citizens being willing to come together and make the tough choices when our leaders present those choices to us in a way that brings us together in common cause. Because if these choices are made without citizen input, and community consensus, the dam breaks. And if you think that a contentious and difficult Common Council meeting involving a full public debate is problematic, you haven't seen anything yet.

Because if people in Madison feel that the mayor and the Council are taking action without their full investment in those decisions, then the torrent of public opinion will really make itself known, first and foremost in protest of the people's anger at having been excluded from the process. But if that's allowed to happen, it means that citizens and government are being distracted from our primary joint responsibility--making difficult decisions together with an eye to the common good.


My Personal Experience: Enthusiastic Support Followed by A Deafening Silence -- Does This Mean I did something to get on the wrong side of the mayor?

In my own case, I applied last year for membership on Madison's Equal Opportunities Commission. At the time, there were at least seven openings. I don't mean to be immodest, but there was little question of my qualifications, and other EOC commission members have told me that they greeted my application with great enthusiasm. I have a long history of working in a leadership position on issues of civil rights, and without listing my entire resume here, that decision was affirmed in the city's decision last January to name me as the recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award.

I've known and worked closely with Dave Cieslewicz for over 20 years, and was one of his early supporters, despite the crowded and highly qualified field of candidates who ran against him as he sought his first term. The core reason for my support was, based on my past experience with him, that I saw him as a highly collaborative, inclusive, and effective community leader. He clearly valued my endorsement of him, placing it third in prominence on his campaign web page. He's affirmed for me in appearances on my radio show that he appreciates my past leadership in the area of civil rights. And when I've seen him out in the community, he's assured me twice in recent months that he's supportive of my appointment to the MEOC.

So when late last year, I discovered that virtually all of the MEOC appointments had been filled, apparently without any consideration of my application, I wondered what might have happened. Several of my equal opportunity colleagues speculated that perhaps I'd somehow stepped on the mayor's toes, through my past advocacy, or some statement I might have made recently on my radio show. This notion was reinforced recently in viewing the mayor's response to Ald. Brenda Konkel, a former mayoral ally. Brenda has been an outspoken advocate for many of the public process questions I've raised above, and the mayor's response has been to view her as disloyal, instead of taking those concerns seriously. He's unashamedly taken the almost unprecedented step of attempting to recruit a candidate to run against her--an area in which he was notably unsuccessful, it's important to point out. He and his allies on the council have gone even further in attempting to marginalize Brenda by using red-baiting like tactics that declare her to be a dangerously out-of-touch liberal, rather than engaging with her in an informed debate about the issues.


Coming back to my resonance with Bob's initial concern--I really don't know what the process is as the mayor makes decisions about city appointments. I'm not sure that anyone does, and that's kind of disturbing in itself. One would argue that it would make great sense for that process to become considerably more transparent. Are appointments considered in the order in which they were filed? Is there a process by which the mayor eliminates someone for consideration, or does someone's application remain in active consideration moving forward? Is there any kind of formal or informal advisory role that the leadership of an existing committee can play in this process? Are some committees and commissions seen as troublemakers, and does the mayor make a point of appointing only loyalists to fill vacant slots as a result? Regardless of the reality, has this mayor inadvertantly created that perception?

Or is the filling of vacant appointed committee and commission spots not seen as a priority, and there's a huge backlog needing attention?

Or, to give him the benefit of the doubt... is the mayor doing fine, in making difficult choices, and in appointing the best people possible for available openings? And he sees the appointment process as tantamount to a hiring process in which the applicant's confidentiality is honored--the effect being that he's turning people down, but doesn't consider it appropriate to publicly announce his rationale, out of respect for the privacy and dignity of the applicants. If that's the case, I supposed that's fine, although I'm not sure if the public interest is best served by such an approach.

But even if this is his rationale, it's doesn't necessarily excuse the silent treatment meeting those of us who want to know where we're at in the process. Many of us who have the most to offer the city as appointed officials must juggle our service to the city with many other personal and community responsibilities. So it's important for us to know if such an appointment is or isn't imminent.

Of all of the questions I'm asking, this one is probably the most germane: Does the committee appointment process need to be reformed so that all of the power no longer lies with only one elected official, including the option of giving the Common Council leadership a larger role in the process?

Could Someone At Least Return Our Calls?

In my own case, I've traveled directly to the mayor's office to ask about my status, beginning three months ago, but have yet to receive the courtesy of a returned phone call or email. Mayoral aide Ray Harmon (who, ironically, presented me with the 2008 King award because the mayor was out of the country at the time) has been identified to me as the staff person whose responsibilities include the Madison Equal Opportunity Commission, so a request for a clarification of my status was made through him. I repeated this request last Friday at the front desk of the mayor's office. Maybe that returned phone call will finally happen later today, or at least later in the week. But I'm not holding my breath.

I'm sorry to go into such a detail. The last thing I want to do is to appear to be asking for special treatment, or to come across as a prima donna. Nor do I particularly want to burn my bridges with a mayor whom I've gone out of my way in the past to support. It bears repeating: my experience in all of this is not consistent with the Dave Cieslewicz I think I know.
I'm incredulous that I can't even get someone to return my phone calls, because I've never been treated this way before--in fact, nothing like this has ever happened to me in my interactions with four other mayors going back more than 30 years, including Mayor Cieslewicz's immediate predecessors, Sue Bauman and Paul Soglin, whose offices I often consulted with on an almost daily basis. It may not be intentional, but that's not particularly encouraging, either.

Who Else is This Happening To? Please Weigh In With Your Own Experiences

However, underlying my motivation in going public with this is my bigger concern that, if it's happening me, given my longtime history with this mayor, is it happening to countless other people who've simply become disillusioned and pulled back from the opportunity for public service?

One recent stream of speculation is that the mayor has been playing political harddball lately because he believes he's being perceived as too much of a nice guy to be effective in his job.

And so perhaps he's decided to recycle the advice of his longtime adversary, the editorial page writers of the WI State Journal, as a means of bringing them over to his side. They wrote, in a 2003 editorial that followed Mayor Dave's first election:

Dave Cieslewicz's easygoing manner will be his greatest strength - and it also could be his political undoing. We didn't believe Cieslewicz was the best-qualified candidate for mayor, but he should be able to grow into the job pretty quickly. He just needs to stop listening to people for awhile.

That advice might seem calculated to create mischief. But in fact, we worry that Cieslewicz is fatally attracted to consensus and cooperation in a job that calls for an evenhanded yet often unrelenting personality, someone unafraid to use the power of the office appropriately.

Hoping That My Concerns Are Heard as Coming from a Friend, and Don't Engender Defensiveness

And so my last concern is that a guy who I vouched for when he first ran for office might be holding political grudges as a means of showing he's a tough guy, or as a means of quashing dissent. That's just about as far from the Dave Cieslewicz I thought I knew as I can imagine. I really want to give him the benefit of the doubt here. The Dave Cieslewicz I once knew would take this criticism from a friend and see it as a wake-up call for taking a new look at how members of his political base are viewing the way he's been doing business. Because the measure of loyalty, isn't sucking up to someone and telling them only what they want to hear. It's sharing with someone your concerns, and hoping that they'll have enough confidence in themselves to know that being open to constructive criticism is one of the true marks of mature leadership. It's the same advice I'd offer to any friend for whom I have much respect and high expectations.

Regardless, though, Bob and I and countless other committed citizens deserve a mayoral appointment process that's fair and transparent. In my experience, frustration with the status quo runs deep, and this isn't a state of affairs that's good for anyone.

If I don't hear back from the mayor's office, I'll make one last attempt before withdrawing my application for public service. (I'm told that there may, indeed, be further openings on the commission beginning in April.) I'm putting this out there publicly to encourage anyone else who feels they may have been overlooked to come forward, so we can address this concern together.

Thanks for considering this.

John L. Quinlan
Applicant for the position of Commissioner on the Equal Opportunities Commission, City of Madison Dept. of Civil Rights

*The following organizational affiliations and examples of community leadership are for identification purposes, and an attempt to bring home my point, that something else is afoot here other than a lack of qualifications.

Communications and Cultural Competency Consultant

Current president United Nations Association-USA, Dane County

Host of "Forward Forum" public affairs radio show

Recent past member of the Northside Planning Council

Coordinating Committee Member, Midwest Social Forum

Member, Downtown Madison Rotary

Executive Committee Member, past Vice Chair, of Communities United

Past Co-Chair, Madison Study Circles on Race (mayoral appointment)

Past President, Wisconsin Community Fund

Past Director, of OutReach (Madison's LGBT Community Center)

Past Co-Chair, Coalition for a United Dane County

Past Co-Chair, Gay and Lesbian Visibility Alliance

Past Trustee, ACLU of Wisconsin

Past President, Fair Housing Council of Dane County

Past Chair, Madison Equal Opportunities Commission Housing Committee

Past Membership Chair, 2nd CD Rainbow Coalition

Recipient of HUD/ERD WI Fair Housing Advocate of the Year (1987)

Man of the Year, from OutReach (1993)

Community Shares of WI Sally Sunde Social Justice Award (2002)

City of Madison ML King, Jr. Humanitarian Award (2008)

Pictured below: Mayoral Aide Ray Harmon presents the author with the City of Madison's 2008 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award


  1. What a fantastic post on an issue of real importance. Great job Jon, and thanks for leading on this!

    I was particularly struck by this passage:

    "Mayor Dave has a great deal going for him, and I don't mean to diminish the breadth of his accomplishments on matters of substance. Maybe it's because he is genuinely such a nice guy, that he feels he needs to prove he's a force to be reckoned with in order to do his job properly. But political style is equally important in the context of leadership, and using the appointment process to discourage dissent is simply inherently undemocratic, and all too reminiscent of recent discredited practices at the State Capitol".

    Politicians fearing being "nice guys" has led to JFK signing on to the Bay of Pigs and Bill Clinton breaking his campaign promise on NAFTA. To an extent is has already led to Obama's capitulation on FISA as well.

    National and local politics are, of course, quite different, but I think politicians across the board share many characteristics (some of which just happen to correspond with sociopaths...) "Nice guy" politicians may enact "Nixonian" strategies as they--like sociopaths by definition--often believe that nice guys finish last.

    Even if Mayor Dave is doing this with the most honorable longterm intentions, it is our job to prevent him from accomplishing it. It is the people's job to push back on our politicians when they do not represent the peoples' needs (even if they have done so in the past or continue to do soon other issues). In fact, long term, this would help Mayor Dave as it will ensure that he becomes not only a better mayor, but a better politician and a better man in general.

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