Madison’s City Council will undergo a major makeover after Tuesday’s election, with nine newcomers set to take their place on the 20-member body.
The new members come as the city ushers in a new mayor. On Tuesday, Satya Rhodes-Conway ousted longtime Mayor Paul Soglin in a landslide.
“It will take some time to catch up,” said council President Samba Baldeh. “Before we all come to settle down it will be a little rough, I’m thinking. But I’m hopeful that we will quickly come to terms that we are there to do the work of the people.”
It’s a much different post-election landscape than in 2017, when the council saw just one new member. This year’s turnover in council members is not unprecedented; the 2007 election saw nine new members as well, but the mayor, Dave Cieslewicz, was reelected. In 2013, eight new members joined the council, but it was in the middle of Soglin’s first term in his latest stint as mayor.
“This is the first time in recent memory we’ll have this much turnover in city hall,” said Ald. Mike Verveer, who has represented downtown Madison on the council for 24 years. “I think there will be a tremendous period of acclimation for all of us.”
He said he sees Rhodes-Conway as “the type of person that really wants to hit the ground running.”
On Wednesday, Rhodes-Conway already began making changes to the structure of the executive bureaucracy. She announced that she was appointing a chief of staff, a position Soglin eliminated, instead choosing to appoint deputy mayors.
And with the retirement of city planning director Natalie Erdman this month, Rhodes-Conway will have the opportunity to appoint a department head that’s key to issues central to her agenda like affordable housing, real estate development and economic development.
He said those top city officials, which include for instance the city attorney and the city engineer, are hired on five-year contracts.
“I think among those most apprehensive about the kind of upheaval and sea change that we experienced on Election Day are the department heads,” Verveer said. “Almost all of them were appointed originally by Mayor Soglin.”
In addition, Rhodes-Conway will have to appoint top aides in the mayor’s office, so department heads and their staff will have to get used to a new set of personalities.
But most alders are ready for a new administration, Verveer said, hoping relations under the new mayor will be smoother than they were with Soglin, whom some consider ham-handed.
“I think for some of us who have worked with Paul Soglin the longest, we feel badly for him,” Verveer said. “It’s unfortunate that this is the way he is going out after such an illustrious and legendary career. But yes, I would say that the majority of the City Council is looking forward to a change.”
He noted that Rhodes-Conway has six years of experience as an alder, ending in 2013.
“She has great respect, I believe, for the council as an institution, understands the distinct role the council plays in our municipal government,” Verveer said. “I think she’ll work overtime to try to have a good relationship with us as a whole and us as individuals.”
He said the level of excitement among new alders is high.
“I know from talking to a number of newly elected colleagues last night that they’re raring to go,” Verveer said.
Lisa Veldran, who has worked in the City Council’s office since 1985, said it is “challenging to bring such a large group up to speed.”
“What you have is a varying degree with the city itself,” said Veldran, the legislative services and office manager. “Some of these people will have served on committees, will have been involved with the city one way or another.”
However, some alders are coming in with a steeper learning curve.
“We kind of have to adjust for each individual alder and what their needs are,” Veldran said.
City Council alders will be sworn in along with Rhodes-Conway on Tuesday, April 16, at noon. In the two-week transition, Veldran will oversee logistical work, like filling out paperwork and setting up emails.
New this election cycle, alders will attend a day-long orientation on April 13. Alders will get a primer on open records laws, ethics and how a City Council meeting is run.
Baldeh, District 17, was one of two incumbent candidates who faced challengers. He won handily with 75 percent of the vote. Keith Furman, District 19, kept his seat by a much narrower margin, 51 percent.
The other nine contested seats were fought out between new candidates.
Patrick Heck, winner of the District 2 seat, will represent the north side of the isthmus from downtown to Sherman Terrace on the near east side. The seat is currently held by Ledell Zellers, who decided not to run for another term.
Lindsay Lemmer won District 3 in southeast Madison, last held by Amanda Hall, who resigned in February.
Donna Hurd Moreland took District 7 on the southwest side, currently represented by Steve King, who chose not to run.
UW student Avra Reddy won District 8, which encompasses much of the UW campus. The district is now represented by outgoing Ald. Zach Wood.
Zachary Henak won District 10 on the west side, which includes the Odana, Nokoma and parts of the Allied and Dunn’s Marsh neighborhoods, an area currently represented by former mayoral candidate Mo Cheeks.
Syed Abbas prevailed in District 12, which covers the near north from the former Oscar Mayer plant to the Dane County Regional Airport, currently represented by Larry Palm, who didn’t seek reelection.
Tag Evers won District 13, which includes the Vilas, Bay Creek and Monroe Street neighborhoods, currently represented by outgoing alder Allen Arntsen.
Grant Foster prevailed in District 15, which stretches from Truax Field on the northeast side to La Follette High School on the southeast, currently represented by David Ahrens, who did not seek reelection.
And Christian Albouras won in District 20, which includes the Greentree and Meadowood neighborhoods on the city’s far west side, currently represented by Matt Phair, who didn’t run for reelection.
“Obviously it’s going to be different, but very interesting,” Baldeh said.
He said that given the changes, it’s difficult to see how the city will deal with the massive Judge Doyle Square project. The city has been sparring with developer Beitler Real Estate over major elements of the $186 million endeavor, which includes underground public parking, private parking, commercial development, affordable housing and a hotel.
The city has cut ties with Beitler on a portion of the development, and Mayor-elect Satya Rhodes Conway has said she wants to look for a new developer.
“With the back-and-forth with the contractor, I’m not sure how it’s going to move forward,” Baldeh said.
He’s more optimistic about another high-profile project, the $13.2 million Madison Public Market on the east side, which has wide public support. Rhodes Conway supports the market, but said she doesn’t want it to operate with public subsidies.
“I don’t see the public market being too much of a problem,” Baldeh said. “The format may change depending on what she’s thinking, but we’ll see.”