Myths About Black’s Firing
Strip away the myths and you begin to see why Abele dumped her.
The firing of Milwaukee County Parks director Sue Black has fueled lots of misleading — and often cruel — comments and rumors about Black and County Executive Chris Abele. But if you eliminate the wrong reasons for her firing, the obvious cause becomes clear.
Abele wants to privatize the parks. County Supervisor Gerry Broderick, chair of the county board committee overseeing the parks, has pushed this idea. But there is no evidence that this is Abele’s plan, and Broderick, when I asked him, couldn’t supply any. In fact, Black has historically sought private funding for the parks, from Miller Brewing Company (for Bradford Beach), Harley Davidson (Washington Park), and philanthropist Michael Cudahy (Mitchell Park Domes). She has also sought private-public partnerships, gaining more parks revenue with Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro, Starbucks at Red Arrow Park Skating Rink, and Zilli Hospitality Group at O’Donnell Park and the Domes.
Black is guilty of personal misconduct: You’ll find some of these anonymous — and often sickening — claims in the comments after my last column on Black and after Milwaukee Journal stories. (It didn’t help that Abele told the press “I don’t owe you gossip” about the firing, which helped fuel rumors.) But if that’s why Black was being fired, this would have been handled quietly, with Black resigning, and Abele offering only a tightlipped comment that this was a personnel matter that could not be discussed. Instead, he made the comment “I can get better service” to some reporters, suggesting it’s about his own dissatisfaction with Black.
Black mishandled the Crystal Ridge contract: This story by Channel 58 has the smell of a leak from the Abele administration, an attempt to “justify the firing after the fact,” as Broderick puts it. According to the story, a lease agreement with Crystal Ridge Ski Hill in Franklin includes language that might have cost county taxpayers several million dollars. Abele’s spokesperson Brendan Conway issued a press release saying that under Black’s leadership, “the initial proposal was rushed to the County Board without proper internal and DNR review.” But Conway says the board agreed to changes Abele wanted in the contract language, and there is no evidence Black opposed this (nor did Conway offer any evidence of this), so it hardly qualifies as grounds for firing.
Black is a bad boss: This has cropped up in anonymous comments. Adding fuel to that speculation is that she was removed from her position as Parks Director for the State of Wisconsin in 2003, after six years in that job. In a recent interview, Conway suggested Black was a problem in how she treated employees. But my sense, after numerous off-the-record conversations with both county and state insiders, is that Black is a hard-working, single-minded administrator who lives and breathes the parks, and wants staff that are similarly dedicated — all the more so as the number of county parks staff declined. She may not always be easy to work for, but the results speak for themselves.
Black has done a wonderful job of making do with an ever-shrinking budget and ever-less resources at the county parks. She inherited a system with just under 800 full-time employees that was down to 510 by 2010. “Given this reality,” a December 2009 county audit of the parks declared, “it is both remarkable and a credit to Parks management and line staff that the Milwaukee County Department of Parks… received the 2009 Gold Medal Award issued by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and the National Recreation and Park Association.”
So why then was Black fired? Because she is not a team player. Whether at the state or the county, Black would do end runs around the boss to get what she wanted to preserve her beloved parks. That passion has helped bring her — and the parks — many supporters, but it has also made her bosses look bad.
“She was unbelievably dedicated to the parks,” says one state insider. “Super ideas. Tremendous personality.”
But the parks were overseen by the state Department of Natural Resources, which in turn was overseen by a board and the governor. “And once a decision is made, you gotta stick with it. You gotta be part of the team,” the source says.
Black, two state insiders say, would instead go over her bosses’ heads to Gov. Tommy Thompson, who was a friend, and ask for changes in the parks budget that DNR had fashioned. She also cultivated Republican and Democratic legislators and parks support groups, building a power base that she would lobby for changes in the proposed parks budget.
When Scott Hassett took over as DNR director in 2003, he reportedly checked with other department heads at DNR and found widespread resentment of Black for the way she would undercut budget decisions to get more money for the parks — which meant less money for other departments. Black was removed from her position and offered a job handling special projects. The decision earned Hassett a dressing down from legislators, but the Doyle administration didn’t budge on its decision.
Scott Walker, then the Milwaukee County Executive, quickly hired Black to run the county parks. He was probably among the legislators she had cultivated as state parks director, and she was a Thompson protege, and she’d been removed from her prior post by a Democratic appointee after all.
But from the beginning, she made it clear she had a very independent style, as a November 2006 profile of her by Milwaukee Magazine made clear. When asked at the county board confirmation hearings how she would handle a request by Walker to cut the parks budget, she replied, “Mr. Walker knows I’m an advocate for the parks, and I will do what’s best for them.”
Insiders say Black would lobby county board members to overturn cuts in the parks funding in Walker’s budgets. She told the magazine her department was being undermined by budget cuts. She threatened to quit at times to dramatize her opposition to cuts. At one point, Walker’s then chief of staff Tom Nardelli ordered her not to reply to a proposal to provide a dedicated funding source for the parks.
It’s a safe bet Walker didn’t appreciate her efforts to undercut his proposed budgets, but he would have known the blowback that occurred when she was relieved of her state position. Black has always been popular with county board members, business leaders and the 68 different friends groups that support various county parks. Former supervisor Lynne De Bruin, then chair of the parks committee, once called Black a “phenomenally good department head.”
So Walker simply didn’t give Black a raise. For seven straight years there was no merit pay increase for her. After his 2008 reelection, Walker rewarded several department heads with big hikes in pay: Airport Director Barry Bateman got an 11 percent bump, to $136,298; Department of Aging Director Stephanie Sue Stein got 4 percent, to $117,795; and corporation counsel William Domina got 8.3 percent, to $136,298. Black got nothing. It was common knowledge among county insiders that Black was not happy with how she was treated by Walker.
Abele knew all about this. He and Black were friends whom Black had recruited to donate money to the Domes. Black supported Abele for county executive and Abele, when campaigning, assailed Walker for not giving Black a raise. Black was a policy advisor to candidate Abele and served on his transition team. “He was like a best buddy of Black,” says one county insider.
Just a few months after his election, in July 2011, Black interviewed for a job to run the Chicago Parks system. Abele didn’t want to lose her and on August 22nd, he gave her a raise of $14,000. Black now had a very supportive boss, and this probably emboldened her to be even more aggressive in pushing for more parks funding.
Over time, Abele was to learn he couldn’t necessarily expect loyalty from his friend. Just before his election, Abele had pushed the county board to consider saving money by using a less expensive facade to repair the O’Donnell parking garage. This fell under Black’s parks department, and she could have helped sell it to board members. Instead she announced she had no preference in the matter.
Abele, who won office promising fiscal prudence, proposed a budget that included cuts in the parks budget. This was not long after he gave the big raise to Black and he might have expected her support, but as one insider puts it, Black was “working quietly to get what she wanted” from board members.
In an interview today, Conway described Black’s style this way: “If she didn’t get approval from one place, she went some place until she got it.”
The county board voted on October 24, 2011, to restore $1 million in cuts to the parks budget. Even then, Black complained she still needed more money, given the the revenue target Abele had proposed for the parks from golf, boat slip rentals and other fees.
After this, insiders say, their relationship began to cool. But Black continued her independent lobbying for parks funding. While Abele was in the midst of campaigning for reelection, in March 2012, Black and Broderick announced a long-range policy plan, endorsed by his parks committee, to spend $75 million over five years on deferred maintenance at the parks. Abele was obviously blindsided by this and Conway told the press that Abele “wants to support the parks” but “cannot commit to a specific spending plan at this point.”
Broderick slapped at Abele, suggesting the county exec wasn’t “still running a foundation,” and needed to work with the board on this.
Around that same time candidate Abele said he thought the county could try to squeeze more efficiencies out of the park system, which quickly won a rebuff from Susan Spoerk, vice-president of the Park People. In a letter to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she wrote: “I take issue with… Abele’s comment that the county could try to squeeze more efficiencies out of the parks system. From my volunteer work side by side with County Parks Director Sue Black, I can vouch she is running a lean and efficient parks department.”
At this moment, Abele is probably planning a budget that attempts to wring more efficiencies out of the parks, and he had every reason to expect Broderick and other board members, the Park People and other private support groups, to oppose him and back Black, with her privately urging them on.
Insiders describe Abele as a budget guy who is very influenced by the view of his budget cruncher and Director of Administration Patrick Farley. I’ve also heard that Black suspects Farley was involved in her firing.
All of which suggests the firing was about conflict between a department head who was willing to be a renegade to protect her beloved parks, and a boss who was sick of an employee who undermined his decisions.
Today, Abele announced that Black would be replaced on an interim basis by Jim Keegan, a top aide of Black’s who worked in the parks department for eight years. Odds are the board — and Black’s many supporters — will oppose this nomination. And if Keegan ever does get approved, it’s a safe bet he will enthusiastically endorse any budget cuts Abele proposes for the parks.
Update 7:20 p.m. August 20: Park People board president Dan Cody emailed to note that the group welcomes the nomination of Keegan as interim director but will continue to campaign for the creation of a separately funded parks district for Milwaukee.
People: Brendan Conway, Chris Abele, Scott Walker, Sue Black, Susan Spoerk
Government: Milwaukee County Parks