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Community Meetings Reveal Opposition to County Board Downsizing

The public finally gets to comment on Sanfelippo-Abele proposal

Mar. 21, 2013
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In its first two listening sessions, the new OUR Milwaukee County initiative drew more than 160 people speaking out about the proposed downsizing and reform of Milwaukee County government.

With concerns about a “corporate takeover,” reduced democracy and potential privatization of county assets and parkland, the residents who gathered at the Wilson Park Senior Center and the Wauwatosa Public Library were overwhelmingly opposed to downsizing the board and increasing the power of the county executive.

Since January, the county has been debating the proposal by state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) to reduce the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors to part-time status and slash its pay, benefits and staff.

The final version of Sanfelippo’s bill has not yet been released to the public. But it already has the backing of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and the conservative business group Greater Milwaukee Committee.

Sanfelippo attended both meetings last week but didn’t speak; Abele was absent from both.

Sanfelippo’s proposal specifically targets Milwaukee County and would allow county voters to weigh in on only a fraction of the bill’s sweeping governance changes—the supervisors’ salaries—in a public referendum. The bulk of the changes would be mandated by the state Legislature.

In response to this lack of local public input, the county board, led by Chair Marina Dimitrijevic, launched the OUR Milwaukee County initiative to gather public comments on reforming all aspects of Milwaukee County government.

Mary Laan of Move to Amend spoke at both meetings about her fear that power would be consolidated in the county executive’s office. In Sanfelippo’s draft bill, supervisors would have to go through the county executive’s office to meet with agency heads and the board would lose oversight of contracts and leases.

“This sounds more like a king than a county executive,” Laan said during the Wauwatosa meeting.

Alan Nichols of Grassroots Tosa said the proposal would make the supervisors “nearly powerless” to impact decisions.

“Under the proposal, the executive would have the authority over nearly every major decision of the county government, thereby allowing the executive essentially free reign to run Milwaukee County as a fiefdom, answering to his corporate backers rather than the elected representative of county residents,” Nichols said.

More than one speaker said that, while they had worked to get Abele elected in 2011, they would work to get him “unelected” in the future.

In the minority was Tom Conlin, who said he was in favor of a smaller board but was undecided about whether the supervisors should serve part time. He said the proposal should be put to a vote.

“Let the majority rule,” Conlin said.


Committee Votes for Another Downsizing Attempt

On Friday, a Milwaukee County board committee voted 7-0 to adopt a resolution asking the state Legislature to allow the county to reduce the number of supervisors a second time before the next U.S. Census is conducted in 2020.

According to state statutes, Milwaukee and Menomonee counties are allowed to reduce their supervisory districts only once after a census is taken each decade. The other counties may do so more than once, either by county board approval or through a public referendum.

The board committee voted in favor of the resolution, sponsored by supervisors Steve Taylor and Mark Borkowski.

While the committee members seemed to be split on how to reform county government, they ultimately all agreed that the resolution would give the board more flexibility and local control when it does so.

The board voted to downsize from 25 members to 19 after the 2000 census and from 19 members to 18 after the 2010 census.

County Executive Abele signed the most recent downsizing measure, although he stated at the time that he would have liked the board to reduce even further.

In the Friday committee meeting, Abele’s director of legislative affairs, Raisa Koltun, said that she thought the county executive would veto the measure if the full board approved it and sent it to him for his signature.


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