One wag describes the difference between the two main contenders for Madison mayor as follows: "Paul Soglin will punch you in the face, but Dave Cieslewicz will stab you in the back." The speaker prefers the former approach, which shows a willingness to clash openly rather than exact retribution.
Soglin, without making colorful reference to punching anyone in the face, also identifies management style as a key distinction between himself and Mayor Cieslewicz.
"I don't need department and division heads who are loyal to me," Soglin says. "All I ask is that they be professional and dedicated to the people of the city. I welcome them to provide diverse opinions and challenge one another."
Soglin champions the civil service system, where people are beholden to the duties of their jobs, saying, "Dave prefers a cabinet form of government," where an executive calls the shots. He asserts that Cieslewicz has been less inclusive and more authoritarian, which has created an unhealthy culture of fear within city government.
"You don't rule by fear," says Soglin. "When people are on a short leash never knowing when a colleague is going to be let go or written out of the budget, it affects the entire organization."
It's a great issue for Soglin to raise. Cieslewicz's most precious political asset is being seen as a nice guy - and one area in which this image has been tarnished is in the mayor's dealings with staff.
Cieslewicz is backed by some of those who've worked under him, including former city engineer Larry Nelson, who says he also enjoyed working for Soglin. But others fault Cieslewicz for micromanagement and one-way communication.
"Absolutely," says one longtime city manager when asked if Soglin was a better manager than Cieslewicz. While Cieslewicz is personable, "the mayor and his aides seem really isolated from staff." Decisions get made without a lot of input. "It is very top-down." The manager says this sentiment is "very common" among the city's department and division heads.
Cieslewicz says he sets agendas and high expectations but is always open to input from staff. And he thinks it's ironic that Soglin wants to make an issue of management style: "I've been told by managers that Paul Soglin was quite autocratic. He would call managers in and say, 'This is the way it's going to be.'"
In his Dec. 22 campaign kickoff statement, Soglin presented a list of grievances with the current mayoral administration, including "the exodus of city managers."
Asked for examples, Soglin cites Mary Ann Stalcup, who left her job as Madison's director of human resources in early 2004 at the end of her five-year contract, and Si Widstrand, who left his job as Madison's parks development manager in late 2008, after a career with the city that spanned more than 30 years.
Stalcup, now human resources director in Pensacola, Fla., says she enjoyed working for Madison and left on her own accord. "Every mayor has a different management style, and managers have to conform with that," she reflects. "I'm not bitter at all."
Widstrand resigned shortly after the city picked another candidate for the job of parks superintendent. A Wisconsin State Journal article noted that Cieslewicz had "only good things to say about Widstrand's work for the city," calling him "a consummate professional with an easygoing manner that won him the respect of everyone he worked with."
Like Stalcup, Widstrand declines to back up Soglin's claims, saying only, "I retired at a good time for me." He continues to do volunteer work with the Parks Division.
Soglin also alleges that Cieslewicz has undone his carefully devised system of signing managers to five-year contracts with only a brief probationary period. Cieslewicz has adopted a two-year probationary period during which a new manager can be let go for any reason - or none at all.
According to Soglin, some people have opted not to apply for management jobs in Madison because of the two-year probation and concerns over the treatment of other managers. He notes how long it's taken to fill certain management positions, including director of Planning and Development.
But Cieslewicz says well more than 100 people applied for this position in two rounds before the city made its pick. And he defends his decision to impose a two-year probationary period.
"You really don't know how a person is going to perform in the context of city government until they're on the job," he says. Soglin's approach means the city could be stuck with someone who is "not working out" for a full five years.
"That's not good management," says Cieslewicz.
Paul Soglin is a consummate professional with a proven ability to get things done. He has earned the respect of people who have worked for him, and says he can only recall one manager who left "because they did not enjoy working for me." And that person, he adds, later pleaded to be hired back.
But it's important to remember that Soglin's own tenure as mayor was not an era of unmitigated worker bliss. Consider the case of Dorcas Johnson, a city employee who in 1995 reported having gotten help on an employment test from the city's affirmative action officer.
The city's human resources manager, Mary Ann Mitchell (later Stalcup), went public with these allegations, though Johnson begged her not to. Then Soglin fired Johnson for having made them, only to later admit in an interview with Isthmus he was "not 100% sure" she wasn't telling the truth. An independent investigator found only that Johnson's claim could not be substantiated. Johnson was still out of a job.
In other respects, Soglin's critique seems a bit threadbare, as when he argues that city department heads are now less likely to be quoted except in the comments they make at public meetings, indicating fear-based reticence.
By way of evidence, Soglin cites Isthmus' reporting on communication policies in the Parks Division. But that story ("A Gag Rule at City Parks," 1/28/10) concerned constraints imposed not on department heads by the mayor but on rank-and-file employees by a department head, albeit with the mayor's support.
Actual department heads and employees in other departments still regularly respond to media inquiries. Says Cieslewicz, "There certainly isn't any attempt on our part to quell that."
Perhaps Soglin's strongest example is his objection to the mayor's shabby treatment of Arthur Ross, the city's longtime bicycle-pedestrian safety coordinator ("Watchdog," 12/9/10). Ross' position was eliminated in the mayor's budget, perhaps prompted by performance concerns that were never clearly communicated.
Says Soglin, "There is not a city employee who hasn't observed what happened to either Art Ross or to Si Widstrand and said 'That could happen to me.'"
While not promising to restore anyone's job, Soglin vows he'd never use the budget to bump off employees.
"If I want someone to leave for poor performance, I will have it documented and they will be fired pursuant to the city ordinances," he says.
A smash in the mouth, not a stab in the back.