ONCE, MILWAUKEE County’s potential seemed to stretch out like its magnificent lakefront on a clear summer day.
J. Martin Klotsche thought so. Speaking at the May 1960 inauguration of John Doyne as the first county executive, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee provost predicted: “Now Milwaukee County will emerge as one of the important agencies in dealing with metropolitan growth.”
In his own inaugural address, Doyne laid out “a sweeping 17-point program for streamlining county government to assume an ever-increasing role in metropolitan affairs,” the Milwaukee Sentinel reported.
By then, the county was already an important player in the region. It was leading the way into a new era of transportation, building freeways and operating a major airport. It was also a leader in recreation, running a glorious array of parks, a zoo, a baseball stadium, the Mitchell Park Domes and the War Memorial Center. And it took care of its people through a general hospital, a psychiatric hospital, a network of social services and a justice system.
To Klotsche, Doyne and others, the county looked like the most logical foundation on which to build a metropolitan government. In the years to come, it would take on more regional roles: a bus system, a paramedic system, the Milwaukee Public Museum and a performing arts center.
But more than five decades later, that same county seems more a parody than a paragon of local governance.
A top county administrator secretly records a dougnut shop conversation with a supervisor in a failed bribery sting. The County Board forces out that administrator and another official who refused to move into the county where he was promoting economic development. The county executive convinces the Legislature to reduce the board’s power and to hold this year’s April 1 referendum on chopping its pay in half. The board responds by firing the county’s top lawyer and slicing the salaries of other county managers. The executive refuses to implement the cuts, setting up a likely court fight between the two branches.
They’re fighting over a shrinking government. The freeways,
hospital, stadium, museum and much of the social services have been spun off, privatized or taken over by the state. Public officials and business leaders have seriously considered whether the parks, cultural institutions, bus system and airport should be shifted to new regional authorities. The most recent debate has focused on cutting the County Board out of key decisions on behavioral health.
What happened to Milwaukee County? And if it’s broken, how can it be fixed?
It would be easy to point to personality conflicts among elected officials. Yet since county government was upended by a 2001-02 scandal over pumped-up pension benefits, the county executive’s office has changed hands twice, and more than two-thirds of board seats have turned over.
Business-led reform efforts have focused on restructuring the County Board and strengthening the county executive. But in recent years, two prominent local officials of opposite political leanings have raised the issue of abolishing the executive office instead.
Some studies have questioned whether the conflict is rooted in an identity crisis for a government struggling to balance its revenue with the costs of all the programs it wants and all the programs it needs, a system that pits the demands of urban poverty and crime against the desire for public transportation and recreation. And at least one business leader has advocated dismantling the entire county government and letting other agencies take over its functions.
Those questions have been debated and studied, in different ways, for decades – years before any of the current elected officials took office, even before the pension scandal ignited much of the criticism and scrutiny that continues to this day.
A look through the county’s history shows problems and solutions chasing each other in giant circles that loop across parts of three centuries. It’s a story of well-intentioned decisions with far-ranging consequences that combined to build a makeshift metropolitan government that nobody designed, chafing like a rebellious teenager against the state’s dictates of what it must do and what it cannot do.
And, like any history, it’s a story of the colorful and flawed human beings who made those decisions and lived with those consequences. Since 1960, Milwaukee County has been led by a multimillionaire, a former factory worker, a 470-pound engineer, a pair of attorneys and a future Wisconsin governor, each fighting his own battles and cutting his own deals with a County Board of equally diverse and strong-willed characters determined to assert their own authority.
Yet their actions over the past 54 years were shaped by a framework built up over the county’s first 125 years.
Milwaukee County was born before Milwaukee was a city and before Wisconsin was a state. In 1835, it was created by the Michigan territorial legislature to collect taxes and run courts for the distant government in Detroit.
That 19th-century view of the county as the state’s local arm continued to shape county budget priorities long after Wisconsin became a separate territory and achieved statehood. About six of every 10 dollars that Milwaukee County spent in 2013 went to the justice system and human services, the biggest responsibilities that the state has assigned to counties.
But Milwaukee County always wanted to do more, stretching its role to include parks and airports in the early 20th century.
Then the Great Depression hit the growing government hard.
“As unemployment soared, relief costs rose to absorb more than half of Milwaukee County’s budget,” local historian and author John Gurda wrote in The Making of Milwaukee. “The county’s tax rate doubled between 1928 and 1932, and still it was necessary to issue millions of dollars in bonds to keep the needy from freezing or starving.”
While the county was trying to avoid bankruptcy, the city was drawing national attention for its sound finances, never missing a debt payment and suspending borrowing by 1932. Nearly eight decades later, as the Great Recession took its toll on all local governments, that pattern would repeat itself, with the Public Policy Forum, a nonpartisan local think tank, generally giving the city higher marks than the county for confronting fiscal challenges.
The fiscal realities of the 1930s led Mayor Daniel Hoan, among others, to question the need for separate and overlapping local governments, at a time when 80 percent of county residents lived in the city. It was a question that dated back almost to the city’s 1846 chartering, but this time, county voters overwhelmingly backed a single countywide metropolitan government in a 1936 advisory referendum.
However, “consolidation was the prerogative of state government, and the Wisconsin legislature, apparently wary of the big city’s intentions, rejected the proposal,” Gurda wrote. The Legislature then was dominated by rural lawmakers who might have felt protective toward the county’s largely rural suburban areas, he adds in an interview.
It took more than six decades for the municipal merger idea to resurface, touted by outgoing County Executive Tom Ament in his 2002 farewell address. Then, in 2006, Ald. Terry Witkowski proposed an advisory referendum that would have asked whether to study merging the county into the city government while leaving the suburbs intact. Neither suggestion gained much traction.
As a consolation prize for denying the 1936 merger, legislators allowed the city and county to merge specific functions. The county swiftly absorbed the city park system, including the Washington Park Zoo, the Domes and Lincoln Memorial Drive. In the years to come, the county would take over construction of the first six-lane freeways; build a stadium in an unlikely but ultimately successful effort to attract a major league baseball team; erect the War Memorial Center, with space for veterans groups and an art museum; and start work on a new West Side zoo to replace the aging Washington Park Zoo.
“County government ... has grown in response to need, circumstance and political expediency,” Gurda wrote in 2002 in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
For more than a century, Milwaukee County had no tension between its executive and legislative branches because it had no executive branch. As in many other U.S. counties, its highest elected official was the County Board chairman. Government reformers nationwide focused on board chairs in the 19th century, when “every election was partisan and every job was patronage,” says County Treasurer Dan Diliberti, a longtime student of county government. To keep vital functions out of the hands of partisan chairmen and their cronies, lawmakers required some officials to be separately elected, created civil service protections for public employees, ordered nonpartisan elections for most local offices and established commissions to provide apolitical oversight for some agencies.
Yet as Milwaukee County government expanded, many thought it was becoming too complex for a County Board of part-time supervisors overseeing departments led by almost-untouchable civil servants and independent commissions.
Among those who thought so was Doyne, then the County Board chairman. Doyne, a genial Irish attorney who had served in the Legislature himself, set about convincing lawmakers that the county should have a chief executive. His leading adversary was his vice chairman, Eugene Grobschmidt, who argued that “central government was communism,” Diliberti says.
Doyne prevailed and won the first election for the new post. He would go on to serve 16 years, still a record today.
But Grobschmidt, the pugnacious South Milwaukee supervisor who succeeded Doyne as board chairman, remained deeply skeptical of the new executive branch. The two clashed as Doyne successfully fought to establish veto power over legislation. Doyne tried to smooth over the controversies with his personal charm, a tactic that may have led him to appear less assertive than he could have been.
“John was county executive at a time when there were still many on the County Board who didn’t think we needed a county executive,” Ament tells Milwaukee Magazine. “John Doyne was, I think, an excellent county executive. His problem was that he didn’t push his power.”
The job of strengthening the executive office fell to Bill O’Donnell, who had become County Board chairman in the final years of the Doyne administration. Like Doyne, O’Donnell was an old-school Irish politician with ties to Milwaukee’s Merrill Park neighborhood. But O’Donnell was more blunt-spoken and rough-hewn, with a high school education and a blue-collar background, riding the bus to the courthouse for board and committee meetings. Moreover, he preferred to work behind the scenes rather than in front of the cameras.
Yet when Doyne decided to not seek a fifth term in 1976, O’Donnell ran and defeated then-District Attorney E. Michael McCann for the job. Ament, a sometimes-brusque attorney, stepped into the board chairmanship. Like their predecessors – and their successors – conflict soon was brewing between the executive and the chairman.
Operating county departments with civil service directors and independent commissions, which were designed to insulate the agencies from politics, was now seen as unresponsive to citizens’ concerns. Nowhere was that more evident than on the Expressway Commission, which pressed forward against growing public and political resistance to bulldozing homes and neighborhoods, until lawsuits and protests finally halted freeway construction in the early 1970s.
“Doyne never really got the powers that were intended for the county executive,” Diliberti says, notably control of department heads, because of disputes over who would appoint whom.
Over Ament’s opposition, O’Donnell pushed for a cabinet form of government, in which top officials would be appointed by the executive, subject to County Board confirmation. Although O’Donnell won that fight in 1977, the conflict turned into a proxy war when Ament backed County Supervisor Dan Casey against O’Donnell in the 1980 executive election, and O’Donnell retaliated by backing Supervisor Jim Krivitz against Ament in the chairmanship race.
Casey and Krivitz both lost, and O’Donnell and Ament eventually resolved their differences on their own.
But a broader question of authority remained unanswered. By creating the county executive’s office and vesting it with veto power and cabinet government, the Legislature had given the county a mayor-like leader. But the state never granted the county the same kind of home-rule authority that cities enjoy. Unable to fully decide its own course, the county’s role was still largely defined by the state.
Yet the county continued to expand its programs under Doyne’s leadership: building a performing arts center; setting up a countywide paramedic network; and taking over the financially struggling bus system, which had been privately owned.
Back then, “there was still a sense of rising expectations, of continuing growth,” Gurda says. “That was a very buoyant period.”
The bus system takeover was championed by O’Donnell, then the new board chairman. After O’Donnell became executive and Ament became chairman, the county established the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa and took over the Milwaukee Public Museum from the city. The museum deal was driven by the recognition that most museum patrons came from outside the city – still a theme in today’s discussions of how to run and pay for cultural institutions.
But the county was starting to feel the financial pressure of paying for all the programs it wanted to run and all the programs the state said it had to run.
O’Donnell and other county officials around Wisconsin railed against “unfunded state mandates,” arguing that the state wasn’t giving the counties enough aid to fund everything it required them to do. Without more state dollars, the mandatory justice system and human services would take more of Milwaukee County’s property tax levy, leaving elected officials with a politically risky choice between slicing into the popular “quality-of-life” programs and transit system, or raising taxes more than taxpayers would accept.
That issue never has been resolved, largely because of state politicians’ reluctance to increase taxes and spending – or to let anyone else do so. Although the state eventually took over some of the costs of courts, prosecutors and human services, legislators would neither increase state aid as much as the county wanted nor give the county as much taxing power as many of its counterparts in other states.
Lawmakers weren’t even moved by a 2008 advisory referendum in which the County Board won majority support from voters to triple the county sales tax, to 1.5 percent, raising money for parks, transit and paramedics. Then-County Executive Scott Walker opposed any tax increase, and the Legislature never approved the idea.
In 1984, O’Donnell made a seemingly smart personnel move that he would come to regret: He hired away Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s budget director, Dave Schulz.
The colorful Schulz, known for his quotable wit and his massive weight, took a pay cut to come home to his native Milwaukee and escape Chicago’s cutthroat politics. With a background in planning and public works, and with degrees in both engineering and management, he seemed well-suited to public administration.
Indeed, Schulz was anything but reticent about his qualifications. “To engage in this business, you have to have an ego, and I have one, and I don’t deny it,” he said in 1987. “I’m one of the finest young public managers in this country.”
However, after less than two years as county budget chief, Schulz announced he was quitting to take a job in private industry. O’Donnell convinced him to stay and confront a new kind of budget challenge: bringing in more revenue for quality-of-life programs to ease pressure on the tax levy. Schulz was promoted to parks director, with a mandate to aggressively promote the parks and boost attendance at revenue-generating attractions.
Schulz took on that challenge enthusiastically, capturing public attention when he inaugurated a new water slide by personally barreling down it into the Hoyt Park Pool in Wauwatosa.
But Schulz’s high public profile and propensity to act without seeking County Board permission brought him into conflict with supervisors. He said the personal attacks went beyond anything he had faced from Chicago aldermen. And if he overreacted to criticism, Schulz said, it was because “I care, perhaps sometimes too much, about the job that I do.”
O’Donnell backed his parks chief – until the day in 1987 when Schulz finally went too far. With Mayor Henry Maier preparing to leave office, Schulz’s name was among those being tossed about as a possible candidate. Instead, Schulz publicly announced he would back John Norquist, then a state senator.
Within an hour, O’Donnell fired Schulz, saying he didn’t want cabinet members involved in politics. Schulz reacted by getting a lot more involved in politics: He declared his candidacy against O’Donnell, who was gearing up for what, until then, had looked like an easy cruise to a fourth and probably final term.
Schulz’s firing would resonate 25 years later, when County Executive Chris Abele abruptly dismissed his parks director, Sue Black. Like Schulz, Black was a high-profile administrator seen by some as overstepping her bounds. But unlike O’Donnell, Abele never said why he fired her or several other top managers. And Abele didn’t remove Black until after the 2012 election, leaving four years for the drama to fade from the headlines – and for Black to ponder whether to challenge her well-funded former boss for re-election.
In the 1988 campaign, the 38-year-old Schulz focused on his ideas for the future, while the 66-year-old O’Donnell stressed his accomplishments of the past. The more articulate Schulz communicated better on TV and in debates, even as O’Donnell outspent him 2-to-1. When the votes were counted, the margin was also 2-to-1 – but in Schulz’s favor. The landslide defeat was a stunning upset for O’Donnell, who had never lost an election in 40 years, and it was a rare exception to the local tradition of re-electing incumbents to major offices.
As executive, Schulz found himself facing the same supervisors with whom he’d clashed as parks director, and nearly all of them had backed O’Donnell. Schulz said they would have preferred a candidate who came from their own ranks, like Doyne and O’Donnell, and, “I have had the audacity to interrupt the line of divine succession.”
Conflict erupted with supervisors over a range of issues, most notably the 1990 county budget, when Schulz proposed both a new 0.5 percent sales tax and an increase in property taxes, for a total tax increase of nearly 42 percent. The recommendation triggered an unsuccessful recall attempt against the executive. After a bruising debate, supervisors rejected the sales tax and chopped enough of the proposed spending to hold the property tax boost to 22 percent.
But a year later, they did approve the sales tax. Jerry Schulz, who at one point was his brother’s acting chief of staff, says the executive structured the budget so that it would be too politically painful for supervisors to cut spending enough to avoid the new tax.
Meanwhile, the board boosted its power through a pair of moves that attracted little attention at the time. Ament won unanimous approval to mandate board confirmation not only of department heads, but also their top deputies, and some division chiefs and deputy chiefs. A second ordinance required administrators to obtain board approval for many contracts, a change that Jerry Schulz says added at least a month to the procurement process.
Walker later failed in an attempt to eliminate the board’s power to approve any contracts or leases. The Schulz-era purchasing rules stood until 2013, when Abele won passage of state legislation – which Walker signed as governor – sharply reducing the number of contracts supervisors must approve. Separately, Abele obtained a state attorney general’s opinion that said the board had overstepped its power to confirm executive appointees since the Schulz administration.
Schulz’s conflicts with the board took a toll, souring his mood and hampering progress. His lack of political skills exacerbated tension.
“Schulz was probably the smartest county executive we ever had,” Diliberti says. “But he ran saying he wasn’t a politician, and he spent four years proving it.”
By April 1991, Schulz reached that same conclusion himself. He announced he would not seek a second term in 1992.
“I feel that I’m simply not cut out to be a politician,” Schulz told the Sentinel. “Because I care so much about this community and the issues that we deal with, and because I’m relatively thin-skinned and I’m not as patient as I should be, as politicians have to be, I’m just not in the position where I want to go another term or two or three.”
The race to succeed Schulz carried echoes of his challenge to O’Donnell four years before. Ament, 54, stressed his experience – 24 years on the board, including 16 as chairman. His opponent, Joe Czarnezki, then a 37-year-old Democratic state senator, promised to bring new leadership and change to county government. This time, voters picked experience over change. Ament won, 54-46 percent.
Many supervisors had supported Ament and expected a better relationship with him than with Schulz. Yet, like Schulz before him, Ament failed in a bid to impose a new tax in the 1993 budget, when the board rejected a $20-a-car county vehicle registration fee to wean the transit system off property tax support. He later lost two attempts to win state approval to levy a type of local fuel tax, also for transit.
Ament’s successor as board chairman, Robert Jackson, went from supporting him in the 1992 race to running against him in 1996. Jackson, a conservative attorney, argued the board had been providing more leadership than the executive. But Ament easily took down Jackson by a 70-to-30 margin.
As fiscal pressures mounted, county government began to shrink. The county handed over operation of the Milwaukee Public Museum to a nonprofit board, in a step toward financial independence. It gave the Milwaukee Brewers day-to-day control over Milwaukee County Stadium, for the transition to building a new stadium, Miller Park.
But the most significant downsizing came on Ament’s watch. The county hospital was sold to neighboring Froedtert Hospital; the county’s general assistance welfare program ended, supplanted by state programs; and the state took over child protective services.
Less than halfway through Ament’s third term, a political earthquake struck – and the aftershocks just kept coming.
In late 2001, reports surfaced that county officials had approved extraordinarily generous pension enhancements. As reported extensively in this magazine, some longtime workers – including top officials – would be eligible for lump-sum “backdrop” payouts of more than $1 million; Ament himself stood to gain $2.3 million, on top of a $136,800-a-year regular pension, if he served until 2008.
Amid public outrage, county officials and state prosecutors launched investigations and pondered legal options. Ament said he would not accept a lump-sum payment, and he forced three top officials out of office for their roles in the pension plan.
That wasn’t good enough for the county’s angry voters. With public opinion strongly against him and a petition drive for a recall election nearing success, Ament announced he would step down in February 2002.
The special election that followed once again offered a generational contrast, this time between 34-year-old Walker, a conservative Republican state representative from Wauwatosa, and 58-year-old Jim Ryan, the moderate Hales Corners village president. Both ran on promises of change, but the media-savvy Walker convinced voters he would be a more effective agent of change than Ryan, a former supervisor. Walker won, 55 percent to 45 percent, racking up a large suburban margin to overcome Ryan’s narrow edge in the city.
But with conservative talk-radio hosts fanning the flames, the pension revenge frenzy continued. Recall organizers targeted most of the board’s 25 members for removal. Some recall drives fizzled and a few incumbents survived the balloting, but seven supervisors lost their jobs, including Karen Ordinans, the first woman to chair the board. In most of those elections, as in the executive race, conservatives replaced progressives and moderates, raising questions about whether right-wing partisans had hijacked the grassroots recall movement. The recall organization, Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG) always denied it was a Republican front group, but it has since developed ties to the Tea Party.
Although the public held elected officials responsible for the pension scandal, the courts did not. Gary Dobbert, the personnel chief who designed the backdrop, pleaded no contest to misconduct in public office for falsely telling other officials that he had obtained a formal cost estimate for the plan. Mercer Inc., the county’s pension actuary, paid $45 million to settle a county lawsuit accusing the firm of failing to warn officials of the deal’s true cost.
The pension scandal shook the public’s trust and triggered a continuing debate over reforming county government. It triggered waves of studies, task forces and legislative proposals to change the system that allowed this to happen. Business leaders played major roles in the reform drive, particularly Abele, a Milwaukee philanthropist, and investor Sheldon Lubar, an influential figure in both business and
political circles. Among the recurring themes:
Cutting the board: One of Walker’s first proposals as executive was to chop supervisors’ pay by 70 percent, relegating them to part-time status. A 2003 Greater Milwaukee Committee task force also supported part-time pay – although not as deep a pay cut as Walker sought – and called for reducing the board from 25 to 19 members. Supervisors agreed to eliminate six seats for the term starting in 2004, but resisted the pay cuts.
As recently as 1992, working part-time had been a political liability for supervisors. That year, voters turned out incumbents John Valenti and Fred Tabak, whose challengers attacked them for practicing law on the side instead of devoting all of their time to legislative duties.
“This part-time [supervisor] stuff is done and over with,” newly elected Supervisor Mark Borkowski proclaimed after edging Valenti. But Borkowski, now the board’s longest-serving member, might see that “part-time stuff” come back if the April 1 referendum passes.
Eliminating the executive: During his 2002 campaign, Walker won Assembly approval of a bill to let the county abolish the executive office, but it died in the Senate. When Lee Holloway, then the County Board chairman, brought up the idea again seven years later, Walker belittled it and the board shelved it.
However, Ozaukee County Administrator Tom Meaux says, “I question the need for a county executive in any county.” Meaux, a former Milwaukee County supervisor and treasurer, was appointed by the Ozaukee County Board, a structure used in most Wisconsin counties. Since most county duties are set by the state, Meaux says the legislative branch and the administration “need to be aligned,” and that’s often not possible if the chief executive is separately elected.
Blowing up the county: In 2008, Lubar said it was time to dismantle the county and divide its functions among the state, municipal governments and new regional authorities. “County governance has grown into a dysfunctional system that wouldn’t work if Jesus was the county executive and Moses chaired the board of supervisors,” Lubar told the Rotary Club of Milwaukee.
One barrier to abolishing the county, according to a 2010 Public Policy Forum study, is that retiree benefit costs for county employees would linger long after the county itself was gone. But if local government was being redesigned from the bottom up, it’s likely services would be divided differently among municipal and county governments, the study added.
These days, Lubar says he still believes the county should be dismantled. But, he concedes, “that’s not going to happen.”
If the County Board saw Schulz as an interloper, Walker was a true outsider, with no previous ties to county government. And even though the recalls installed some conservative Walker allies as
supervisors, the new executive soon found himself in conflict with the reshaped board, led by Holloway, a landlord and the first African-American board chairman.
Walker’s main budget goal was to never raise taxes. That meant holding down spending more than supervisors wanted, so each year they revised Walker’s budget to preserve more spending and increase property taxes. Each year, Walker vetoed most of the board changes to return to a no-tax-increase budget. Each year, the board overrode most of Walker’s vetoes and ended up with a tax increase. And the next year, the same cycle would start all over again, except that Walker would use the board’s most recent tax levy as the starting point for his “no-tax-increase” budget. Abele has continued that pattern.
In lobbying for his budgets, Walker went over supervisors’ heads to the voters, using his campaign fund to pay for ads promoting his position, often on talk-radio stations. CRG, the group behind the original recall drives, backed him up by threatening recalls against supervisors who disagreed, a tactic that then-Supervisor Richard Nyklewicz Jr. said “poisoned the environment” at the courthouse.
As a result of the tax battles, the county raised bus fares, cut bus service, or did both in every year of Walker’s administration, continuing a pattern that started in the final years of the Ament administration. Golf, pool and zoo admission fees rose as well.
Even after Walker was elected governor in 2010, his legacy dominated the race to succeed him, as Abele faced state Rep. Jeff Stone, a Greendale Republican. Like Walker, both candidates ruled out property tax increases. Stone won Walker’s endorsement, which Abele turned to his own advantage during the controversy over Walker’s moves to end most collective bargaining for public employees. Voters picked Abele, a billionaire’s son who had never held public office, by a 60-to-40-percent margin, with an overwhelming city vote for Abele outweighing Stone’s suburb majority.
Some observers expected Abele, a self-professed Democrat in a nonpartisan office, to get along better with a board that was ideologically closer to him than the Republican Walker. But supervisors were suspicious of Abele because of his role in the previous studies and his ties to Lubar, even though Abele insisted he didn’t want to “blow up the county” himself.
Any thought of executive-legislative harmony ended when Abele’s administrative services director, Patrick Farley, wore a wire as he handed an envelope stuffed with cash to then-Supervisor Johnny Thomas, the board’s finance chairman. Thomas, who had been the favorite in the 2012 city comptroller’s race, pulled out of that campaign to defend himself against charges of bribery and misconduct in public office, ultimately winning acquittal. Farley, a former prosecutor, later resigned under pressure from supervisors.
The sting “was extremely destructive to relations with the board,” says Supervisor John Weishan Jr., often a critic of Walker and Abele. “There’s got to be a level of respect and trust between individuals.”
Farley wasn’t the only top Abele aide pushed out by the board. After Abele waived the residency requirement for economic development director Brian Taffora, supervisors restructured his job to force a reconfirmation vote, and Taffora left rather than move into the county.
Before long, Abele decided the board was part of the problem with how county government functioned. He says the 1959 law that created the county exec’s office was too ambiguous about the division of power between the executive and legislative branches. As supervisors became full-time legislators, they expected more authority. In reality, Abele says, state law gives counties relatively little flexibility, and in some respects, Milwaukee County has less authority than other counties because it lacks rural areas without municipal governments.
The board has been a target since the pension scandal, but until recently, it was able to resist changes in compensation and limit changes to its size. For the 2012 election, supervisors cut their ranks from 19 to 18, eliminating the seat held by conservative Joe Rice. They then rejected Rice’s call for a countywide advisory referendum on reducing the board to nine part-time supervisors, although 12 suburbs – representing just 25 percent of the county’s population – held their own referendums and garnered strong voter support.
Then Joe Sanfelippo, a one-term supervisor and Rice ally, won a seat in the Assembly. He introduced legislation to scale back the board’s powers and budget, reduce supervisors’ terms from four years to two, and hold a referendum on whether to cut their annual pay to less than half of their current $50,679, starting in 2016.
Sanfelippo, Abele and their supporters in the business community said the changes would steer the board away from management concerns and focus it on policy issues, similar to other county boards. Former Waukesha County Executive Dan Finley, Milwaukee Public Museum president and CEO during the Walker years, says the Milwaukee County Board “injects itself into management much more than the Waukesha County Board,” and Milwaukee County supervisors “really reflect their districts, as opposed to looking out for the greater good.”
Supervisors, led by Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, and most Milwaukee Democratic lawmakers opposed the measure, arguing it would weaken government checks and balances by handing too much power to the executive. In separate interviews, Ament, Nyklewicz and Jerry Schulz say Abele shouldn’t be changing fundamental government structure to win his conflict with the board. Abele disagrees, saying the board will still have enough power to provide checks and balances, with a larger budget and staff than its counterparts in other Wisconsin counties.
With Sanfelippo’s fellow Republicans controlling the Legislature and a sympathetic Walker as governor, the bill was adopted.
Although previous county executives had clashed with the board by pressing their agendas or asserting their own power, only Walker had targeted the board so directly, and without the success Abele enjoyed. The result, at least in the short term, has been even more acrimony between Abele and the board. Supervisors fired Kimberly Walker as corporation counsel, in the belief she had sided with Abele on the legislation. They also voted to cut salaries of seven top county managers and deny raises for two others, setting up a likely court battle with the executive, who contends the new state law took away the board’s control over those officials’ pay.
But while current reform efforts focus on the board, some suggest the problems could be deeper.
In its 2010 study, the Public Policy Forum asked whether county government would have “less political and more professional governance” if it handed off some of its broad array of services. In an interview, Forum President Rob Henken, an ex-county administrator, added, “I think one reason for a lot of the very passionate rhetoric and deliberations ... is trying to do so many things” with limited tax dollars.
“Milwaukee County had too many clubs in the golf bag,” agrees Tim Sheehy, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce president. Sheehy, the leader of a task force on funding for cultural and recreational institutions, believes programs that serve people across county lines should be governed and funded on a regional basis.
Such solutions – a regional transit authority, a multicounty parks-recreation-culture district, an airport authority – have been proposed for decades. The Public Policy Forum report questioned whether regional authorities would be more efficient or cost-effective, or whether their appointed boards would be less accountable than elected officials in spending public money.
But those questions were ultimately secondary to anti-tax sentiment and city-
suburban rivalries, the twin rocks that wrecked many regional cooperation efforts, and many county reform efforts as well.
“The dysfunction that is there today is the dysfunction that has been there for a while,” Gurda says. “Governmental problems have failed to be solved – for political reasons.”
The next few years will tell whether the latest reforms help Milwaukee County solve its governmental problems – or whether they become just one more episode in its long history of political gamesmanship.