Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Where Abele’s at on the Milwaukee County Board Bill

By Lisa Kaiser
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This week, I wrote about next Wednesday’s Assembly committee meeting in Madison on state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo’s bill to radically weaken the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and grant the Milwaukee County executive new power over local government.

Legislators have no plan as of yet to conduct hearings in Milwaukee County on the issue, leading me to question what they’re afraid to hear.

Locally, supervisors have been holding listening sessions and forums to get feedback from residents. The residents I heard were overwhelmingly opposed to any Legislature-imposed changes.

That said, the Republican Assembly is going ahead with the bill next week.

What’s fascinating and frightening is that the bulk of the “reforms” would be implemented by the Legislature if they approve Sanfelippo’s bill. The referendum slashing supervisors’ pay—and only on slashing supervisors’ pay—would be held on April 1, 2014.

So even if Milwaukee County voters ultimately reject the referendum, legislators could make the Milwaukee County executive king of the land long before them.

Which brings us to Chris Abele.

What’s fascinating and frightening about Abele is that he’s gone farther to “blow up” the county than that “radical reformer” who preceded him, Scott Walker.

That isn’t a good thing.

I’ve heard that more people would speak out against this bill but they’re beholden to Abele’s philanthropic and political support and don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.

Or they could be angling for a job when Abele decides to spin off the parks, for example, or hand out contracts that the weakened board couldn’t inspect too closely.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In this week’s Shepherd I took a closer look at what, exactly, is in Sanfelippo’s bill. Abele’s spokesman, Brendan Conway, didn’t reply via email in time for this issue’s deadline.

But here’s how he answered my questions:

Shepherd: Does the county executive need sole authority over every county department? Does Abele feel that he needs to oversee child support enforcement, work centers and the fish hatchery?

Conway: As the analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau states, "Generally under current law, a county executive has the authority to direct all administrative and management functions of county government..." Many of the changes in the Bill are simply clarifying existing law by cleaning up what was not cleaned up in the Statutes when the County Executive was created over 5 decades ago. Since that time, and without any local input, the County Board has gone from being a part time board with a staff of one (until 1964) into being a full time board with a staff of 38, even as the County has seen its workforce drop from over 11,000 to 4,400. 

This change has taken place through many successive boards but his also resulted in increasing board involvement in management, the continuous extension of elaborate and expensive benefits to county employees, and has come at the cost of cuts in service and tax increases to the Milwaukee County citizens.  The vast majority of these board changes since the creation of the office of County Executive have been made with no local input, and quite often without local knowledge.  The County Executive's interest is not in directly overseeing any of the day to day management of the departments you ask about, nor is that what the bill is intended to establish.  Rather, the County Executive and other supporters of the bill simply wish to return management responsibilities to the executive branch where they were initially intended.

Shepherd: Does Abele feel that some of these provisions could lead to a county executive's abuse of power, such as greatly reducing the board's oversight of contracts, labor negotiations and sale or lease of property?

Conway: The Board and the State would rightfully retain their appropriate oversight role over in approving contracts and land sales.  The County Executive is interested in only in a rational system for contracting, sales, leases, etc that limits the board role beyond that and insures that they are not directly involved in actual negotiations.  By restoring the process to what was initially intended by the state in creating a County Executive and bringing the County back in line with best practices for municipalities around the country, taxpayers and citizens will be better protected.

Shepherd: How long as Abele worked with the GMC to craft the provisions of this bill? Does Abele think this bill should have a local hearing, instead of only conducting hearings in Madison?

Conway: The County Executive has and will continue to encourage anyone who wants their voice heard on this issue to contact their local legislator.

It should be noted that when the County Board was part time and had minimal staff, Milwaukee County was a significantly larger and more complicated organization.  It was also in far better shape fiscally, service levels were higher, debt and deficits were lower, and no one seemed as concerned about inadequate ‘checks and balances’.  The notion that a part time board with a staff of five could effectively serve a Milwaukee County with 11,000 employees and yet be somehow inadequate for a County with 4,400 employees seems to an assertion demanding more substantive defense than has yet been provided.  Similarly, has there been any example given by anyone of a state mandated duty that supervisors would be incapable of carrying out post bill?

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