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The Nuclear Option

Jan. 14, 2013
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As someone whose first reporting job in Milwaukee was as a backup reporter covering county government under its first county executive, I certainly understand those who harbor a strong desire to destroy the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

Many years and county executives later, the wheels are now greased to actually do it. As frustrating and self-serving as the board can be, the future without it could be a lot scarier than the behind-the-scenes conspirators want you to believe.

Sure, it’s easy to see how current county supervisors helped sow the seeds of their own destruction. Their timing could not have been worse.

For the first time in history, the county executive’s office was occupied by a non-politician, Chris Abele, an independently wealthy philanthropist who first built personal ties with influential business and community leaders by funding projects and serving on civic boards. 

No one really knew what Abele’s agenda was in taking over a county government many considered hopelessly mired in fiscal problems.

Abele implied he could solve problems by rising above politics to professionalize management and restructure government. Of course, whenever an outsider eschews politics, there are always politicians who don’t appreciate being eschewed.

That’s why when Abele and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett announced they’d reached an agreement for Milwaukee police to patrol county parks and the lakefront, reducing costs for both county and city, the county board was oddly unenthusiastic. Bizarrely so, actually, because politicians usually vote in favor of saving $1.6 million a year and because Sheriff David Clarke already had stopped patrolling county parks in a snit over Abele reducing his previous budget.

County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic was not part of the merger discussions between Abele and Barrett, perhaps because from the moment she became board chair, she was busy running for county executive herself.

When the board took up Abele’s budget, it quickly shot down his very first attempt to cut costs by merging government services. The board also slapped down Abele by taking control of county lobbying in Madison from the county executive.

But if Dimitrijevic and the board thought they could prevent Abele or any other millionaire from lobbying state government, they were politically naïve. Now the board is facing a perfect storm.


Should Walker and Ament Have Had Unchecked Power?

State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo from West Allis just left the board, where he was a loser in every power play with Dimitrijevic and her cohorts. Now he’s in the Republican majority of the state Legislature that can pass anything it wants.

Any Republican legislation would be enthusiastically signed by Gov. Scott Walker, the last Milwaukee county executive overridden repeatedly by the county board.

Sanfelippo has drafted legislation that, in effect, would obliterate the board’s power. He’s supported by Abele and his powerful friends on the Greater Milwaukee Committee, also known as “all the rich white guys who run everything.”

The bill would rush through the Legislature a binding referendum in April to allow county voters to reduce the job of county supervisor to part-time and reduce their pay from $50,679 to an insulting $15,000 a year.

If that weren’t enough to drive board members away, they also would no longer receive any health insurance or other employee benefits, enabling them to identify with poorly treated part-time workers throughout the community.

Republican legislators pretend the future of the county board is still under local control. But, does anyone seriously expect voters not to cut the pay of politicians any time they get a chance? You won’t see state legislators putting their own pay and benefits up to a popular vote anytime soon.

Forget the present county executive and board for a moment. Frankly, some of those people earn their money and others don’t. But here’s the real danger in this bum’s rush to decimate the county board. Consider the previous two county executives.

Remember the Milwaukee County pension scandal that lined the pockets of county politicians, resulting in exorbitant costs to taxpayers that continue to this day? Board members were recalled for not voting against it, but that scandal originated in the office of County Executive Tom Ament.

Now, think about County Executive Scott Walker, who succeeded Ament. Three of Walker’s top staff members and three other political associates were charged with 15 felonies in a continuing John Doe investigation.

Walker was more interested in running for governor than running the county, so he would submit a no-tax-increase budget every year that failed to include enough money to fund county operations.

If the county board hadn’t taken responsibility for increasing the budget every year, the cuts to vulnerable families and other important county functions would have been devastating while the biggest tax breaks went to the wealthy, just as in Walker’s state budget.

Do we really want to eliminate all serious checks on the county executive just because Republicans and a rich business lobby think it would be swell?


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