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Issue of the Week: So Why Was Sue Black Fired?

Aug. 22, 2012
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Milwaukee had a nationally recognized parks director who won a long list of awards, both local and national, including the prestigious National Park and Recreation Association's Gold Medal for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management. Sue Black is so good at what she does that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried hard to lure her to Chicago. While many people in Milwaukee would jump at the chance to be hired by one of the largest cities in the United States, Black said “no” to Emanuel. Apparently that's not an easy thing to do, as Emanuel doesn't like to lose, but Black loves Milwaukee, its wonderful parks system and all of the people she has worked with over the past 10 years. Black worked very hard to improve the parks system during times of severe budget cuts. When times were really tough, she still managed to bring in more than $30 million in grant money—much more than any previous parks director.

The residents of Milwaukee County appreciated what she did for them, and many encouraged her to run for county executive in 2011. She respectfully declined to toss her hat in the ring and supported Chris Abele. After Abele won, he kept Black in her position, praised her work and gave her significant raises. Then he suddenly fired her—giving her no reason for the firing—and had his staff confiscate all of her personal belongings in her office. Black then hired prominent attorney Frank Gimbel to pursue some semblance of justice.

Black was obviously shocked and hurt by this firing. Many residents of the county, from Charlie Sykes on the right to County Supervisor and Parks Committee Chair Gerry Broderick on the left, are appalled and angry. Black seems to transcend politics, even while the state is going through a very divisive period. She has been beloved across the political spectrum because she is sincere, committed to her work and a very decent human being. Many leaders in the business community who worked with Black are also looking for answers, but Abele is not returning their calls.

Potential Explanations

So why summarily fire one of the most successful, knowledgeable and beloved county employees? To be fair, the county executive has the right to fire any department head, even if it is not a smart thing to do. After spending the weekend talking to people close to the issue about why this may have happened, there are a couple of explanations—variations of which came up often—that seem feasible.

One explanation is that Abele wants to make major changes in the parks system—changes that could put Milwaukee's top-rated parks system, which is known as the “Emerald Necklace,” at some peril. Since Black has spent the past 10 years of her career fighting to preserve and build the parks system, Abele needed to get her out of the way so he could move forward with his plans. Black would always fight for excellence in the parks system, subject to her budget constraints, so from Abele's point of view, she may have just been in his way.

One of the apparent plans that had been discussed was a modified effort to commercialize and privatize the parks. In that plan, fast-food chains would have a field day dividing up the parks system. If you think this is far-fetched, ask Abele and let him state very clearly and categorically that he will not commercialize the parks. Make sure he answers unequivocally and does not provide answers full of weasel words.

The other very feasible explanation that people point out is that Abele is a very insecure man, which they say is understandable since he has no significant accomplishments in his life that weren't somehow attained without the help of his family's money. Black is the opposite. She did it largely on her own, listened and learned along the way and became very successful. Abele, they say, is very threatened by capable people around him since “the insecure man needs to be the center of attention.” People must be thinking: Abele, who knows very little about parks, is seeking to make changes to a world-class parks system. Instead of getting advice from one of America's leading parks managers, he fires her.

Is There a Pattern?

There appears to be a general pattern to Abele's actions. Before getting elected, Abele ran his family's foundation, through which he would use grant money to get a seat on the boards of various nonprofit corporations, often where he had limited understanding of their mission or management in general. (Some consider the county executive position to be the first real job Abele has ever had.) Then he would push these nonprofits to pursue programs that he liked and that he would fund in part. After the organizations pursued the programs he wanted and became fairly dependent on his financial commitment, he could threaten to pull his money if they didn't do his bidding. Some have accused him of killing organizations by withdrawing his contributions after he had pushed organizations to expand and encumber themselves with greater costs. They felt he did a variation of this with Milwaukee Shakespeare and Bialystock & Bloom. Now it appears that he is taking this same mentality to our public resources.

Abele may well try to accuse Black of things that are just not true. We are already hearing questions about a county contract at Crystal Ridge ski hill, even though county supervisors who were intimately involved with the project state that it was properly vetted and reviewed. Another tactic could be responding to questions about Black in such a way that it leaves the impression of some kind of impropriety. This is just nasty and unfortunate. Now, all of a sudden, questions arise about Black's management style. But if you talk to parks employees, as well as the vast majority of people who either work for the parks or organizations that care about the parks, they have always appreciated her style, honesty and commitment. So beware of any nasty and personal rumors.

Finally, many people would love to see Black stay in Milwaukee and continue to work on behalf of the county parks, even if she is not parks director. Abele may have fired one of the best county administrators, but we hope she decides to stay.

Heroes of the Week: LifeStriders Therapeutic Riding Center Staff and Volunteers

LifeStriders Therapeutic Riding Center [S11 W29667 Summit Ave. (U.S. Highway 18), Waukesha] is a nonprofit that combines therapeutic riding with mental wellness activities and programs for all individuals with physical and psychological special needs. Founded in 2004, this volunteer-driven organization offers rehabilitative work with horses as partners in healing, group therapy for high-school students and young adults, a variety of bilingual family support and counseling services, and a free Youth Program for at-risk Waukesha and Milwaukee adolescents.

“LifeStriders can offer so much to so many people, thanks to the community support,” says Veronica Sosa Agnoli, executive director of LifeStriders. “It blows me away how many incredible young people come out and give their time. We are so grateful to work with such an amazing community.”

The organization is currently seeking volunteers 13 and older who can help with riding instruction and side-walking (it takes three volunteers for each riding session), stable management and grant writing. Donations such as saddles and tack (good condition), recently old computers/laptops and money to help cover handicap-accessible remodeling costs are needed as well. For more information about donations or LifeStriders' programs and volunteer opportunities, visit www.lifestriders.org or email striders@lifestriders.org.


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