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Listen Up
Marina Dimitrijevic wants to heal old wounds as Milwaukee's new County Board chair.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

If you haven’t yet met MARINA DIMITRIJEVIC (pronounced dee-MEE-tree-YEH-vitch), you will soon. The new Milwaukee County Board chairwoman is a listening session junkie. She says she’s held more than 140 of them since joining the board in 2004 at age 22 and has extensive plans for more. Ascending to the board’s top position at 31, she’s the second woman and the youngest person ever elected to the job. Outgoing and determined, she’s nonplussed by the differences between herself and her predecessors. But she’d like reporters to stop asking about her immediate one, Lee Holloway. She wants to set her own tone.

Do people actually understand what a county supervisor does?
Yes, [but] I think we also need to do a better job getting out the word as to what county government does. Whether you know it or not, county government affects you. If you took the freeway in, sheriffs patrol that. Were you indirectly served by the fact that we have criminals locked up? I think so. Have you had a picnic in a park? Those are county. We have services from A to Z. Airport to zoo. Life to death. We provide those certificates.

What do you say to those who think the board should be downsized? 
This is a full-time job. We have downsized. We went from 25 to 19, and then from 19 to 18. Our districts now are almost nearly the population of an assembly district.

You’ve said you’re a “coalition builder.” What does that mean?
There’s divisiveness in every level of government right now, unfortunately, and as a county we want to make sure we’re unified. In my eight years of service, I’ve worked closely with supervisors. I had a unanimous coalition when I worked on my Green Print legislation for environmental sustainability, and we had a really unique and diverse coalition when we worked on domestic partnership benefits for Milwaukee County employees.

What have been some of the board’s greatest successes?
We have a lot of successes that go unnoticed, unfortunately, and sometimes it is local media that likes to print more negative things than positive. During the years of what I like to call “mismanagement,” when we had then-County Executive Scott Walker, it was this board that stepped up every single year and made sure we had a fiscally and socially responsible budget. We’ve made sure we haven’t had harmful cuts to safety net services like mental health. We’ve worked really hard on stopping the gap on transit funding.

As for the negative, what has been the board’s greatest failure?
One area that has a lot of room for improvement is our relationships with suburban communities. I’ve committed to a listening session in every single municipality of the county.

Park East is still something of an open wound on the Downtown landscape. What has been holding it back?
We sold a pretty major parcel to the Milwaukee School of Engineering. You can’t sell every piece of land at the same time. There still are some vacancies. But this, I believe, is going to be a catalytic project. I think it’s a step in the right direction.

In past years, the county has been sort of an absent actor on economic development. This is starting to change. Is there anything the county isn’t doing yet that it should be?
We just put out a request for proposals for the sale of the Downtown Transit Center. That was a board-led effort with the lakefront development plan. We are, slowly but surely, working really hard, and we’re making economic development a main goal.

Lee Holloway had a difficult relationship with Chris Abele at times. What are your thoughts on Abele and his leadership style?
I’m getting a little frustrated with all this dwelling on the past. We need to move forward. Within 24 hours of being elected chairwoman, I spoke with the county executive, and we laid out our paths for communication. Our staff people are meeting weekly, and Chris Abele and I will be meeting monthly face to face.

You were critical of Walker when he was county executive. Do you still see him as someone you’re contending with?
Did I vote against some of the measures he put forth that were ill-advised and not good for Milwaukee County citizens? Yes. But a critic? I think that’s a stretch. Contending with him? That’s not the case either. He’s the governor of the state of Wisconsin, and with him having experience in Milwaukee County, I hope that he puts Milwaukee County interests at the top of his agenda. 

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Ricardo Diaz
POSTED 11/6/2014

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POSTED 10/7/2014