Reflecting on her first eight months in office, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway raised a number of issues she is excited to see progress on and noted upcoming challenges the city will likely face.
Rhodes-Conway, who won the mayor’s election in April with over 60% of the vote, brings a policy-focused mindset to the office. Her direct, carefully considered manner of communicating strikes a different tone than her predecessor, Paul Soglin.
The City Council approved the 2020 budget — headlined by $200,000 for an independent police auditor position and investments in youth services — and a controversial $40 vehicle registration fee earlier this fall.
“Certainly the budget process was not without controversy,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We’re definitely shifting direction a little bit in a number of ways.”
Rhodes-Conway's budget also included $1 million for land banking and increased the city’s affordable housing program from $4.5 million to $5 million annually.
She is settled into her City Hall office, which has been redecorated and painted blue. Interviews take place sitting in comfortable armchairs in the office rather than at the conference room table, which her predecessor preferred to use.
Her tenure so far has seen positive developments for Madison. For example, the city received a $7 million federal grant that will help secure property for a bus storage facility, moving a “stuck” project forward.
“To be able to move that forward and unlock the capacity to improve our transit system by literally having a place to put more vehicles is huge, and so I'm really excited about that,” Rhodes-Conway said.
Rhodes-Conway has also navigated abrupt changes in top city leadership, heated words with the police union over how Madison officers handled a mental health crisis, many new faces on the City Council and growing concern over a class of contaminants called PFAS in Madison’s water. Her mettle as a leader in crisis was tested when an American Transmission Co. transformer downtown failed, causing a major explosion and leaving thousands without power on one of the hottest days of the year.
“There's a couple things that came out of that experience for me, and one was really feeling my way into what is my role,” Rhodes-Conway said. “A lot of it is to communicate clearly and well with the public and help to support our staff team as needed.”
The incident also demonstrated to the mayor that continuity of operation plans need to be refreshed. She said that work is ongoing.
As a former alder, Rhodes-Conway said working with the City Council as an executive has been a learning experience. She said she was surprised by how little she sees alders one-on-one and is working toward regular individual communications.
“We're doing pretty well,” Rhodes-Conway said. “We've had some contentious moments, but I think we've navigated them quite well.”
Rhodes-Conway was referring to the entire budget process. The city faced an $11 million budget gap, which, in part, led to the vehicle registration fee. Tight finances will likely continue to be a top challenge for the mayor.
“We're going to see increasingly hard budgets, and I think that it will inevitably force conversations about levels of service,” Rhodes-Conway said.
In terms of city leadership, Madison has seen several changes in 2019. Former Police Chief Mike Koval abruptly retired at the end of September, Metro Transit general manager Chuck Kamp retired, and Rhodes-Conway recently appointed Matt Wachter as the head of Planning, Community and Economic Development. Monona Terrace executive director Gregg McManners plans to retire in January.
“This is just going to be the status quo is that we're always looking for somebody,” Rhodes-Conway said. “But I feel like the group that we've got is is strong enough that we can bring people in and integrate them relatively easily.”
Madison is a city rooted in political and civic involvement and that has been demonstrated by the community’s reaction to a proposal to host a squadron of F-35 fighter jets at Truax Field.
The City Council debated for hours a resolution that asks the Air Force to reconsider Madison as a preferred location until and unless the findings of an environmental report are shown to misrepresent the significant environmental effects.
Rhodes-Conway also asked the Pentagon to reconsider Madison and expressed worries about pollution, noise and the disproportionate effect on residents near Truax in a Nov. 1 letter. An environmental study from the Air Force and an analysis from city of Madison staff found that the increased noise from fighter jets would disproportionately affect poor and minority residents.
The Air Force is expected to announce a final decision in March, which will come 30 days after a final environmental impact study is released.
Rhodes-Conway said she grew up as an activist and appreciates how much Madison residents care about a variety of issues.
“I would so much rather be in an engaged community than to live in a place where folks just go home and shut their doors and watch TV and don't engage,” Rhodes-Conway said.
Rhodes-Conway said she wants the Madison community to be more tactical in its activism efforts. She views educating residents on how to effectively engage with local government as a responsibility of city leaders.
“I've always felt like it's really important to have folks who are pushing on the inside, but also who are pushing on the outside,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Sometimes I could wish that it was a little more focused on the things that that we can work on."
Correction: This story has been edited to attribute ownership of the downtown Madison transformer to American Transmission Co.