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Man Overboard
Why are top officials leaving Chris Abele’s administration at what some say is an alarming rate?

Illustration by Leslie Herman

The career of Frank Busalacchi has taken some surprising turns. He’s led a Republican-leaning union, served as Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s secretary of transportation and held a similar post under Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. But even Busalacchi was surprised by the latest twist in his route – a sudden dismissal moments into a routine meeting with Abele, who offered no explanation for the firing.

Sound familiar? That’s the same way Sue Black describes her own ouster as parks director, which attracted far more media attention. Local government insiders speculate that Busalacchi, the ex-Teamster with a reputation for directness, clashed with his millionaire boss, possibly over a bungled contract for transporting the disabled or a refusal to dismiss someone Abele wanted gone.

Not true, according to Busalacchi. He says he “never had a bad meeting” with the county executive, who praised him right up until his termination.

Whatever Abele’s motivation, Busalacchi’s October 2012 booting was part of a trend. Of 19 key posts requiring confirmation by the Milwaukee County Board, eight managers appointed or reappointed by Abele quit or were fired during the exec’s first two years in office, a turnover rate of 42 percent. By contrast, only two of Mayor Tom Barrett’s 21 top appointees left in his first two years, or less than 10 percent. County staffers couldn’t produce comparable figures for former County Executive Scott Walker’s first two years, but available information shows the future governor dumped holdovers from the previous administration, not his own appointees.

Abele declined to provide specifics of his managers’ departures and said that discussing personnel matters would be inappropriate. But other officials, past and present, grouped the recently departed into three subsets.

Walked the Plank

Besides Black and Busalacchi, Abele fired John Listinsky as human resources director in October 2011 after just one week on the job. Now a county official in Nevada, Listinsky says he wasn’t given an explanation for his dismissal. And insiders aren’t sure how to explain the removal of facilities chief Jim Burton in April 2013, though he was under fire from Sheriff David Clarke over courthouse security gaps and cockroaches found in the Safety Building.

Set Adrift in Lifeboats

Abele spokesman Brendan Conway blames county supervisors for forcing out Brian Taffora, the former economic development chief who refused to move into Milwaukee County to meet a residency requirement. Ditto for Patrick Farley, the administrative services director whose bribery sting disrupted Johnny Thomas’ political career but ended in the former county supervisor’s acquittal. No unemployment checks for these guys, however: Both Taffora, who departed in December 2012, and Farley, who left in February, landed jobs in Abele’s real estate firm, CSA Commercial.

Jumped Ship

Budget director Craig Kammholz quit in April to become the chief financial officer at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, a post that Conway calls Kammholz’s “dream job.” Others say the dysfunctional ways of county government frustrated the longtime city official. By contrast, insiders say, Abele was frustrated with Paula Lucey, who came out of retirement to run the county’s Mental Health Complex in September 2012. She abruptly retired again in March as controversy continued over patient deaths and Abele pushed to phase out the facility. Some question whether she left voluntarily or was forced out.

Most of the ex-Abele staffers declined to comment. Burton and Kammholz refused to be interviewed, and neither Taffora, Farley nor Lucey responded to phone calls and emails.

Supervisor Patricia Jursik says Abele may be replacing “strong directors” with “yes men” who don’t communicate openly with supervisors. Abele wouldn’t respond to that charge but instead asked voters to trust his personnel moves, which he maintains are in the best interest of the county.

Public Policy Forum President Rob Henken, who served in Walker’s county administration, says tensions between the executive and County Board can wear on agency chiefs, who must report to both sides. And that’s not easy, he says, when each branch has “such a high level of disregard” for the other.

But other aides who left the administration reported to Abele alone. Chief of staff George Aldrich departed via, as he terms it, a mutual decision; deputy chief of staff Jeff Bentoff resigned to return to consulting; and legislative liaison Tia Torhorst quit after the County Board refused to create a job she wanted. Insiders say all three felt cut out of Abele’s decision-making loop – not unlike supervisors baffled by his lineup changes.
This article appears in the July 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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