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Supervisor Lipscomb Defends Kimberly Walker Dismissal

County attorney didn’t serve the board well, Lipscomb says

Jul. 2, 2013
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Drama has only increased in the weeks since the Milwaukee County board’s 13-5 vote to terminate the county’s top attorney, Kimberly Walker, hand-picked by County Executive Chris Abele to represent both the board and his administration as corporation counsel.

The termination was controversial to those who weren’t paying attention.

Supervisor Theo Lipscomb, who led the effort to oust Walker, told the Shepherd last week that the board’s dissatisfaction with Walker has been evident for a while. Lipscomb was reluctant to discuss details about what he considers a personnel matter, but he indicated that a supermajority of the board was unhappy with Walker’s bias toward Abele, whom she considered her boss, instead of providing independent legal advice to both Abele and the board.

Indeed. In an April 2012 email obtained by the Shepherd, Walker responded to a stalled open records request by saying that Abele “provides day to day direction for me.” And investigative blogger Cory Liebmann, writing at Eye on Wisconsin, revealed another Walker email sent in March 2012 to Abele and his top aides that includes advice on how to thwart open records requests by channeling their emails through her.

Abele is expected to veto the board’s action, but if the 13 supervisors stick together they have the numbers to override it. That won’t be the end of the drama, of course.

Abele’s most reliable ally on the board, Supervisor Deanna Alexander, is receiving free legal work from the conservative Bradley Foundation-funded Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty to allege that the board’s actions broke open meetings laws.

Walker didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article. But Lipscomb had plenty to say about the Walker affair in this Shepherd Q&A. Here’s a portion of our conversation:


Shepherd: What happened? As I understand it, you launched the effort to oust Kimberly Walker as corporation counsel.

Lipscomb: I don’t know if I’d characterize it that way. I guess I took the lead. As the chair of Judiciary, Safety and General Services Committee, I have a lot of contact with corp counsel. I’ve had some issues over the two years and it seemingly was getting worse and I was hearing a lot of frustration. So I was having conversations with my colleagues about whether the dissatisfaction was as widespread as I thought it was and it really was. I didn’t go around twisting anybody’s arm or arguing to convince them that she needed to be removed. I just said, Are you happy with corp counsel’s representation? And the vast majority, as you saw, were not.

Shepherd: Who did she report to? Did she give the board as much attention as she should have?

Lipscomb: Obviously the conflict questions seemingly have grown. There’s the sense that she sees herself as like other members of the exec’s cabinet, which is not the case. According to state statutes, she does not serve at the pleasure of the exec. Uniquely, she has this dual responsibility to serve the board and also this dual appointment and removal. He can’t remove her without the board’s consent and the board can remove her over his objection with [a] two-thirds [vote].

Shepherd: Did that change with Act 14, which cut the board’s power?

Lipscomb: No. That’s uniformly available to counties that have a county executive form of governance.

It’s sort of independent in that sense. She’s appointed by him but has responsibilities to both branches. So that’s why I’m saying it’s not the same as a department head. And yet she’s clearly taken the stance that [Abele] is the boss. I believe that plays into it, the sense that there was a different level of responsibility to the different branches.

Shepherd: Is there truth to the allegation that this is a proxy war between the board and Abele? That firing her is a way to retaliate against Abele for attacking the board?

Lipscomb: I just don’t see that on this. I wouldn’t take out my frustration with Abele on an employee on an unrelated issue. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Does it include Abele to some extent? It does because it’s about her seeming unbalanced allegiance to him over the board and the inequality of the representation seemingly provided.

Shepherd: Why didn’t it go through committee? Why did you seek to suspend the rules during a full board meeting to take up this matter?

Lipscomb: It was a personnel action, so quite frankly had it occurred in committee we would have done it in closed session. Ultimately, if the supermajority of a body is not confident in their representation, what is there to discuss? Are you going to tell me I’m supposed to be satisfied with my unsatisfactory representation? That’s not going to work for me.

Shepherd: What’s your response to the complaint filed by Supervisor Alexander and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, alleging that you violated open meetings laws?

Lipscomb: There’s no lawsuit yet. What’s interesting is that the allegation that Alexander makes—I can’t imagine how it’s any different than what she did last month [in trying to depose Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic]. In fact, hers is worse. While mine were individual conversations, hers is actually an organized attack. It was several of them working together. They had a petition document, they decided, ‘You talk to this person, I’ll talk to that person, we’ll share notes.’ It was an organized effort to do it that way. Mine was just me talking to colleagues. So the fact that I talked to two or 10 or 12, I can’t ask my colleagues whether they like their representation?


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