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Courts Restore Some Integrity and Balance to County Government

May. 2, 2017
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Shortly after Chris Abele was elected Milwaukee County executive, he worked with the Republican-controlled state legislature to curb the power of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and shift that power to himself. 

Interestingly, we find many recent parallels on a much grander scale on the international scene. We have seen similar actions by authoritarians like Putin in Russia and more recently in Turkey, where two weeks ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan barely won a referendum, fraught with voting irregularities, that shifted much of the power from the parliament to the presidency.

Fortunately, unlike Russia and Turkey, we still have an independent judicial branch that can restrain illegal power grabs. Last week, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge John DiMotto ruled that Abele acted unlawfully when he gave raises to his political appointees without the approval of the County Board whose job is to provide checks and balances on the county executive.

 

Abele’s Power Grabs 

Over the past six years, Abele has begun to function in a more and more autocratic manner. He refused to attend county board budget meetings when invited. He refused to attend public meetings including one on the future of the Domes with hundreds of his constituents in attendance. He walked out of meetings when he didn’t like the discussion. He prefers to carry out his functions in secret as much as possible. Longtime county watchers argue that his administration is the least transparent since the Milwaukee County Executive position was established in 1960. 

Abele used the powers granted to local governments by the Republican legislature to get around labor contracts and force employees to pay a greater share of their health insurance and pension contributions. Historically, Milwaukee county employees had given up some salary increases in return for the county paying a greater share of the health and pension contributions. They traded off salary for benefits. The county employees involved were earning reasonable wages when compared to similar jobs in other similar-sized counties throughout the country and in the private sector. 

This unilateral change by Abele resulted in significant pay cuts. For many single parents raising children with a family health insurance plan, the pay cut could amount to more than 10%. At the same time he was bragging about sticking it to the lower-paid employees, he gave his political appointees high initial salaries followed by generous raises. He is Robin Hood in reverse. 

 

Using Our Limited Tax Dollars is the Most Effective Way 

We understand that we must use the taxpayer dollars prudently, but as any smart business owner will tell you, you need to treat your employees fairly. If the county is trying to save money by unilaterally changing negotiated agreements with employees, then you can’t be giving your cronies, some with very questionable qualifications, significantly higher salaries than their predecessors. 

Milwaukee County government has had its issues in the past, but other than the pension scandal, it was generally managed in a fair and transparent way that looked out for the average working person. Milwaukee was a blue-collar town with a history of respecting working people. Abele comes from a very different background where workers were there to serve his family and be happy just to have a job. Under his administration, much is done in secret through a system of cronyism and no-bid contracts.

We need to make sure that county dollars are spent in an honest manner, hiring is done through a fair and competitive system and all contracts are bid out in a transparent and competitive process. Failure to do business honestly costs the taxpayers a lot of money. We need to restore a system of checks and balances so the county supervisors have the powers to serve as a countervailing force to an abusive and self-serving county executive. This current court ruling was a very good step forward.

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