Civic Engagement 101: Learn How to Use Legistar

by Safety Connection

If you’ve ever wondered how City of Madison government works, here it is in a nutshell!

There are two basic types of legislation the Common Council concerns itself with: Resolutions and Ordinances.


Resolutions generally deal with an individual matter, like setting internal city policy, honoring city employees, or approving an expenditure. Any person may draft a Resolution. They are only reviewed by a city attorney upon request.


Ordinances generally deal with rules that affect the general public. Some examples are zoning and building codes, permits, traffic and other offenses, and the Ordinance banning facial recognition technology that recently passed. Only the city attorney may draft an Ordinance. All Ordinances are codified in the Madison General Ordinances (MGO).

All Resolutions and Ordinances must have a sponsor, generally the Mayor or an Alder. After drafting, each Resolution or Ordinance must go to the Finance Department for a Fiscal Note, even if there will not be a financial cost.

Each Resolution or Ordinance must be introduced at one Council meeting and then considered at a later meeting, although Council may suspend this rule by a two-thirds vote and act at the same meeting it was introduced.

Nearly all items are referred to at least one Board, Commission, or Committee of the city. If there are multiple referrals, the first committee listed is the “lead referral,” others are “secondary referrals.” The process works best if secondary referrals act before the lead referral, as they may make suggested changes in the proposal. The Council may act without referral, and with few exceptions (Plan Commission, for example), does not need to wait for a committee to act. Committees must act within 45 days of referral (Sec. 2.05(1)(a). The action of the lead referral is normally the proposed action on the Council floor. The lead referral should examine other suggestions before making a decision.

Substitutes, Alternates and Amendments

The basic rule is that any change in the legislative proposal after introduction must be made by a person with authority to sponsor legislation. It will be given a different name depending on who sponsors the change and when it occurs. If the lead sponsor desires changes in the Resolution or Ordinance prior to the time it reaches the Council floor, a Substitute is created. Multiple substitutes create numbered substitutes (i.e., Second Substitute Resolution).

If the Mayor or an Alder wants changes prior to the time the proposal reaches the Council floor, and the lead sponsor does not support those changes, then an Alternate is created. Multiple Alternates will also be numbered. Committee staff should check with the lead sponsor (and any other sponsors, as a courtesy) to see if they support the suggested changes.

Substitute or Alternate Ordinance proposals must be drafted by a City Attorney. Committees may also make recommendations that show up in the legislative history, and even without a Substitute or Alternate, these may be considered from the Council floor. Any change to a proposal made on the Council floor results in an Amendment to the proposal. Prior versions of the proposal should be kept in Legistar (the legislative record) as an attachment to maintain its history. Each Substitute and Alternate must have a Fiscal Note. Take care not to confuse the use of the word “Substitute” in the Legislative Process with a special type of amendment which may be offered on the Council floor under Robert’s Rules and called a substitute amendment.

Boards, Commissions and Committees

Boards, Commissions, and Committees are made up of Alders, residents and City Attorneys. Boards and Commissions have some power to act without further approval from the Council. Committees are advisory only and can only make recommendations to the Council. Any of these bodies can create sub-committees made up of members of the Committee. If a subcommittee wants members from outside of the Committee, they must be appointed by the Mayor. Normal terms are 3 years, although for Alders it is 2 years, corresponding with their terms.

Everything to do with the city’s Legislative Process can be found online at the Legislation Information Center, from the legislative calendar, to agendas and minutes of the various meetings, information regarding City Council members, and other citizen boards, committees, agencies, and commissions. There you can also find the current Council Agenda Packet and a Government Resource Guide. Each piece of legislation has a Legistar number, where you can see the history and status of each Resolution or Ordinance. The Common Council meeting agenda contains the ascending agenda item numbers as well as the corresponding Legistar number.

Take some time to familiarize yourself with Legistar at The Legislation Information Center here, and get ready to engage as an informed and aware resident of Madison!

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