Milwaukee County Great Place to Lose Your Job
Both the county exec and county board have made the courthouse a perilous place for appointed staff.
It was just another day for the Milwaukee County Board on June 20th, as they decided to fire Corporation Counsel Kimberly Walker. Walker had been there all of two years, which is beginning to seem like a long tenure for county employees.
The vote last week was by a resounding 13-5, making it veto-proof. Critics suggested this was done to punish County Executive Chris Abele for his successful advocacy of a state law that reduces the board’s budget and power. Defenders claimed it was due to missteps by Walker. Most likely it was because she was seen as more helpful to Abele, who picked her for the job, than to the board, which approved the hiring. But it would take a Solomon to try to equally please the ever-feuding board and executive.
Milwaukee County has become a place where staff don’t seem to last long. Often times they just seem to disappear, with little explanation. In October, Frank Busalacchi left his job as county transportation director after less than a year on the job. He was a high profile hire who had previously served as state transportation director under Gov. Jim Doyle, but one day, poof, he was gone. At the time, Brendan Conway, Abele’s spokesperson, declined to say whether Busalacchi quit or was fired. Abele’s nemesis, County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, naturally, deplored the loss. “I’m surprised and I find it unfortunate,” she said.
Other Abele hires who left mysteriously include George Aldrich, his first chief of staff, who left in 2011, and Jeff Bentoff, who served as deputy chief of staff and spokesperson for Abele, who left in 2012. This year Paula Lucey resigned as administrator of the Behavioral Health Division in March after just six months on the job and Jim Burton left his post as facilities maintenance manager in March after about nine months on the job. Abeles’s office called Lucey’s departure a retirement after more than 30 years working for the county, but it was curious that this wasn’t announced (or even discussed) by Lucey.
Of course, Abele’s most famous firing was that of parks director Sue Black. She certainly had many supporters, but there were reasons for her firing, as I’ve written previously. Board members, however, point to this and other departures to make the case that Abele can’t hold on to staff.
Conway counters that Abele oversees 4,400 employees and the board directly supervises only their staff of 38 people. And Dimitrijevich, elected board chair little more than a year ago, is already on her third communications person, Bill Zaferos, who succeeded Velia Alvarez, who succeeded Harold Mester. She also lost longtime research analyst Glen Bultman, whose departure occurred with no announcement or explanation.
A certain amount of turnover is inevitable in government, but the county seems plagued by the problem, as staff (like Walker) get caught between the ever-feuding board and executive. Thus, the board recently voted against confirmation of Kathleen Eilers as head of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex not because she lacked qualifications for the job, but more because the board was flexing its political muscles and sending a message to Abele.
Then was case of Economic Development Director Brian Taffora, appointed by Abele in June 2011 and approved by the board. Because he lived outside Milwaukee County, the rules stated that he had six months to move.
Taffora put his home on the market for $349,000, which was $91,000 less than he had paid in 2005, but got no offers. In June 2012, Taffora was granted a residency waiver by the Abele administration.
But the county board figured out a way to nullify that decision. In December 2012, the board changed the title of his job from Economic Development Director to Director of County Economic Development in a budget amendment. This move meant Taffora had to reapply for his job. Instead of trying to fight for confirmation once again for what was really the same job, Taffora announced on December 19, 2012 that he would resign his job. “It’s actually become extremely difficult for me to do my job with the new leadership in place,” Taffora said, referring to Dimitrjevic. Dimitrijevic declared it “highly disappointing that Mr. Taffora never found the will nor the means to move into Milwaukee County.”
As with Eilers and Walker, the board’s decision seemed to have had little to do with Taffora’s performance or qualifications for the job. Because Abele’s administration dared to give Taffora a waiver, the board stepped in and showed its power to prevent this.
Then there was the infamous case of Patrick Farley, director of the Department of Administration Services. Farley cooperated with the DA’s office in a sting operation against then-county supervisor Johnny L. Thomas, who was then charged with felony bribery and misconduct. But a jury found Thomas not guilty.
Abele praised Farley for cooperating with law enforcement authorities in a criminal investigation, and there is little doubt the board had thin grounds for opposing his reappointment, as I wrote at the time.
But board members were outraged at the idea that Farley was wearing a wire trying to nab Thomas and worried that he was also recording conversations with other supervisors. Abele and Farley may have tried to do the right thing, but the result helped poison relations with the board and made it impossible for Farley to do his job. It was just dumb politics. Abele eventually had to let Farley go, giving him a job with Abele’s Argosy Foundation.
That’s life at the ever-dysfunctional courthouse. Abele, Dimitrijevic and the board have together sent a strong message that anyone is expendable, and can be let go for little or no reason. Amid all the power battles, the courthouse has become a perilous place for appointees trying to do the people’s business.