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Sunday, March 23, 2008

City Attorney Race Creates Sparks

Langley and Colon fight to the finish

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Few people outside of the legal community have a solid grip on what, exactly, the Milwaukee city attorney does. But the office employs 64 people, has an annual budget of $7 million and provides legal advice and services for the city, the Milwaukee Public Schools, the police and fire departments, the city’s pension system, the housing authority, libraries, the port and a host of other city agencies and departments.

Grant Langley has served as the Milwaukee city attorney for 24 years and is up for re-election on April 1. He said his longtime experience with municipal matters—he has spent his entire legal career in the city attorney’s office—is the best reason why he should be re-elected.

“I think I’m doing a good job,” Langley said. “I have an outstanding staff. I have experience. I have the expertise needed to do the job and I love it. We are doing a very, very good job.” But Langley’s challenger, state Rep. Pedro Colon, called the longtime incumbent “detached” from the city’s problems.

Colon, a Democrat who represents the Near South Side of Milwaukee in the state Assembly, said that Langley has dropped the ball on a number of issues because he didn’t see how the city attorney’s office could have made a difference.

“Langley doesn’t see himself as part of the solution,” Colon said. “He’s not invested in the results of the cases.” Colon said that the city attorney should more actively use legal tools to solve some of the long-standing issues plaguing the city. These legal tools, Colon said, would complement and support policy decisions made by the mayor and Milwaukee Common Council.

“I know what my constraints are as a state legislator, and I know the constraints of the political system,” Colon said. “You need more pressure. If you use every single weapon in your arsenal, then you’re probably likely to do better. But if one weapon is sitting there waiting for the memo [to take action], then you have to ask, ‘Where is our lawyer?’” The position pays $143,882 annually.

On the Issues
Not surprisingly, given their differing visions for the office, Langley and Colon have differing opinions on Langley’s leadership on specific issues. Crime. Colon has made the city attorney’s role in reducing crime a central component of his campaign.

He has developed a plan with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm (who has endorsed Colon) to pool the resources of the two offices. The result, Colon said, would be more timely and efficient prosecution of criminals and closure of nuisance properties, including drug or gang houses. Colon said that as a resident of Walker’s Point, he understands the impact of crime on law-abiding residents. Colon said the office would also train Milwaukee Police Department officers in respecting the law while making arrests.

“This is being treated as a peripheral part of the office,” Colon said. Langley said that, although “this campaign is not a referendum on crime,” his office has been involved in shutting down nuisance properties or working with landlords to eliminate drug or gang activity. He said his office has “closed the files” on more than 300 of the 400 nuisance properties referred to his office since 2005. Colon said that Langley has only taken an interest in nuisance properties since he raised the issue in his campaign. He noted that the district attorney has had community prosecutors for 12 years, but that Langley has been going after known drug houses only since 2005.

Driver’s licenses. Colon charged that Langley has not been involved in ongoing efforts to provide solutions to the long-standing problem of the lack of driver’s licenses among city residents. Licenses can be revoked due to failure to pay tickets and fines, drug convictions and other violations. Colon said that the city attorney should be the best resource for providing information about license revocations, but that Langley has abdicated his responsibility.

Langley countered by saying that Municipal Court judges revoke licenses, not the city attorney, and that records about who is having their licenses taken away, and why, can be found in online Municipal Court records. Colon said that Langley shouldn’t be so passive on an issue that affects the city’s safety and job growth. “He should bring some solutions to the table,” Colon said.

Lead paint verdict. Last year, the city lost its suit to force a manufacturer of lead-based paint to pay $50 million toward the city’s lead abatement program. Langley hired a Washington, D.C., firm to try the case; the firm would have been paid for its services only if it had won at trial. Colon argued that Langley (or Deputy City Attorney Rudy Konrad, who managed the case for the office) should have been more involved in the case by “looking the jury in the eye.” Colon said the city attorney should have explained to the jury the impact of its verdict on the city of Milwaukee—a potential $50 million windfall for an important health and environmental safety program.

“You can’t do that unless you’re present,” Colon said. “And every office is about presence and it’s about accountability. If you’re not accountable for the lead paint lawsuit—and everybody understands that clearly—then why should the jury care?” Langley said that Konrad appeared in court, although he did not speak to the jury. Langley said that he did not personally appear in court because his wife was ill. He said the city would appeal the verdict.

Colon said the multimillion-dollar verdict could have been “a big win” for the city’s most vulnerable residents. “The case was mismanaged,” Colon said. School choice funding. Colon said that the city attorney could potentially take the state to court to fix the funding flaw in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

While the state is required to provide about $6,800 for each public elementary school student, it only provides about $5,300 for each choice student. City of Milwaukee property taxpayers fund the shortfall. “Langley is in the perfect place to provide an analysis and see if there is a fruitful case for the city,” Colon said.

Langley said that his office, with the Milwaukee Public Schools Board, is looking into the possibility of bringing a suit. “This is a decision that will be made by the school board in consultation with my office,” Langley said.

Colon questioned the city attorney’s efforts. “Why hasn’t Langley reacted?” he said. What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

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