In a whirlwind first four months in office, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway has seemed to be everywhere at once, chasing between coffees, official events and community gatherings at a pace she concedes is unsustainable.
On her first full day in office, she broke a logjam with Dane County over the estimated $6.2 million reconstruction of Buckeye Road on the East Side. Since then, she’s created a task force on the future of the city’s financially strapped golf courses, stopped vetoing liquor licenses Downtown and taken initial steps to address negative and criminal behavior at the top of State Street.
Her most charged moments before the City Council, both wins on the same night, came with the approval of a contract to keep police officers in the city’s four main high schools next year, and a renewal of a five-year contract for city attorney Michael May.
Yet, as she promised after the April 2 election, Rhodes-Conway hasn’t rushed to push through any sweeping initiatives or major policy reversals.
Instead, the new mayor has worked on building relationships while steadily pushing priorities like more low-cost housing, better access to public transportation and adopting a budget that advances racial equality and reduces the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Since taking office April 16, the mayor has been tested, first by a shooting with one injured at the Shake the Lake celebration along Lake Monona on June 29 and then a massive explosion and fire at a power company substation on the city’s Near East Side and another fire at a substation near UW-Madison’s campus on July 19 that knocked out power to thousands of residents on the hottest day of the year.
“It’s a great job,” she said. “I expected it to be hard. I didn’t expect to be in demand as much as I am. The pace is something.”
Rhodes-Conway’s start contrasts sharply with former Mayor Paul Soglin’s return to office in 2011, when Soglin bashed the achievements of his predecessor, Dave Cieslewicz, created tension with council members, predicted the Overture Center’s new governance structure would “crash and burn” and reopened issues thought settled.
“Paul was more of a bull in a china shop,” said Downtown Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, the council’s longest-serving member elected in 1995, who made no endorsement in the last election. “Satya is being calm and methodical and studied, which I think is a good thing. She has wisely spent the bulk of her time listening and bringing herself up to speed on issues of the day at City Hall.”
But veteran Ald. Paul Skidmore, 9th District — a Soglin supporter whose private security firm has contracts with many business and property owners in the State Street area, called the mayor’s response to problems at the top of State Street inadequate.
“She smiles a lot more. She has a different personality,” Skidmore said. “I’m not seeing much support for public safety.”
As early achievements, Rhodes-Conway points to two things: building relationships and assembling a strong staff.
The mayor said she’s met with every council member and top city manager, more than 60 community leaders and groups, business leaders, seven local mayors, the Madison School Board and UW-Madison officials, and traveled for meetings to Washington, D.C. She meets regularly with County Executive Joe Parisi and has a fixed spot on the City Council Executive Committee’s agenda.
“It’s all about allowing people to get to know me and my style and me getting to know them and their styles,” she said, adding that relationships help in times of crisis or when tough decisions must be made.
“She has really been open to conversations with everybody,” said council President Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, who endorsed Rhodes-Conway. “She has a very different style of transparency and openness and engaging new ideas and new ways of doing things.”
Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon, whose organization endorsed Soglin, likes the outreach. “She’s laying the foundation for getting things done,” he said. “This will bode well for her in the future.”
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Some say Rhodes-Conway has been slow to name top aides, and she still has a deputy mayor spot to fill. But there’s a reason for that, the mayor said.
After her election, Rhodes-Conway was accepted to the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which trains mayors and their senior staff in leadership and management. She said she was struck by something former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: that the most important thing he did in his 12-year tenure was assemble a strong staff.
Choices are critical because the chief of staff and four deputy mayors “set a tone,” Rhodes-Conway said.
“I have watched the mayor hire highly skilled and talented people that represent different races and cultures that is reflective of our community and I applaud her for that,” said Michael Johnson, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, who made no endorsement in the mayoral race.
Rhodes-Conway said she’s also moving on her priorities.
The mayor instructed staff to consider if budget requests mitigate or help adapt to climate change and address racial disparities in the community. She meets regularly with Parisi on climate change issues and joint initiatives and is working with the university on how the city can adapt to climate change.
She said she secured support from Parisi, local mayors, private employers and the state’s congressional delegation on an application for a $7 million federal grant for a satellite bus barn, a critical step in delivering Bus Rapid Transit. “We are being real aggressive with BRT,” she said.
She has asked staff for ideas to increase low-cost housing and issued a request for proposals for using the city’s Affordable Housing Fund, and has made more than 175 citizen and council appointments to boards, committees and commissions.
In response to the shooting at Shake the Lake, Rhodes-Conway vowed to make such events safer, but came under criticism by some for blaming the Republican-controlled Legislature for failing to pass tougher gun laws. But she won broad praise for her measured handling of the explosions and power outage.
The events were different, the former involving deep-rooted challenges of gun violence that call for short- and long-term strategies, while the latter was an infrastructure breakdown that required clear, real-time communication to the public.
“Every time something like this happens, you learn from it,” she said.
The mayor’s biggest act will be the 2020 budget. She’s instructed staff to show how funding requests reflect her priorities and align with the city’s comprehensive plan. She’ll offer a capital budget Sept. 3 and an operating budget Oct. 1.
Rhodes-Conway declined to share details, but said changes are coming from the current, nonbinding, five-year Capital Improvement Plan, which guides the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars. “We are moving things around, yes,” she said.
She’s also reviewing operating budget requests, including one from Police Chief Mike Koval, who has complained inadequate staffing is forcing him to shift 12 officers from proactive, community engagement work to traditional patrol next year. The 599-position department is short 31 patrol officers, he said.
Skidmore, the council’s leading advocate for the police department, said the mayor must fully fund replacement of all resigning or retiring officers and boost staffing.
Rhodes-Conway wouldn’t comment on the operating budget, but said decisions on public safety will be influenced by an independent study of the Police Department and a special city committee making its way through each of the consultant’s 146 recommendations.
“The budget is going to be challenging,” Bidar-Sielaff said. “She’s going to have to make difficult choices. We’re going to have to make difficult choices.”