Alders insist they support homeless shelter site, but continue to voice concern over mayor’s process

MADISON, Wis. — A day after Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway announced a new location for a proposed men’s homeless shelter and the president of the city’s Common Council complained about allegedly being cut out of the process, alders continue to share their concerns about a lack of communication from the mayor’s office — but say they won’t stand in the way of the project.

The mayor announced Wednesday the city-owned lot at 1902 Bartillon Drive on the northeast side would be the home of a new men’s shelter being built from the ground up. Notably absent from the announcement, though, were city alders.

The mayor told News 3 Now on Wednesday that alders weren’t invited because she knew the announcement would be sensitive.

“The City Council and Alder Abbas, in particular, have already delayed this project for a year based on trying to find the perfect site which, we knew then and we know now doesn’t exist,” Mayor Rhodes-Conway told News 3 Now, referring to council decisions to table plans for the shelter.

RELATED: Two city alders accuse Madison mayor of ‘cutting them out’ of men’s homeless shelter process

Abbas and other alders pushed back on that assertion on Thursday morning, saying they don’t oppose the Bartillon Drive location or moving those struggling with homelessness into their community — just the way the process was handled.

“There’s never been an opposition from me as the alder of the district, and the intent here is not to oppose this and not to say we don’t welcome them,” Abbas said.

Council members acknowledged they did know the Bartillon Drive location was a possibility, but said it was just one of multiple locations proposed during closed sessions they attended that were not open to the public. District 17 Alder Gary Halverson said that location is something residents in that area can get on board with — but only if they’re included in the process and feel like their voices are heard.

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“We don’t operate government in a vacuum,” Halverson said. “The mayor doesn’t get to sit on the fourth floor and decree something and have it happen. The fact that we weren’t notified that this was coming or even invited to the press conference is unacceptable.”

The mayor said Thursday what she heard from the involved alders in closed sessions “greatly influenced” her decision to choose the Bartillon Drive location for the permanent shelter, while again refuting claims the alders didn’t have a say.

“Alders have had multiple chances to weigh in on this decision process and to give their feedback and input. They will continue to have multiple chances to do so,” the mayor said during her biweekly briefing Thursday.

Halverson said the mayor’s previous explanation of it being a contentious and sensitive issue is not a reason to avoid looping in alders or inviting them to the announcement on Wednesday.

“We deal with sensitive issues all the time, and the fact that it’s a sensitive issue doesn’t mean we get to do it in darkness, doesn’t mean we get to hide it from the public,” Halverson said. “What’s going to happen is going to happen, but we need to have this dialogue publicly.”

Abbas said he sent a text message to the mayor expressing his disappointment in the announcement being made before the council was notified and sharing his concerns about the process, but as of Thursday morning, the mayor had not texted him back.

None of the five alders at the press conference Thursday said they would stand in the way of the shelter being built at Bartillon Drive when it comes up for a vote in front of the full council, but say they need to be involved in the planning of the facility.

The mayor says there will be an “extensive” public input process going forward, and continued to assert that Abbas and others were in the loop — and will continue to be involved going forward.

“This is just the beginning of a very long process,” Mayor Rhodes-Conway said during her briefing Thursday. “This is Madison, we know we like to go through processes when we make decisions, so we’re just at the beginning of a very long process, and I find it frankly surprising that alders are acting like they don’t know that there’s a long process ahead of us and there will be plenty of opportunities for them and all of our constituents to weigh in.”

The mayor says her office is reaching out to the affected districts to help organize public meetings about the temporary shelter location at Zeier Road and the permanent location at Bartillon Drive. Abbas says he hopes to hold public meetings later this month.