The Not-So-Straight Story
Journal Sentinel coverage of county board downsizing misleads folks on both sides of issue.
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.
-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.