Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Not-So-Straight Story

Journal Sentinel coverage of county board downsizing misleads folks on both sides of issue.

By - Feb 19th, 2013 10:30 am
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Joe Sanfelippo

Joe Sanfelippo

It was back on January 25 that Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Steve Schultze did a story suggesting Rep. Joe Sanfelippo  would be delaying his bill to downsize the Milwaukee County Board in order to allow supervisors to come up with own reform bill. That was quite misleading, as I explained, noting that Sanfelippo had no intention of slowing down the bill and had actually complained to Schultze about the story.

So last week, Schultze did another story nearly as misleading. He reported that Sanfelippo had now introduced his bill, without ever explaining to his readers that the story suggesting the legislation would be delayed for a year was wrong.  The new story also exaggerated the degree to which the bill would expand the power of the county executive at the expense of the board.

As I’ve made clear, I support the goal of downsizing the board. But many of our readers disagree.  Whichever side you’re on, it’s difficult to have an informed discussion if you can’t get an accurate description of the legislation being proposed.

Schultze, for instance, claims the bill gives the executive “the authority to hire as many staff as he wishes for the county executive’s office.” Nonsense. The executive’s budget would have to be approved, as before, by the county board. “The most powerful control the board has is the power of the purse strings,” Sanfelippo notes. “What Schultze wrote is completely misleading.”

Schultze also wrote that the county exec “would gain power through authority for all contracts.” Also misleading. The exec can now approve any contract worth less than $50,000. The legislation would increase that to $100,000. For any contract worth $100,000 to $300,000, if just one board member objected, a full vote of the board would then be required to approve it. And for any contract of more than $300,000, board approval is automatically required.

Schultze writes that the board “also would lose its power to change terms of any proposed sale or lease of county property.” True, the board would not be able to renegotiate deals, but it would retain the power to set the parameters and policies for any sale or lease agreement, and the executive would have to follow those. Once a deal is negotiated within those parameters, the board would have the choice of approving the deal or not. “This forces the executive to work more closely with the board to make sure the deal gets approved,” Sanfelippo notes.

Schultze writes that the executive would gain more power by being put in charge of the county’s lobbyists. That’s true, but a tad misleading: it simply returns the county to what was true for decades; the exec always hired and fired the lobbyists until the board grabbed this power less than a decade ago. This is the norm for any governments in Wisconsin; when I asked her, board chair Marina Dimitrijevic could name no examples where the legislative body hires and fires all the lobbyists.

Schultze also omits a very important bit of context: Sanfelippo’s bill was written with the new county government in mind, which has had an independently elected comptroller since April, 2012, and which provides oversight that constrains the power of the both the executive and the board.  The comptroller, for instance, has the power to review the executive’s budgets, any contract the exec approves, and other matters.

After exaggerating the power gained by the exec, Schulze then wrote that the changes appeared to address “problems and frustrations” Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has had with the board, and noted Abele has accused the board of “micro-managing” county departments.

In fact, the complaint that the board micromanages has been made since at least the 1980s, and was more recently made by Franklin Mayor Tom Taylor, former county department head George Mitchell, members of the Greater Milwaukee Committee and in Journal Sentinel editorials. Schultze eventually changed the text of his story to say that Abele “and others” have complained of micromanaging, while offering no clarification to readers that he made this change. As I’ve previously noted, Schultze made changes in his January 25 story without noting any of this to readers.

Schultze’s story at times seems like a caricature of the proposed bill as seen through the eyes of threatened board members. As I’ve noted, this may be because he doesn’t want to alienate the main sources of information on his beat which are the supervisors and the board’s staff. Whatever the reason, the end result doesn’t serve readers well.

Short Takes

-Sanfelippo’s bill calls for a two-step reduction in county board’s budget, first cutting it from $6.5 million to $3.5 million and then cutting it by 30 percent more after a Spring 2016 county referendum on whether supervisors should be reduced to part-time status. If voters say yes, that would cut board member’s pay and the size of the board budget. If they vote no and board members chose to remain full-time, than they shouldn’t need as much staff assistance, Sanfelippo reasons, and can cut the budget through more staff cuts.

-Sanfelippo predicts his bill will pass, and the fact that he has a Milwaukee Democrat, state Sen Lena Taylor, as co-sponsor, will certainly help. Taylor has said that Republicans already control whether the bill passes, so she joined as co-sponsor to help ensure the reforms are done in a “fair and balanced” manner. JS columnist Dan Bice, however, has suggested Taylor had an additional reason to support the bill.

7 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Not-So-Straight Story”

  1. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    The Milwaukee Cty. Boards is just one of the reason that people in this state will not vote any more money to milwaukee for anything. We can add MPS, MATC and the Wisconsin Convention Center and let us not forget MMSD. they have been featherbedded for years with high wages, bennies, pensions that make those salaries out state look minuscule plus all loyal leftists can get a job at these places. Then you add Milwaukee with their choo-choo train, and the lack of any kind of progress in the inner cities in 50 years, no job growth, kids that cannot read and a Mayor that has not accomplished much of anything.
    Wake up Milwaukee you are slowly looking like Detroit.

  2. John says:

    Would this article be the definition of irony? An article about the Milwaukee JS not telling the whole story and using examples that do not tell the whole story. You focus on moving lobbyists and the county executive adding staff which is ticky tacky not important items, but ignore forbidding the county board from contacting department heads and raising the no-bid limit while taking away board oversight. Those are the big issues, but I know Bruce Murphy likes to focus on “personalities” and the county board from over 10 years ago.

  3. Jim says:

    The incompetent county elected officials are the parties most responsible in giving us Governer Walker.Had they not screwed up governance, especially the pension scandal, he would not have had as much of a chance to be elected Governor. I even voted for him for county exec twice because what were the other choices, Taylor, Halloway. As much as I disagreed with him he was obviously the superior candidate. At least Reimer was credible but had no chance because the board and exec had proved to be so awful. Cut their pay. Get a real job if you can.

  4. capper says:

    Actually, the language that Murphy accuses Schultze of fabricating came straight from the legislative memo written to go with the bill, such as:

    Hire and supervise the number of employees that the County Executive reasonably believes are necessary to carry out the duties of the County Executive’s office.

    That’s from page 5 of this document: http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/10753525/1691332234/name/Milwaukee%20County%20Board%20Reform%20Memo.pdf

  5. Bruce Murphy says:

    To Capper: Schultze actually doesn’t quote that language; more importantly he leaves out the fact that county exec’s budget, which pays for staff, must be approved by the board. To John: county will operate as other governments operate, with exec supervising dept heads and legislature approving hirings and working through exec when issues of performance arise.

  6. John says:

    Bruce- Wrong. This bill allows the County Exec to enter into no bid contracts at a higher level without getting board approval.

  7. Bill Kurtz says:

    To Jim; Imagine how much worse Walker would have been as county exec with this kind of untrammeled power.
    To Bruce; Dream on if you think the “independently elected comptroller” will provide a check on Abele. If he tries to do so, the same business interests pushing the Sanfelippo plan can finance a candidate to take him out. Or he can make his name auditing paper clip purchases (and the occasional fraudulent day care operator), become a hero to fussbudget voters, and settle in for a 20-year run. Tough choice, huh?
    Only supervisors, elected in smaller scale elections where candidates without a big campaign fund are more likely to be competitive, can provide a check on the exec. But how can they do so if they have to work full-time outside jobs, and their staff is eviscerated?
    The bottom line: Why should Abele have less legislative pushback than Walker or President Obama?

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