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Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010

Transition Time in County Government

A Shepherd Q&A with Milwaukee County Board Chair Lee Holloway

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Milwaukee County Board Chair Lee Holloway finds himself in an enviable position: both king and kingmaker. Since Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker is leaving for the governor’s mansion, Holloway can step into that position for a time and also appoint an interim county executive until an election is called.

But Holloway is not giving up much information about who will succeed Walker, even for a short stint. He is, however, willing to talk about pushing forward on major initiatives, such as finalizing the sale of a portion of the County Grounds to UW-Milwaukee, redistricting the county based on new U.S. Census data, and transitioning the county’s Mental Health Complex into a more modern facility with fewer inpatient beds and more community support.

We visited Holloway in his office last week, just after Walker announced his vetoes on board-initiated spending proposals, to talk about the transitions at the county, Holloway’s plans, and his take on the Walker era. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Shepherd:
Is Walker going to step down by Dec. 28 to avoid a special election next year?

Holloway:
He’s going to do that because he doesn’t want to move it to a spring vote. He could leave early, but he’s holding on to it.

Shepherd:
Are you happy about that?

Holloway:
I would hate for him to leave on Dec. 27 because then it’s into the holidays and it takes me away from doing the stuff that I need to do. But it’s fine. Whatever way he wants to leave is fine because I’ll be getting prepared. After Thanksgiving I’ll be ready and starting to move on things, getting a transitional team going. I’m trying to have a transitional team for myself and the person that I appoint. So we’ll continue to work together.

Shepherd:
So you can become county executive for up to 30 days.

Holloway:
For up to 30 days or for up to 100 days if I was willing to sign out on not being chairman anymore. The thing about it is that I made some commitments to the people who elected me as chair. I’ve got a few more major things to do. I’ve got to finish up the UWM thing on the County Grounds and I’ve got to finish up redistricting. If I didn’t have those things, then bingo, I might go.

Shepherd:
So it looks like you’ll be county executive for up to 30 days. Then you’re going to appoint someone to serve until the election. Who are you going to appoint?

Holloway:
[silence]

Shepherd:
Have you spoken to that person?

Holloway:
No, I haven’t spoken to that person. You’d be surprised who’s calling me.

Shepherd:
Who?

Holloway:
[silence]

Shepherd:
Have you selected the person you want to appoint?

Holloway:
No. I don’t even know if the one or two people I’ve thought about would be interested and would take it.

Shepherd:
Has anyone spoken to you about running for county executive?

Holloway:
Nobody has said anything about running for county executive. I’ve heard backroom rumblings that Supervisor Johnny Thomas might be running.

Shepherd:
Are you going to appoint anyone or are you going to stick it out for the entire 100 days?

Holloway:
[silence]

Shepherd:
Regarding the candidates for county executive, what sort of person would be the best for the job? What type of person does the county need?

Holloway:
I think it needs a person like Lee Holloway, to be honest with you. I’m sincere about that. I think I’ve got all of the skills and the ability. And the big initiatives all came from me, for a long time: the health [insurance] initiatives, which saved $100 million for the county; the pension obligation bonds—he [Scott Walker] couldn’t get the votes; the sales tax. I tried to save Midwest Express, and did everything I could. He couldn’t get the votes for that. I created the GAMP program, which lasted for 16 to 18 years, and it became a national model. The UWM [expansion], that’s my deal. He was talking about $6 million; I came up with $13 million. Those are a lot of big projects. He’ll come up and try to get publicity and say, “Me and Chairman Holloway…” And he doesn’t veto my stuff.

Scott Walker is not a manager. He has no experience with being a manager. His management is primarily based on his ambition to be the governor. But he’s not a manager.

Shepherd:
Since the board will be focused on finalizing the 2011 budget, what are your thoughts on it?

Holloway:
I’m not really going to be dealing with the budget. I’ve got ideas on how it’s going to go, but I’m going to try to get some other initiatives going. I have some experience in health and mental health. I have a master’s degree in developmental disability with a focus on mental health. There are some initiatives I want to deal with, with the [mental health] model. For example, you might have six models. In one of them you might have people who have a critical need for services. Then I want to create RFPs [requests for proposals] for those particular services. Right now when a person with a mental health issue goes to the county jail, they call the mental health hospital. We have to pick people up. But if we set it up with RFPs, then they have to call those people and have us deal with only a small portion of people who clearly need hospitalization.

This thing that’s coming out in the paper [a Journal Sentinel article by Meg Kissinger], how we’re going the wrong way and we’re building this huge hospital, that’s bullshit. Excuse my language. What we’re going to do is create a small hospital based on that model. There will be fewer beds because many of those people will need outpatient care. I’m very aware of the model she’s talking about because I went to Pennsylvania and studied it and I tried to do it and I couldn’t get the votes to do it. Now, as county executive, I’m going to push to do these things.

Shepherd:
About the budget: Do you have the votes to override Walker’s vetoes?

Holloway:
I think about 50% of his vetoes will be overridden. We usually have about 70%. But there are different supervisors vying for positions right now. Before, when they knew that I’d be here, it was different.

Shepherd:
Why does the county continue to put wage and benefits concessions into the budget instead of negotiating them with the unions, as it is supposed to do?

Holloway:
You’re not supposed to negotiate through the budget, but that’s how Scott Walker has been doing it. He puts us in a situation where we can’t do anything about it because we don’t have the votes to override his vetoes. The conservative supervisors don’t want to override his vetoes.

Shepherd:
When you look back on the Walker era, what are his major contributions to the county, both positive and negative?

Holloway:
Let me put it this way: He could have been less painful. But he was geared toward becoming the governor from the day that he was elected. A lot of his decisions were based on him being the governor and not on anything else. So from that perspective, he hurt the county. But on the other hand there are situations where you need to be realistic when making decisions. Some of those decisions might have helped the county, but it was painful the way he did it.

Shepherd:
Will he allow high-speed rail to go through?

Holloway:
I think he’s got to find a way to do it; maybe he’ll blame someone and let it go through. The business community wants it. But he also, you can see, is running for president, talking about going down to Florida [to convince retirees to return to Wisconsin]. He’s creating a name for himself on national issues and by being critical of Obama.

Shepherd:
So will we get high-speed rail?

Holloway:
Yes. I think so.