County Board Violates Its Own Law
Lobbyists have worked without board approval, which could be a cause for “discharge” of board chair Dimitrivjevic.
Milwaukee County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic has stepped into a trap of her own making. Last fall, she and her fellow supervisors voted 17-1 to give the board all power over lobbying. In effect, this meant that the board chair, to whom the lobbyists report, and the board’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, would determine the county’s positions on issues before the legislature, with the approval of the full board.
The language of this ordinance was tough, indeed. It “prohibited” any “political activity” by any county officials, including “heads of county departments, bureaus, boards and commissions or any other member of their respective departments, bureaus, boards and commissions.” They were barred “from recommending any changes or amendments of the laws of the State of Wisconsin to the legislature… or to any committee of the legislature, or to any member of the legislature.” No lobbying or political activity of any kind would be allowed “without first… obtaining the approval of and a directive from said county board.”
It even prescribed a punishment for any transgressor: “Penalty for willfully violating this code by any department head or employe is considered a cause for discharge, suspension or demotion.”
The measure was clearly intended to stop Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele (who called it “a power grab”) from lobbying for something the board opposed. Abele and the Greater Milwaukee Committee had successfully lobbied for a state law that created the position of county comptroller, arguing that an independently elected financial overseer would have prevented bad legislation like the infamous 2001 pension plan. Supervisors were adamantly opposed to Abele’s proposal.
Ironically, board members today have told me they have had no problem with the office of comptroller and suggest Abele has found it more troublesome. Nonetheless, they wanted to make sure any such efforts by the county exec were prevented in the future. In the process, they ended writing a law so cumbersome they they have violated it themselves.
It was back on January 7 that a news report noted that state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo was crafting a bill to downsize the Milwaukee County Board. As I’ve reported, the county’s lobbyists were soon spending time in Madison meeting with legislators to try to kill the idea and had registered with the Government Accountability Board to declare this lobbying.
Indeed, the lobbyists were so focused on this issue that they hadn’t registered to lobby on most of the many issues affecting county government. Only after I sent inquiries to Dimitrijevic about this did the lobbyists quickly register to lobby on 30 other issues of concern to the county.
By now, the county’s lobbyists have been working in Madison to stop the downsizing bill for more than three months. But this is clearly illegal, because there has been no authorization provided by the county board, as the ordinance passed last fall requires. Only this week was such a resolution of approval crafted, which the board’s Intergovernmental Relations committee will consider on Monday.
I contacted committee chair Theo Lipscomb and Dimitrijevic, asking how all this lobbying could be done without authorization by the board. Dimitrijevic did not respond. Lipscomb responded, saying that since AB85, the bill downsizing the board, “was not even introduced until several days after the last IGR meeting (March 15) it is difficult to understand how this matter could have been taken up by the Committee any sooner.”
But the county ordinance applies to any lobbying, even of a single legislator, not just after a bill has been introduced. Since the county’s lobbyists went into action against Sanfelippo’s proposal, the full county board has met three times: on February 7, March, 12 and March 21. Lipscomb’s IGR committee met on March 15, and cancelled its meeting for February 1, as I’ve reported, which prevented committee member and supervisor Deanna Alexander from quizzing county lobbyists about their activities to kill Sanfelippo’s proposal.
Lipscomb also claims that the ordinance passed last fall “anticipates the type of situation we faced in this instance and provides for direction of IGR staff by the Chairperson and the Committee Chair during an interim period.”
True, but that interim period is defined as “instances where matters are before the legislature at times when the county board is not in session, or when a meeting of the county board cannot be practicably convened.” This matter was being discussed by legislators and lobbied by county lobbyists for several months during which time the county board was regularly in session.
I’m not a lawyer, but it certainly looks like Dimitrijevic violated this law several times, each time failing to bring this matter before the full board while directing her lobbyists to lobby the legislature. If she did not direct this lobbying to occur, then her lobbyists are in violation of the law. And a violation by any county employee “is considered a cause for discharge, suspension or demotion.”
Nor do the transgressions end there. One recent hearing on the bill in Madison was attended by 10 supervisors and several board staff members, all conducting political activity that had not been approved by a directive from the board.
More on Summerfest Subsidy
In reaction to Summerfest director Don Smiley’s contention that his organization doesn’t get a dollar of tax money, I recently wrote a column noting the many ways Summerfest is publicly subsidized.
I noted that Summerfest uses 78 acres of city land for a nominal rent of $1.3 million a year. The land in question adjoins the lakefront, downtown and Third Ward, some of the most valuable land in the state. In response to my request, City Assessor Mary Reavey noted that property values in that area go for $30 per square foot. At that rate Summerfest’s land would be worth nearly $102 million, meaning the annual property taxes would exceed $2.9 million per year.
Then there is the value of police services provided to Summerfest. In response to my public records request, the city sent me data showing that in 2012, the cost of providing police services to Summerfest was $339,937. For decades, Summerfest paid the city nothing for this, but in 2010 signed a provision to the lease agreeing to pay $100,000 annually, graduating slowly up to $215,000 by 2030. In essence, the festival is paying about one-third of the cost.
The data also shows that police services cost more than $91,000 for various ethnic festivals (Polish Fest, Festa Italiana, etc.) at the Summerfest grounds in 2012. These festivals pay the city nothing, but do pay rent to Summerfest. On April 8, I requested the total amount paid to Summerfest by the ethnic festivals for the most recent year and have yet to hear anything. My guess is that the amount of combined rent received could be close to the amount Summerfest pays the city for rent, meaning it gets the land for free.
Given that Summerfest is a publicly subsidized, tax exempt non-profit, I would think they are obligated to provide answers to my questions. Should they do so, I will report the results.