Mayor Paul Soglin had a busy March.
He kicked off the month with a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., for the League of American Bicyclists' annual summit. A week later, from March 9 to 11, he was back in D.C. for the National League of Cities' Congressional City Conference.
He returned to Washington for the Gates Foundation's Mayors in Education meeting on March 13 and 14. On March 24, Soglin headed to Minneapolis for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's Beyond the Farm Bill Meeting. The next day, he flew to Portland, Ore., for the Governing for Racial Equity Conference.
Soglin closed out the month with a trip to New York City for the National Association of Produce Market Managers' annual conference, where he gave a talk on urban food issues.
Although it was a busy month -- with 13 days spent at least partially out of town -- it was not out of the ordinary. Madison's long-serving mayor clearly loves traveling.
The frequent trips have some alders wondering what the city gets in return. "It is extraordinary," says Ald. Chris Schmidt, the council president. "We need to see results from that travel."
"I've had some concerns about the amount of time spent away from the city, in addition to the dollar amount," says Ald. Mark Clear. "You do have to be here to do the job."
Soglin counters that he works extraordinarily hard and that the trips are well worth it for the insight gained in governing.
$57,000 travel budget
In 2013, Soglin made 17 trips, costing the city just over $20,000. Four of these trips -- two to Baltimore, one to New Orleans and one to Kansas City -- were paid for by the host organization. One trip was overseas to Madison's sister cities Mantova, Italy, and Freiburg, Germany, from May 30 to June 9, at a cost of $1,995.79.
So far this year, Soglin has made 10 trips, all of them domestic.
As a percentage of the city's $275 million operating budget, the mayor's travel expenses are minuscule. The mayor's budget includes two categories -- conferences/meetings and travel/training -- that can be used for travel expenses, says David Schmiedicke, the city's finance director.
In 2013, the budget for these two was $45,000, but this year it was increased to $57,000.
Soglin's predecessor, Dave Cieslewicz, didn't travel nearly as much as Soglin does. In 2008, Cieslewicz took four trips, including to the sister cities of Freiburg and Obihiro, Japan. All four trips that year cost the city $4,010. He took five trips in 2009, for $5,381, and six in 2010, for $2,055.
Cieslewicz drew flak for one of those 2010 trips, to Amsterdam, which was paid for by bike-industry interests. (Cieslewicz now heads the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin and is an Isthmus contributor.)
Soglin says he finds the conferences and trips invaluable to increasing his knowledge base. Asked for examples of what he's learned on recent trips, Soglin points to key insights from the Gates Foundation Mayors in Education meeting he attended.
He says there's growing evidence about how detrimental trauma can be to a child's development. "It's an area that's way beyond the scope of public schools," he says.
"One main source of trauma is hunger. Many children are going with inadequate nutrition, despite the efforts of free and reduced lunch and breakfast programs. We're going to have to look at that more thoroughly."
Asked why he needed to be at the National Association of Produce Market Managers' annual conference in New York last month, Soglin says he was invited to speak there because he is co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force on Food Policy.
Food issues, he says, are beginning to be of greater importance to cities.
"In other states, the governments are making major commitments to produce markets and developing food hubs in their regions, both as a health initiative and an economic initiative."
Staying in touch
It's not the cost of Soglin's trips that worries Ald. David Ahrens. Ahrens agrees it's important to travel. But he wonders whether the mayor can stay in touch with the city when he's on the road so much.
"Obviously, Soglin has a very unique feel for the city given the time and attention he's put into it over the years," he says. "Few people have thought about it as much as Soglin, but there's still the need for day-to-day keeping up on events in the present moment."
Ahrens notes that part of his east-side district includes annexed areas where the streets -- like Turner Avenue and Lake Edge Boulevard -- weren't built to city standards and lack curbs, gutters and sidewalks.
"They're decrepit," Ahrens says. "It's not just that there are potholes. They're completely uneven, there are pools and pools of water. It's bizarre. It's a terrible way to live. What does the downtown know about what happens in the provinces?
"I don't know how much [Soglin] gets around to the outside corners of the city or the neighborhoods," he adds. "Rather than being in conference hotel rooms, some of that time might be better spent traveling through the neighborhoods."
Soglin says he's well aware of what goes on here. He shops and eats out randomly in all parts of the city. On one recent drive, he noticed several sign violations and informed building code enforcement. He says he knows the city has substandard streets, including the ones in Ahrens' district, adding that sometimes residents oppose upgrading streets.
Getting out and about in Madison, Soglin says, "is part of the fun job of being mayor."
"I make a conscious decision to move around the city and drop in unannounced," he says. "I get to interact with people all over the city, and I get feedback from them. And it gives me a chance to see what's going on."
"The toughest places to focus on are the new residential areas east of the Interstate," he adds. "For those I have to make an effort to visit. The reason is they don't have as many established cohesive activities as older parts of the city. They don't have the neighborhood festivals or the highly active neighborhood associations that would invite me to speak. There are times when [my wife] Sara and I get in the car just to drive somewhere, if nothing else just to get lunch."
Soglin vs. Cieslewicz
Despite his travels, Soglin contends that he spends more time meeting with neighborhood groups and city staff than his predecessor did.
But a review of six months of calendars from each mayor -- Cieslewicz's from the first half of 2009 and Soglin's from the first half of 2013 -- finds that Cieslewicz spent more time at these activities than did Soglin.
Soglin had 103 meetings with city staff, while Cieslewicz had 177. Soglin went to 55 community events, speeches, dinners and groundbreakings, while Cieslewicz hit 108. The former mayor met with more business groups and lobbyists, 54, than Soglin, 37. Cieslewicz took five vacation days, while Soglin took only one.
And Soglin did travel considerably more. He made 11 trips, totaling 37 days -- putting him out of town for more than one month of the six-month period. Cieslewicz was out of town for four trips, 11 days total.
When out of town, Soglin is in frequent touch with city staff by email and cell phone. He says he makes an effort to do most of the travel on weekends in order to minimize the number of weekdays he's gone.
"The only inconvenience the travel causes is that, before I leave and when I return, my schedule gets really jammed," Soglin says. "I make an effort to minimize missing council meetings and disrupting regular meetings that I have with staff."
When the mayor is gone, the council president -- in this case Schmidt -- becomes acting mayor. Schmidt says this hasn't been a burden for him.
"Most of the time, the only thing I have to do is sign contracts in his absence," he says. "It can require me to leave work early." But he adds there haven't been any crises, like a natural disaster, to contend with.
Despite his concerns, Schmidt has noticed the mayor's trips have helped him gain focus on some issues, like the location of a public food market. And he's pleased to see that alders also sometimes travel -- three of them recently went to Freiburg.
Soglin says he travels for the benefit of Madison. But he concedes there is one notable critic: his wife, Sara.
"She doesn't like it when I miss weekends when I'm traveling."