Why Was Sue Black Fired?
The development is a shocker as Abele was a friend and supporter of the highly regarded parks director.
Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black was fired Thursday by County Executive Chris Abele, leaving observers buzzing as to why, and speculating as to the possible political blowback for Abele, given Black’s popularity in Milwaukee. At an afternoon news conference Abele repeatedly refused to disclose why he fired her, telling reporters “I don’t owe you gossip.”
It was a stunning development as Abele had been a friend and supporter of Black who argued she was underpaid and under appreciated by her old boss, former County Executive Scott Walker. It was only a few months ago that Abele nominated Black to stay on for another four years. Abele had withstood criticism from the county board to give Black two raises totaling $21,000 in 2011, raising her pay to $140,000, partly in response to an offer Black got to run the Chicago Parks District, which she ultimately turned down.
County Supervisor Jason Haas says he entered the county courthouse at the same time as Black at around 12:45 p.m Thursday afternoon, and they chatted a bit. “We were at the front desk of the the county board chambers. That was the last time I saw her.”
About 15 minutes later, Haas says, Abele sent an email to board members saying Sue Black no longer works with the county. Haas was stunned. Black told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she was there to attend her regular weekly meeting with Abele and he told her “we are going in a another direction. We are letting you go.”
Black said she was locked out of her office in Wauwatosa while she was at the courthouse meeting with Abele. Her county cellphone was soon cut off. Sources say police were called to escort her from the office. Attempts to reach Black at her job at the parks office were unsuccessful. “She’s not here. She’s no longer employed here,” the person answering the phone said, adding that he had no other phone number for her.
Black, 51, was highly regarded, with a reputation for doing a lot with a parks budget that was constantly getting cut, and winning national honors for her work. She was cited as one of Milwaukee’s 10 most effective leaders in a cover story on leadership in the January issue of Milwaukee Magazine. (Ironically, Abele was also one of the ten leaders cited). The praise for Black in the story was topped by a comment by Badger Meter Chief Executive Rich Meeusen: “Excellent vision and willingness to stand up and take a position.”
Abele’s press release announcing her departure was also quite positive — but this was before Black revealed she had been fired. “Sue has been a strong steward for the Milwaukee County Parks system. Her leadership has helped put us on a solid path as we move forward,” Abele declared. “I thank her for her years of service and wish her well in her future endeavors. Residents should know I remain committed to making sure we have the best parks for everyone.”
Black grew up in Brookfield and then in Fond du Lac after her family moved there. As a child she loved the outdoors, she told Milwaukee Magazine in a November, 2006 profile of her, and would often head to the park as a refuge when family problems occurred. Her parents were divorced when Black was in her teens.
After graduation from UW-Madison, Black got a job with the state parks department, and gradually rose in the field of recreation, becoming operations manager for the Dane County Park System, succeeded by a job as chief of operations for the Arizona State Parks. But she kept her eye on Wisconsin, and jumped at the chance to become state parks director in 1997. She became close to Governor Tommy Thompson, who once called her “the best parks director in the country.” Walker once described Black as being “big buddies with Tommy Thompson.”
But after Thompson was gone, Black lost her position in 2003, under a scenario spookily reminiscent of her latest firing. Black recalled walking into a meeting at the state Department of Natural Resources, to whom she reported, and being handed a letter telling her she was relieved of her position. She was being shifted to an administrative position whose title Black told Milwaukee Magazine she couldn’t even recall.
Walker had been a fan of Black’s work as state parks director and soon recruited her to come to Milwaukee. She quickly took charge, winning converts but also surprising people with her outspoken style. “If this weren’t home,” she said in 2006, “I’d have gotten out of here a long time ago.” Sources close to Black say there was tension between her and Walker, not just over the parks budget but over her pay; he felt she deserved a raise. Abele picked up on that idea in his first run for county executive, arguing she was underpaid.
Steve Thompson, head of the Wisconsin Parks and Recreation Association, once described Black as a “a schemer, but in a good way,” who uses this approach to improve the parks she runs. She won the national Gold Medal in 2009 for excellence in parks management. She is credited with overseeing improvements of Bradford Beach, Lake Park and the Mitchell Park Domes, as well as opening the beer garden at Estabrook Park. On the other hand, she threatened to quit more than once when Walker was her boss, and was at odds with his stance against a proposal to create a dedicated funding source for the parks.
Black is popular with parks lovers, county supervisors and many business leaders. There was talk of her running for county executive after Walker became governor, but she instead supported Abele. Her situation is reminiscent of the late Dave Schulz, who was fired from his job as parks director by then-County Executive William O’Donnell in 1987. Schulz turned around and ran for county executive, defeating his old boss in 1988.
Abele, however, isn’t up for reelection until 2016 — a long time from now. By then, perhaps we’ll learn why Black was fired.
Note to readers: As the comments below suggest, there is great disagreement about Black’s firing. One Black supporter is asking folks to sign a petition opposing the firing.