Madison Needs To Adhere To Federal Relief Guidelines

Once again, when there is a large pot of money to be used, creative ways will be found to tap it. That is happening in Madison and one avenue for such spending needs to be nipped in the bud.

At issue is how to raise the pay for the city’s non-union employees. Yes, they are worthy of an increase. They, too, have felt the sting of the pandemic. But at the same time, everyone involved should be mindful of the process for the use of the said funds.

Seven council members have introduced a resolution to use $4.5 million of the city’s $47 million in federal emergency stimulus funding for a one-time, $2,661 payment to all general municipal employees for 2021. While one can argue that the overall goal is laudable, there is no way to sidestep the obstacle standing in the way of it happening.

Simply put, the plan by these alders runs counter to the U.S. Department of Treasury rules on the use of American Rescue Plan funds. That is according to city finance director David Schmiedicke. The groundwork is not a suggestion by the federal government, or meant to allow for a wink-and-nod as locals use the funds in whatever fashion they deem best.

While it is the habit of local governments to try and maneuver around rules, especially when bottom lines are strained, as they are now due to the pandemic, it is essential that they be followed. Citizens often wonder if large bills, such as the relief measures passed by Congress, are spent wisely or used as nothing more than pots of cash for local whims. To ensure the faith of the citizenry, therefore, requires local government to follow, in this case, the federal rules.

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, when constraints on the use of funds have irked local leaders.

Former Mayor Soglin chafed in 2016 at the state mandate which requires 70% of room tax revenues to be dedicated to tourism development, promotion, and marketing efforts.   In other words, those monies can not be used for any wish list that may come to mind from the ones elected in the city.

The lodging industry agreed in 1967 to accept a tax on their guests to generate local funding to promote and grow local tourism.  What Soglin had difficulty accepting was the tax should never be treated like a property tax that funds general municipal services. 

Soglin thought Madison’s room tax, which was adopted by a local referendum to help fund Monona Terrace, should have been grandfathered out of the 70% mandate.  The GOP differed at the statehouse and eliminated Madison’s exemption and placed 70% of room taxes under the control of a local board made up of representatives from the tourism industry.

Now, one can agree or not with the current alders and the former mayor. But what must not be done is disregard the rules and regulations that come with funds. When that is done it shows a lack of regard and respect for a process of governing at the level from which the monies originated.

If local units of government do not show respect to the state or federal government, how then should the rank-and-file citizen regard such higher levels of governance?

And so it goes.

Madison Has Reasons To Feel Good About Future

I admit to not always feeling good about how the world looks after reading the newspapers.  There are plenty of reasons to feel glum, from Sudan with the shootings this week, to the lack of proper road funding in our state.  So when positive news is reported there is a need, I sincerely believe, to call it out.

And even better to do so when there is not one, but two positive stories coming from the city where I live.

In the April election for mayor I cast my vote for Paul Soglin.  One of the reasons I felt the need to do so was based on his ability to govern with fiscal dexterity.  He knew the needs of the city, but also understood why fiscal restraint is a wise lever to use.

While I admire Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway for her political moves I also am watching her actions on budget matters and city finances.  So when I read the following in the paper today I smiled in agreement.

Rhodes-Conway, however, also strongly echoed former Mayor Paul Soglin’s long-running concern over increased borrowing and rising debt payments, which account for 17.5% of the city’s operating budget for 2019, far above the unofficial target of 12.5% of spending.

If that foundation of understanding can be held to firmly, and not allowed to be altered by, at times a wayward city council, then Madison has reason to be assured of a more solid footing in the years ahead.  I hope our new mayor is most determined to stand by her statement.

The second story that makes me feel very pleased, after years of teases and missteps, is the powerhouse of an idea for the inner part of Madison. 

After decades of dreams and recent design concepts, Madison is poised to spend serious money to explore how to better connect Downtown with Law Park and Lake Monona. 

The city is now finalizing a $190,000 contract with the national architectural, engineering and planning firm SmithGroup, which has an office in Madison, to create a brand for the initiative, engage the community, and do preliminary technical work on the site’s history, relevant city plans, existing conditions, future road and shoreline improvements and more. The effort would run through the end of the year.

Dynamic and robust energy in the heart of any city is what draws tourists and dollars.  The spectacular nature of the isthmus and its potential for expansion of a park and other associated projects is an idea that is long over-due.

Madison is a place we all can be most proud to call home.  We can keep it that way by just making sound decisions.

Paul Soglin Plays Role Of John Adams In Madison

I was truly sad to read news this morning concerning outgoing Mayor Paul Soglin.

In what can only be termed the snarkiest move yet played by Soglin, there is evidence to suggest he has no intention of attending Tuesday’s swearing-in of his successor, Satya Rhodes-Conway, along with the new city council.  One need not agree with how campaigns are conducted, policy proposals placed before voters, or political tactics taken leading up to an election, but once the voters have made their choice it is incumbent for the whole of the governing establishment to gather to inaugurate new leaders.

What Soglin has planned is just not the way mature people conduct themselves when they accept the responsibility which comes when seeking the will of the people at the ballot box.   While this city has often witnessed the petulant side of Soglin this is perhaps his most embarrassing display.

Upon reading the article my mind went back to the pages of history I love so much.  My backward trek stopped in 1801 as Thomas Jefferson was to be sworn in as our nation’s third president.  His predecessor, President John Adams, had scattered from the new capital city hours before the inauguration.  It remains one of the most difficult to understand self-created smudges on his national story.

In much the same way Soglin creates an imagine of someone who has not taken his loss with dignity.  There is no honor lost in entering the political arena and not winning.  There is much more to glean from the manner in which a person stands when coming short of a goal, than how the same person responds with a victory.  That instruction from youth is one that should never lose its place in the course of life.

When that lesson is lost it makes for a most unbecoming part of the memories of otherwise colorful and credible personalities.  I trust that someone close to Paul Soglin will encourage a change of his thinking come Tuesday.

After all Soglin should know he is playing to the history books.

Madison and Chicago Mayoral Elections Good News For Gay Youth

Something very positive happened Tuesday following the spring elections.  In both Madison and Chicago gay candidates for mayor won office.  That may not seem like huge news to some, but in fact it is very impressive, not only for the cities impacted, but perhaps even more importantly for all the unseen young gay people who will read and hear the news.

Satya Rhodes-Conway scored a major victory over incumbent Paul Soglin in Madison.  In doing so she becomes the first gay mayor of the capitol city.  Over the state border, in the Windy City, a massive win by Lori Lightfoot makes her not only the first black woman to be Chicago mayor, but also the first openly gay person to serve in that capacity.

The message that these women are making is far broader than just about priorities for budgets, or better transportation systems, or more affordable housing.  Teenagers in rural places far from the urban centers where the mayors work will see that living authentically is just about the best thing one can do.   They will further understand being gay is not some burden to carry around, or something that needs to be buried away.

What Conway and Lightfoot have demonstrated is they are just like every other person.  They have skills and dreams and when employed have the exact same change of success as any other person.  Being gay does not limit the possibilities concerning what one can desire, or reduce the chances of winning.

Those rather simple precepts might seem trite to those raised in a city.  But coming from a rural conservative community I can attest to the need for powerful role models.  The victories that came from the ballot box Tuesday were not the kind I was able to read about as a young gay teenager.  But I can assure my readers that it would have had a powerful effect on me in Hancock, Wisconsin.

I recall that in 1980–the year I graduated from high school–Lucille Ball gave an interview which made for some headlines at the time due to her support for gay rights.

How do you feel about gay rights?

It’s perfectly all right with me. Some of the most gifted people I’ve ever met or read about are homosexual. How can you knock it?

That was uplifting at the time to read and hear about, but Hollywood was far away.  The impact of her message was a fleeting thing.   Had there been a gay mayor in Wisconsin, or a major city near-by, with a powerful voice and firm advocacy for equality and civil rights one can only imagine how it would have positively influenced young gay people.

Today we take much for granted with the legal progress regarding gay marriage and anti-discrimination issues.  But travel a few country roads in the far reaches of Wisconsin and there is still a fair amount of anti-gay rhetoric.  There is still a long way to go before many kids who are gay can just ask out who they wish for a school dance or a weekend date.  There is plenty of frustration, stress, and in some cases even legitimate fear of violence for wishing to live as openly as every other person their age in the community.

Which is why the wins of Conway and Lightfoot matter so much to those young people who might live many miles away and perhaps years from being able to vote.  Young people absorb more information and are more in-touch about issues than we are often aware of.  They may not talk about it at the dinner table or comment about it with friends.  But in their private thoughts as they walk near a creek in Northern Wisconsin, or drive a tractor in Southern Illinois they now will have more proof they are not alone, or different, or without hope to dream big.  And perhaps best of all they can be just a little bit more able to live authentically.

That would be the best outcome from the elections on Tuesday.

Racism And Spring Elections In Madison

When it comes to fiscal stewardship and governing prowess Mayor Paul Soglin deserves to be elected again to the job as Madison’s mayor.  It is a job he has mastered, with the results for the city and taxpayers being the proof.  But elections are not always fair, especially when an electorate has been spun to think the place they love and call home is rife with racism and lacking in progressive ideals.  After having watched how the voters of this city are willing to be played by the most base of political motives it is a wonder more are not sending money to some huckster overseas via email.

It makes me aware how correct Winston Churchill was when stating, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The fact is do we need more local businesses owned and operated by African-Americans.  We need a higher percentage of high school graduates with learning skills from the black community.  We need to better place these young minds into higher learning in colleges and tech schools.  We need more mentoring and supervision from these graduates for the younger kids in the community so to steer them towards education and jobs, and away from drugs and gangs.

But I contend we are also doing something right in this city.  And why too few candidates wish to state that also says something….about them.

Something struck me over the months as the spring elections gained steam in Madison.  I love to read news stories about how some local student stands before a crowd and spells the most perfect words that might be used in a Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.  The story gets coverage deep in the paper and yet I truly thrill for these kids.  In part, because they are more able to think their way to a correct response than I could.

But there is more than their spelling ability which intrigues me.  The backgrounds of the 47 top spellers from 2018 show young minds of both sexes, and various races excelling in ways that make us all proud.  But what makes them such standouts and what can we learn from them and their families?

That is the type of elevated discussion I had hoped we might have engaged in during this time when racial issues are used by candidates for office.  But we never got to that level of dialogue in the elections.  Instead voters were told how wrong things were and how some window dressing, like adding more black officeholders to the school board, will make all the difference.

I suggest we add any two of the spellers to the board and let them guide the adults as to what matters when becoming a successful student.  All of a sudden race will take a second seat to common sense.

And at that point they probably would be shouted down by the loud angry voices in the audience.

And so it goes.

Sunny Disposition May Be Key To Madison Mayoral Spring Election (Bad News For Paul Soglin)

I have been thinking today about President Jimmy Carter.  It was reported that on March 22nd Carter will be the oldest living ex-president at 94 years, 172 days.  That record will surpass the one held by President George H.W. Bush.

The election of 1980 was a contrast visually between the pragmatic, and at times too solemn looking Carter, while his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, portrayed sunny optimism with a winning smile and nod of the head.  Carter, of course, had the weight of the Oval Office on his shoulders which included the Iran hostages along with an economy that was simply dreadful.

Over the weeks, while reading and listening to the Madison mayoral election, it has become clear one of the main differences between incumbent Paul Soglin and challenger Satya Rhodes-Conway has nothing to do with an actual issue.  The difference is not about racial disparity or flooding concerns.  What shows so clearly, even from the printed pages of the Wisconsin State Journal, is the lack of warmth and cheer from a mayor who has in this election an opponent with a smile and a convincing way of greeting voters.

This blog has had a series of views about Soglin which ranges from warmth to icy cold.  On issues about downtown drinking, as an example, I have been in his corner.  When it came to his attempts to undermine Overture we disagreed.  As we did on the issue of the room tax.  I even challenged Soglin’s thinking about the reason for the resignation of Richard Nixon. 

It should be noted I supported Soglin’s bid for reelection four years ago.

But it is the gloomy and cranky side of Soglin this spring which seems to be so pronounced that it deserves more attention. The reason being Conway is a far more polished and personable candidate than Scott Resnick was four years ago.  This spring Soglin reminds me of the man I wrote about in 2011, a few months after he became mayor (again).

We were used to Dave Cieslewicz and his youthful demeanor, his wit, his smile.  “Mayor Dave” exemplified an energy about government service along with an optomisitc view about who we are as Madisonians.  That appealed to me.  

Meanwhile Paul Soglin comes across as cranky and pissed off.  There seems to me a deep negative reaction within Soglin for anything that Cieslewicz  succeeded at doing in the last eight years.  As a citizen of Madison I hope that is not the tone we have to look forward to whenever Soglin speaks.

With that in mind…

Isthmus’ Bill Lueders has the must read article from Madison’s weekly.

Ah, Mayor for Life Soglin, Madison’s sourpuss-in-chief. Here’s a guy who seemingly shifts between two phases of existence: being unhappy about not being mayor, and being unhappy about being mayor. See if you can spot the common theme.

This week there was a new article in the WSJ which places Soglin’s working style alongside that of the alternative on the spring ballot.

Soglin answered a question about his perceived acerbic communication style by saying he made a choice early in his career to be forthright and act on behalf of his constituents, even if that meant not appealing to everybody.

Rhodes-Conway said she’d do a better job of appealing to a broad group and would make an effort to be collaborative.

“I see everyone as a potential ally,” she said. “We don’t have to like people to work with them.”

Honey and vinegar come to mind.

Last year I watched Soglin walk down a street during a festival on the East Side.  His wife was with him, and while it was all laughs and smiles from the crowd, he walked looking like it was another required duty as he nodded to those he knew while seeming not to care it was a sunny day.  He looked gruff.

There is no doubt the mood of the city has turned against Soglin this election cycle.  There are, of course, policy reasons for much of the angst, but it also needs noting voters want to have an uplifting attitude and sunny disposition from their leaders.  One can only take so much of Soglin’s dourness.

Conway will win the April election, and by a kind margin.   And one thing we all can be assured of, even when the snow falls and winds are bitter next January as a city council meeting convenes, is a smile will cross the face of our mayor.  We have not seen a light mood on a Madison mayor’s face for a long time.

I strongly feel voters want at least that much from city hall!

Madison’s ‘Cabrini–Green’ Costs Rise At Tree Lane, Neighbor’s Home Values In Question

Once again Madison is trying too hard to place a square peg into a round hole.  Not only will the fit never be found in this particular case, but the effort and expense in trying makes for frustrations at all levels.

The headlines have been constant concerning the 45-unit, $11.7 million apartment building at 7933 Tree Lane where Madison’s most challenging cases of homeless families have been placed into a large building.  How this idea, at the outset, did not alert city official to the problems that now exist is hard to understand.  What possibly could go wrong with poverty, mental health issues, drugs, and a bevy of other social issues all placed together and left to simmer?  Could there have been any other examples that might have been considered prior to our elected officials casting a vote?

Instead of making for a better situation for the homeless the city instead has created our version of Chicago’s Cabrini–Green Homes.   Now when it comes to placing some needed security fixes to the mess the city council blinks and increases their naval gazing.

This week the council totally sidestepped around the issue of extra security—the very first and most obvious need that exists at this site.  The council was all giddy to provide more social services for the complex but then voted 12 to 7 against spending $165,000 to make sure safety was dealt with in a manner which the situation requires.  It would have taken 15 votes to amend the budget.

It was astounding to read in the newspaper that no discussion was held on either vote.  I have watched the council over the years on city cable.  Lack of talking is not an issue.  As an example, Alderman Larry Palm even when suffering from a head cold, found time to talk and ramble about.  Never microphone shy Alderman Mo Cheeks would talk late into the night when most other alders just wanted a motion to cast their vote.  But when it came time this week to make sure there were more funds for the security of the building, and hence the surrounding area, one heard only crickets.  Yes, your city council at work! 

While Mayor Soglin wishes for a re-vote on the security funds that may prove difficult.  Soglin is not held in high regard by many on the council.  He also has to share the burden of not doing more to fashion something other than our local version of ‘Cabrini–Green’.  Finally, from those casting a no vote it may be hard to reason with them about a re-vote, given their politics.

Voting for the $165,000: Alds. Ledell Zellers, Mike Verveer, Marsha Rummel, Steve King, Zach Wood, Paul Skidmore, Allen Arntsen, David Ahrens, Michael Tierney, Samba Baldeh, Keith Furman and Matt Phair

Voting against: Alds. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, Maurice Cheeks, Arvina Martin, Larry Palm, Sheri Carter and Rebecca Kemble

At the outset, some who lived in the area expressed themselves as being very wary of this development.  At meetings held prior to city approval homeowners questioned what type of issues might arise with so many homeless people gathered in the units.  Due to news stories during 2018 we now know the answer.  Gunfire, fights, and other dangerous situations are not uncommon.  What these taxpayers who live in the area have every rightful reason to ask is what their home values will look like due to the wrong-headed move by the city to build this 45-unit problem.  (As a side note James and I were seriously looking about a decade ago to buying a condo near to this controversial development. We instead moved to the isthmus which we love. But I lived in that neighborhood for five years, know many residents, and can find within myself the anguish they must feel.  As a walker there for years I can also relate to the security concerns.)

If it were just for the crime and social service needs this story would be bad enough.  But the social service provider is leaving in mid-March, and tax-payers are picking up the tab.  The city had to ante up $275,250 for support programming while it seeks proposals from organizations to provide services beyond 2019.

Homelessness is a real problem in urban environments.  No is seeking to throw them under the bus.  There must be programs and plans to deal with the problem.  But moving forward with smart and well-thought out plans is the only way they will benefit.   Instead, what now exists at Tree Lane is proving to be what so many predicted.

One might hope that some lessons will be learned from the current mess.   However, do not be too ready to think that will be the case.  The Tree Lane apartment’s owner and manager is Chicago-based Heartland Housing.  The city is taking legal action to address behavior and crime concerns associated with the property.  That is a positive move.   But that same company is seeking to have another complex approved for Park Street.  No one should be willing to think there will not be some in the city who enjoy being burned twice. Or burning more tax payer’s money.

Brenda Konkel, a Madison homeless advocate, who relishes in disruption–she reminds me of Chairman Mao who always thought constant revolution was the way to secure power–can not abide the “nuisance action”  which the city is pursuing in the courts.  I suspect she will be first in line to strongly endorse any Heartland Park Street project.   At the end of the day, however, what she and so many like her can not grasp is that Housing First, while being a very moral and humane idea, can not function without homeless people willing to fully engage in the process.  Just putting someone out of the elements does make for success.  There needs to be a full commitment from the homeless to receive services and strive to overcome what placed them on the streets in the first place.  Taxpayers have done their part.  A development on Tree Lane was created (though a wrong policy move) and filled with homeless people.

Now more money is being voted for the project.  But not for the security that those in the area who pay the taxes would benefit from.  Because by making the building safer it makes the neighborhood safer, too.

And so it goes.

How Does Mayor Soglin Face The Dawning Of A New Day In Madison?

The headline above the fold in this morning’s Wisconsin State Journal read “Historic Choices In Primary”.  That message carries burdens for Mayor Paul Soglin as he places his long and storied career before the electorate in a primary race Tuesday.

Soglin comes equipped to this race with political skills that far exceeds his challengers.  Along with his record in electoral combat he also carries a mental storehouse stocked with reams of data  about city concerns that just waits for someone to pose a question.  So there would seemingly be no concern for this candidate given that he has what many a city would desire for their leader.  Soglin comes loaded with institutional memory,  a commodity that many do not consider important until it does not exist–and then it becomes apparent why it matters.

But there is a sense from what one hears when talking about Madison’s favorite topic–politics–that the electorate is yearning to turn the page on Soglin.  Can restlessness be the ultimate winner come April at the ballot box?

Without doubt, if one were to look for the most prepared challenger to step into the mayor’s office it would be Satya Rhodes-Conway, the former City Council member, and clearly, the most cerebral of the lot.  She runs a national learning network for mayors and their staff focused on equity, sustainability, and democracy.  She would be the first openly gay mayor in city history.   Some describe her as bookish–but that resonates with those who like educated officeholders.

With lots of money and some very well-packaged television commercials Raj Shukla, Executive Director of River Alliance of Wisconsin, has made a name for himself.  But without even one stint as a city council member it is hard to imagine him taking the reins of the mayor’s office and wrestling with the myriad issues that confronts the office daily.  I believe Skukla to be bright and earnest.  He is strongly well-versed in his area of expertise.  But Skukla has not demonstrated the larger skill set that a mayor needs to have on Day One.

Alderman Mo Cheeks should have had a stronger hand to play in this election.  But he seems not to have been able to get as much air in his campaign sail.   I have heard on several occasions from diverse demographics that if not for Cheeks being African-American he would not have ever been considered mayoral material.  Some call him more able to promote himself than make differences when it comes to end results.  I call him a show horse.

Readers to this blog know I was critical of Cheeks for how he waged his 2017 election to the city council.  It was one of the most expensive races in city history, spending $18,000.  We all should have been troubled with that fact.

But when it came time to apply that reasoning to the Cheeks campaign there seems an easy off-ramp for too many liberals in this city.  All of a sudden striving for more issue-oriented campaigns with less money is no longer the focus.  It would seem Cheeks is being given a pass based on being black.

I would be interested to know–based on the amount of money spent–if Cheeks’ constituents are now brimming with facts and data and policy ideas that match the level of money that was spent.  After all, I have stated over and over, that one reason for waging a campaign is to start a dialogue on issues that matter.  So even if one loses the race the months of campaigning would be worth the time as something bigger was gained.

So might Alder Cheeks now state what his large campaign treasury imparted to his constituents which now makes them better able to be part of the political process.   Or was the stockpile of money, and the way it was used, just a sign that he really wants to be mayor?

We have our answer, ladies and gentlemen.

Tuesday night Soglin will be matched up with one of the three challengers for the spring election.  I think Shukla will be the second place winner following Soglin in the primary.  Then Soglin will need to respond in a more forceful way, than he has up to this time, about why he felt a need to leave city hall for a larger office in the statehouse.  His race for governor was one of the worst decisions ever made in his political career.

Yes, Soglin can now say with vigor that he can roll up his sleeves and work with Governor Evers.  A kindred relationship can aid the city.  But there will need to be some bold, gut-feeling rhetoric from Soglin that will allow voters to know he is not only data-driven but excited and fully invested for another four years as mayor.

I have deep concerns that many voters are no longer listening to Soglin and will vote for the challenger in April.  Which then makes the choice we carry on Primary Day all the more important.