Theo Lipscomb Defends Kimberly Walker Dismissal

Jun. 27, 2013
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So a “war of words” has broken out over the Milwaukee County board’s dismissal of its corporation counsel, Kimberly Walker. 

On the one hand you have 13 supervisors who voted to terminate her—a supermajority that can override Abele’s expected veto if they stick together. On the other you have County Executive Chris Abele; his mole on the board, Supervisor Deanna Alexander; conservative business executive Sheldon Lubar; the NAACP; and the Bradley Foundation-funded Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

So you can understand why Supervisor Theo Lipscomb sighed when I told him I wanted to talk about Walker’s firing.

But after some hesitation he defended his actions, saying that he and 12 of his colleagues on the board were unhappy with Walker’s performance, including her allegiance to Abele (the corp counsel is supposed to serve both branches of county government), her unwillingness to share information with supervisors, her inability to provide sound guidance on the board-busting Act 14, and her advice to Abele insiders that if they sent emails to her it could be shielded from open records requests, a bombshell dug up by investigative blogger Cory Liebmann over at Eye on Wisconsin via an open records request.

Here’s what he had to say:

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: Could you give me an example of the problems you were having?

Lipscomb: I want to be cautious about this. I really do believe it’s a personnel matter. I want to talk more generally, rather than, like, these are the five occasions that I had a problem with her. Early on I had trouble. First of all, I think it’s important to note that she was unanimously confirmed. So she got the benefit of the doubt.

I did have some early issues in the first year, where I was having trouble getting opinions or legal advice on issues. If people were really paying attention they would have seen it. I had to attempt in the budget, the following year, to try to force them to have a policy on how to take up essentially inquiries from individual supervisors. Because she took the position that it had to come from a committee or be ordered by the chair or the exec. I said, no. As an individual supervisor I get to have counsel on an issue. I may be a lower priority than an issue that’s been referred by a committee or the full board or the exec. But I have the right to get that. If I have to depend on a committee action that means you’ve already convinced your colleagues of the importance of an issue but if you just need some background then you should be able to get that.

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 two-thirds.

Shepherd: Did that change with Act 14?

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 he is the boss. I believe that plays into it, the sense that there was a different level of responsibility to the different branches.

Did you see the Cory Liebmann blog? Where she gives him [Abele] advice on how to keep things from open records requests? She claimed to me after I raised that issue on the board floor a month ago—she didn’t call me, but then a month later she told me that ‘I would have given that advice to the county board as well.’ I said, well, I didn’t think it was good advice, but I find that hard to believe that you were going to be the special mail person for 19 elected officials, that you were going to provide that service. That just totally strikes me the wrong way. I’m surprised she did it. I’m surprised that if she found it to be so defensible she didn’t reach out during the preceding four weeks.

[I raised it in] the May board meeting. It came up in relation to the conflict of interest on Act 14. Because some people at that point were arguing that we really didn’t need outside counsel, that she could provide it, even though she had originally said there was clearly a conflict and that—or the perception that no matter what, there was the perception that there was a conflict and that the best thing was for her to not provide counsel to either branch on this. That it was too political. She then kept modifying that. And said, well, we could or we could set up something to do that. Even though that had been the original request—to set up some firewalls in the office so that we would have somebody representing us, not the same person [who was representing the administration].

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 seemingly 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.

That’s how it was scheduled. Just to be under suspension. We ultimately took it up and cut off debate and just took the vote.

I called her before introducing it. First of all, she was not surprised. She said she knew there was unhappiness and thought that it was coming. And I knew that she knew because Abele’s office had been calling around for a week asking if something was going on. So there was no surprise. This idea that this caught them by surprise is completely false. More than that, her response to me was ‘I’m not stepping down so let the process be the process.’ So I did introduce it.

But in the meantime, about two hours later, I get a call from Dan Bice saying ‘Kimberly Walker called me and she believes that race and gender are factors in her dismissal.’ Her immediate response was to call Dan Bice.

At this point she hadn’t seen an agenda item yet. She knows that I’m saying I’m going to introduce it and I’m going to have support. At this point she’s still my lawyer. I haven’t even introduced it. And you don’t know what the support is for it. And her professional judgment is to call Dan Bice and make an accusation—completely unfounded—alleging race and gender as an issue? That to me it just raises a whole other set of her professional and strategic and other decision-making [judgment], that that would be her reaction.

There is no basis for that accusation. And it creates an untenable working situation because she is in fact still my attorney. Imagine, had the move failed, had I not had their votes of if I was bluffing or if I was the only one who felt that way. You’ve now said that about your client. She’s never said it again in those blunt terms that I know of. They seem to have switched narratives. So someone must have said that wasn’t a good one.

Shepherd: But even the NAACP spoke up in her defense.

Lipscomb: They said it raised questions because it had never happened with previous white men. I’m sorry—I have no ability to judge those situations. Was there dissatisfaction with them and they weren’t removed? I don’t know.

Shepherd: What’s your response to the complaint filed by Supervisor Deanna Alexander and the Bradley Foundation-sponsored 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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