Syed Abbas Elected Madison Common Council President: Cherishing Democracy
Syed Abbas grew up in Lahore, Pakistan during the era of military dictatorships and the rise of democracy.
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
Syed Abbas, the newly elected Madison Common Council president, is not one to take democracy for granted and cherishes his ability in helping to shape the direction and policies in which he lives. He knows what it is like not to have that voice. Growing up in Pakistan, he saw the impact of military dictatorships and also saw democracy begin to blossom.
Abbas has learned about American democracy from the ground floor up and began his involvement in the Eken Park neighborhood, moved on to city committees, won his first alder election in 2019 and won reelection and was voted in as Common Council president.
Abbas truly believes in democracy and that involves a lot of dialogue and listening, a kind of sifting and winnowing of ideas. He is adding an additional monthly meeting of the Common Council Executive Committee to facilitate the dialogue.
“We used to meet only twice per month, on the Tuesday before the Common Council meetings,” Abbas said. “We would meet for 1-2 hours. We have a lot of key things to discuss in terms of federal money and other things. So I am introducing a third CCEC meeting to bring the mayor to that meeting and ask all of the alders come and join and have an open discussion on various policy issues. I am trying to build that bridge between our executive and legislative and try to have more communication. More communication means a better understanding of each other so we can all work collaboratively.”
While the majority of the alders and the major are considered to be progressive and a majority of the alders are people of color, it doesn’t mean that they are completely harmonious when it comes to public policy. Abbas wants to make sure that the different opinions are expressed in a productive way.
“There are various places that we could have differences of opinion about policy,” Abbas said. “And that could be resolved by better communication from the executive branch with the legislative and vice versa. We could all do better and that’s why I am doing the CCEC as a whole meeting, an additional meeting where the legislative branch can have open communication with the mayor on issues. And the mayor can have open communication with us on those issues rather than one alder reaching out to the mayor or the mayor reaching out to the alders. It’s better to have open communication so that the public can also hear the concerns.”
In Abbas’ view, racial and environmental justice are at the top of the list when it comes to issues he feels city government needs to work on. He noted that Madison has a history of completing reports on major issues and then placing them on the bookshelf. Abbas wants to create a mechanism to keep these issues before city government.
“We have to take a lot of steps to resolve those issues,” Abbas said about racial and environmental justice. “To take those steps, I introduced agenda items 28 and 29. One establishes the President’s Workgroup on Racial Justice, Ant-Racism, and Equity and the other establishes the President’s Workgroup on Environmental Justice. Both workgroups have a high amount of diversity and different ideas. These groups are going to work on some key issues and bring recommendations to the Common Council to move forward, especially this group on racial justice, anti-racism and equity. We never had any committee or workgroup in the city’s history on this. This is the right step in the right direction because that is what my responsibility as Common Council president is, to hear the whole council and what the council wants and that is the direction that the council wants to go forward.”
Abbas has been front and center when it comes to homeless issues. In his view, it takes a lot of conversation and leadership to enact a solution that will best allow the homeless to create movement in their lives.
“I, as an alder and council vice-president, supported two tiny homes in District 12,” Abbas said. “The second project came during my time and I fully supported it. I shared information and knowledge with my constituents to really ease their concerns with the right information and really made sure that the tiny home was in a stable neighborhood. It is very important for us to keep these people in an environment where they are successful. We create policies for success and not for failure. It’s the same situation with the shelter. There is the temporary shelter in District 12 at 1st Street. I am very supportive of that. I do think the Pennsylvania Avenue site, which I proposed, is on hold right now. I think as an alder, I presented a solution of bring it to my backyard instead of not in my backyard. I said to bring it here because I want the homeless to be close to service in Downtown Madison. Having said that, regardless if it goes to Pennsylvania Avenue, there would be certain opposition. It’s the responsibility of the city leaders as alders and city staff to communicate with the neighbors, businesses and other stakeholders to make sure we create those bridges and create understanding on this particular matter and then move forward on another direction. And I did that and it was unanimously approved by the neighborhood association. There was huge support.”
While Abbas is very supportive of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), he has some equity issues as it relates to its impact on the north and south parts of the city.
“I think the city of Madison is taking the right direction on the public transportation by creating BRT,” Abbas said. “However, there is more work to be done, especially on the south side and the north side, where with the existing system, it is very hard to connect them from isthmus east to west. If you commute from north to south, it takes forever. You have to make many transfers. And that creates barriers for people to commute. With the BRT — I am really optimistic and really pushing for it — I know the focus is going to be on east to west. From an equity point of view and really looking at how we can better connect north and south, we need to take practical steps and also look at how BRT can benefit the north side and the south side.”
Another initiative that Abbas is looking to push is the development of a 311 service calling system that would allow the diversification of city responses to citizen service calls.
“With a 311 system, I think we could have a virtual hybrid system where a police officer doesn’t need to go to your doorstep. He’s available on a zoom call. But if you have issues, you want to be heard. You want to hear a police officer’s opinion. He could give you an opinion on a virtual call. So decreasing police interaction in the community is very important unless the issue is criminal in nature. Then the police role is still important to the society. But at the same time, there are many things where we could reimagine something like a virtual call to practically intervene and provide advice. Or the city inspector can go. Or we can send a park ranger who doesn’t carry any weapon. They can address park-related issues. This is an opportunity. My priority as Common Council president is to really see how we can implement that system that finally matters and we start some sort of pilot and put some money in the budget.”
In the area of affordable housing, Abbas feels that the city needs to take specific measures to ensure that affordable housing is spread throughout the city and that its affordable housing doesn’t have a 30-year lifespan due to national and state affordable housing policies. In essence, Abbas wants the city to have a practical say in how affordable housing unfolds within its city limits.
“We need to set a vision on where we want to see us in the next 10-20 years in terms of affordable housing,” Abbas said. “We also need to explore opportunities on land banking and working with non-profits and organizations that have land trusts and making it real affordable housing could be a possible solution among other things that we can do. We need to be involved in land banking. As an example, in the north side of my district, the population is growing because there is land available. We have expedited land going through the planning process of redevelopment. This is the opportunity for the city to land bank that and work with land trust organizations to develop affordable housing for the life of the housing instead of just for 30 years. We need to be involved in this process rather than letting the developers decide where they want to put affordable housing. We should be a part of it. That’s how we could really move forward with affordable housing crisis and really address it.”
Syed Abbas is ready to tackle the issues facing the city of Madison through transparent communication, the exchange of ideas and creativity. These are all strong pillars of democracy.