At the beginning of June, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin traveled to New York to attend the Yale School of Management's Mayors College and CEO Summit.
Nine days later, he was across the country at the Governing for Racial Equity Network Conference in Seattle.
The following week, he flew to San Francisco for the U.S. Conference of Mayors Annual Meeting, drawing headlines for his staunch opposition to ride-sharing company Uber.
In all, Soglin took 23 trips out of the state in 2015, totaling 53 days, some falling on weekends. Host organizations covered the expenses for five of those conferences and the lodging for one of them. The total cost to the city equaled about $17,250.
Soglin’s busy travel schedule has come up repeatedly since his election in 2011, drawing critiques from some on the City Council and community members. Soglin has averaged about 21 trips per year over the past four years, compared to predecessor Dave Cieslewicz’s average of about five trips per year.
Soglin says these conferences are important for sharing ideas and working to address issues like racial disparities, economic development and food access. Some council members, however, say he travels too much, and they are unclear about the benefits. Some believe he could send staff in his place more frequently.
“It’s extraordinary, really, to be the leader of a city and to be away at different conferences with the regularity of his schedule,” said District 15 Ald. David Ahrens. “You have to be present, really, to help run things and being available by phone is not quite the same.”
Over the past year, Soglin has been out of the state about twice per month, usually for two to four days at a time. He has attended multiple U.S. Conference of Mayors meetings, various National League of Cities meetings, Kettering Foundation exchanges, a Kauffman Foundation conference, the New Partners for Smart Growth conference, the Broadband Choice Conference, the Boston University Conference on Fiscal Health of Cities, the Yale School of Management's Mayors College and CEO Summit, meetings with New York City officials and meetings with federal government officials.
Soglin, who has been mayor for eight terms throughout four decades, pointed to numerous ideas he has brought back to the city, including a focus on out of school time, expanded food offerings in the schools, reorienting the vision for the public market and addressing racial disparities in the judicial branch.
“It’s not just the conference, it’s a group of people continuing ongoing discussions, trying to figure out how to solve these problems,” Soglin said.
District 11 Ald. Chris Schmidt said he thinks travel is fine as long as the city sees the benefit of it.
“I think it’s fair to say that sometimes it has been clear and other times it hasn’t been clear what the city is getting out of certain trips he’s taken,” Schmidt said.
District 6 Ald. Marsha Rummel acknowledged Soglin is gathering information on these trips, but said he doesn’t do the best job passing it along when he returns.
“He’s the mayor of Madison in Madison, I’d like to have him around,” Rummel said. “But if he’s going to go to these events and conferences and meetings, I want to know what he’s bringing back.”
Soglin said he meets with staff following trips, which develops into direction to investigate or examine half a dozen things. Those directives or initiatives then show up down the road in budget recommendations or in city management, he said.
City Council President Denise DeMarb said Madison can definitely benefit by learning what’s happening in other places, but she would instead send experts in the field to the conferences to learn directly from the speakers and bring their knowledge back to the city.
“That’s actually what I did, before, in a past life,” DeMarb said. “You hire really great people and then you let them go about doing their work.
“This isn’t how he’s chosen to do it, and so, I guess we just trust that he’s able to get the information he needs and come back and disseminate it to his staff so they can then carry out a vision, or the bits and pieces you pick up at a seminar.”
In response to that suggestion, Soglin said some conferences, like Kettering and Kauffman foundations, only want the mayor to come. At others, he is invited to speak or share his experience and knowledge.
“There’s a general recognition that if you want to bring change in government, there has to be a commitment from the mayor,” Soglin said. “It makes a difference when you hear it first hand and it also shows commitment.”
Soglin’s travel schedule is a bigger issue within city hall — where people are aware of his weekly schedules — than elsewhere.
Schmidt said the amount of time the mayor spends traveling doesn’t seem to negatively affect the city. DeMarb said, because he’s only gone for a few days at a time, she doesn’t think most people notice. The absence is more of an issue with the power dynamic within the city and how the council president is supposed to take on role of mayor when Soglin is gone, Schmidt said.
“We’re designed to handle when the mayor’s not here, and it’s not like he’s gone for weeks at a time,” Schmidt said.
Ahrens said he doesn’t know if Soglin’s travel has caught people’s attention beyond city hall, but within city government “it’s a topic that is just sort of an eye-roll usually.”
“What becomes a discussion is, ‘he’s in town all week,’” Ahrens said.
Ahrens emphasized that being in the city is an important part of the job.
“If he’s here only three days every other week, then that’s an important detriment,” Ahrens said. “He’s not in touch with staff, with citizens, with the day-to-day problems and coming up with answers or solutions to those problems working with people here in the city.”
Soglin had a simple response that concern: “I’m here all the time.”