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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Madison Electric Step-Up Keeps Opt-In Status

Looks like the Madison Central School Educational Foundation will need to do a little more door-to-door: the Madison City Commission last night failed to pass Resolution 2693, which would have instantly increased participation in the city's electric "Step-Up" program from 15% to 100% by changing the program from opt-in to opt-out.

To review: right now, if you buy electricity from the City of Madison, you can call City Hall (256-7504) and say, "Charge me more for my juice!" They'll happily round your bill up to the nearest dollar and give the extra pennies to the MCSEF, which will use the money to provide scholarships to Madison students who go to DSU.

Supporters of the program wanted to change the program so that the city would automatically round up everyone's electric bill, and you would have to call the city to opt out. Changing the default setting from no to yes could likely result in long-term participation of over 50%; a similar program by Sioux Valley Electric has 70% participation.

However, as some of my commenters and I pointed out, that increase would come by taking advantage of inattention and guilt, not the best bases for a nice community development effort. The commission waited a week to gauge public sentiment and their own moral sense, and last night they decided the cons outweighed the pros and left the program on opt-in status.

About that public sentiment: when the city closed its online poll yesterday before the commission meeting, 986 votes had been cast: 56% in favor of the change, 44% against (as quickly and accurately reported by a faithful correspondent; good work, Anon!). That's pretty good participation for a local online poll. But on this round-up vote, the city apparently chose to round up the No votes.

I'm not ready to howl about disenfranchisement of the majority here: we all know that an online poll is far from a scientific sample of the popular will. (Then again, how scientific are our official elections?) Some folks have much easier access to the Internet than others. Some folks also have the advantage of working in places where a few of their friends are also clustered around computers and can be encouraged in a moment to cast their votes, too. The city made no promise that the poll would in any way bind its decision, so the commission was within its rights to view the online poll as just one of several instruments by which to measure public sentiment.

Still, the online poll was a bang-up idea. I imagine it got a number of citizens to visit the city website for the first time, and now that many more folks know where to find city info. Plus the city gave good follow up. Instead of letting the final results disappear into the memory hole (the way KJAM does—fix that, fellas!), the city posted the final results on the main page. The city also posted the results of the vote at the commission meeting, something we can usually find out right the next morning from the media but which the city itself doesn't officially post until it posts the minutes in next week's agenda packet.

The city should do more of this: run more polls, and include comments, so we can read not only how people are voting but why. Put up the unapproved meeting minutes right away, so we can see how every measure on the agenda fared and how the commissioners voted. Heck, maybe even get the commissioners to blog so we can hear straight from them why they make the decisions they make. Now that would be enlightening!


  1. Tsk, tsk -- the City does NOT "charge more for juice" for those persons who participate in the program. What happened to attention to detail????? ;-)

  2. Maybe if the money would go to scholarships to any state school instead of just DSU that would make a difference in people's attitudes? It would still benefit only Madison students/residents but not necessarily DSU. I know if I lived in town, I would prefer it that way because there are many fields for which DSU is not the best school to attend, but that doesn't diminish the Madison student's need or ambition.

  3. Have reluctance on polls as previously mentioned but comments would be very meaningful, as they are here. Could the city require the number from a utility bill be entered so no one from Lake Herman (and their cousins from California) skew the poll? jh

  4. Anon 4:59, that's the only way I would want to give any substantial amount, especially since the college received a huge donation from the Krueger estate and is starting their capital campaign. Some kids want to be electricians or whatever, and that's just as important. We need more plumbers!

  5. Ok, I know this struck a nerve, but here's why: Dan Bohl reported 33 comments in support and 26 against and "said he supported the automatic participation proposal from the comments he had received." What did he mean? We vote for decision makers. If they learn something from comments that make them think differently great, but if they just weigh public opinion and take the safe route, especially by a poll or tally of comments, that's not leadership. jh

  6. Hang on, JH: I just glanced at tonight's paper, so maybe I'm getting the numbers flipped, but didn't Commissioners Ericsson and Delzer say the same thing, justifying their votes by saying the majority of folks they each heard from opposed the measure?

    I'm not headhunting here -- I think there's a strong and interesting debate to be had over when and whether an elected official ought to follow the will of the majority rather than his or her own conscience. Should a commissioner (senator, President, etc.) always do what the majority appears to want? Or should an elected official act completely independently of public opinion? Your thoughts?

  7. The group mentioned that they currently only give scholarships to MHS grads attending DSU strictly because they only receive about $2500 a year from the City at the current 15% participation rate, which gives 8-10 graduates $250 one-time money. The enhanced proposal would have opened it up to more students and included all state universities and probably tech schools, which was the original goal of Step Up in Madison.

    It was nice to see almost 1/3rd of all Madison utility holders vote. Most surveys are considered somewhat accurate with only 5% participation. This survey hit almost 33% and was very positive for Step Up. Negative people always spout their opinion, while supporters tend to hold their tongue. Too bad our Commissioners heard from so many naysayers.

  8. Actually, it might be more appropriate to say it's too bad our Commissioners didn't hear from more ayesayers. If you want something, you gotta speak up!

  9. Clearly this didn't feel "right" to the commissioners. McCain said he makes decisions based only on public interest, the reason we liked the guy, till Palin anyway. It's most unfortunate when people disregard fairness, either in business or civic projects (kids are watching and learning). MDL failed to ask the reasoning behind the votes, so it's unsettling reporting was all about the numbers. jh


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