Why Kimberly Walker Was Fired
The county board had ample grounds for dismissing the Corporation Counsel.
Pity Milwaukee. It doesn’t even get one side of the story. Given the current makeup of talk radio and the reduced staff and narrowing intentions of the Journal Sentinel, the audience is lucky to hear a partial, biased or misguided version of documented local issues.
Exhibit A is the Kimberly Walker story. She is the Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel whose overarching client is the county citizenry and who can be fired by either the county executive or the county board since both choose her to give trustworthy advice to all branches of government.
Yet if you only followed recent coverage print and electronic, her dismissal by the Milwaukee County Board was a total surprise, likened bizarrely to Wisconsin Senate Majority chair Mike Ellis telling legislators to “sit down and shut up!” in the hasty vote on the ultrasound bill.
Or her dismissal was racist or gender based. To the surprise of regular listeners used to hearing him berate the local NAACP as unreliable and twisted, Charlie Sykes suddenly embraced the chapter in glowing terms when it said her dismissal would be a case of bigotry — even though the firing was supported by several supervisors also African-American and NAACP stalwarts on a board known for its racially diverse makeup. That charge of bigotry was promulgated not just by Sykes but by the fax machine in county executive Chris Abele’s office that delightedly spread the NAACP press release to the news media.
Even more strange bedfellows: The JS editorial board leeched onto Michael Mayo, a supervisor long laughed at in the newsroom for his own moral lapses or as a coat-holder for departed and unlamented board chairman Lee Holloway. Suddenly Mayo was praised as heroic for also suggesting racism and that it was cowardly not to explain the firing. But the record indicates that, hearing the board was going to act, Walker suggested the board had a racist motivation. And that legally slammed the door shut on open debate. As several supervisors noted in interviews: Why draw a roadmap for someone likely to file a discrimination complaint against the county when there was a clear history of concern about legal neutrality and objectivity?
Or maybe the firing was a cabal? That’s according to one outrigger supervisor, Deanna Alexander, who found a fringe legal outfit curiously named the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty – run by a tireless self-promoting blogger named Rick Esenberg — to accuse the board of a “walking quorum” to oust Walker. It turns out that it was simply 13 long-simmering supervisors signing up independently or after a few quite legal phone calls.
Lacking any evidence and facing robust denials by supervisors – who are so scrupulous to avoid the appearance of a voting quorum of 10 members that they turn down invitations to attend parties or fund-raisers in quorum numbers, as this reporter knows from years of coverage – the complaint succeeded in getting lots of media coverage. Esenberg’s institute indicated to inquirers that it will pursue the complaint regardless of rebuttals or evidence.
The bit players involved should have signaled the public what a stretch all these complaints are. Esenberg’s involvement in particular was a giveaway. He has become one of Marquette University’s best known “professors” even though he is not a professor, but an adjunct teaching a few law courses, using his conservative credentials and shameless blog for self-promotion. Multiple (and tenured) professors complain frequently that the university needs to clean up its Esenberg act because “advocating quirky causes while pretending to remain a professor at Marquette taints our academic reputation,” said one full professor.
That’s not alone what makes the Kimberly Walker coverage so strange. It is the long history, months in evolution — well before Chris Abele openly supported the Madison legislature’s Act 14 that increases his authority by taking money and power away from the county board. Everyone is entitled to an opinion on who’s right in this case, but county observers could see Walker distrust unfold going back months, even years, on video, in committee hearings and board meetings.
In fact, the JS apparently was offered stories by its own staff on the conflicts with K. Walker – involving county property, negotiating with unions and lakefront development.
“What you have is a clear record of board mistrust of her legal advice leading to our action,” Supervisor Patricia Jursik noted. The board seldom moves to fire anyone without discussion, unlike Abele, who has never explained the departure of top administrators such as Sue Black and Frank Busalacchi. In this case, black supervisors David Bowen, Russell Stamper and Khalif Rainey went out of their way to explain why they no longer had confidence in Walker.
The job is a Catch-22. It is easy to represent one person, County Executive Abele, or even the sheriff, David Clarke, as a client who can accept or waive legal advice. It becomes tricky with an 18-headed board, but the requirement to not play favorites remains. That’s why “corporate counsel” is a full and well-paid department.
Conflicts of interest are “not unusual especially in large law firms with many clients of different opinions,” noted Jursik, herself a seasoned lawyer. “I have been at many ethics session where this conflict has been discussed at length. But there’s a standard response to avoid mistrust. You put up firewalls, separate secretaries, hire outside counsel.”
Walker sided with Abele on Act 14 without recommending a firewall approach to the disagreeing board. That forced the board to hire an outside law firm – which it just did: Hawks Quindel – to explore the constitutionality of the reduction of its authority.
But long before this Act 14 issue, supervisors complained that she took Abele’s position even when the board had overridden him – or didn’t share advice as she was bound by law to do.
The mistrust has lingered and grown – and Walker herself had admitted in documents she had a conflict of interest.
“Personally I like Kimberly,” Supervisor Gerry Broderick said in an interview. “But this is bad lawyering.” (Broderick, tongue in cheek, also pointed out in a June 25 press release that Alexander — who is complaining that other supervisors illegally conspired to oust Walker – actually met behind closed doors with multiple colleagues in a useless attempt to oust chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, engaging in the misbehavior she sees in others.)
What really triggered the firing also occurred months before her suggestion that the board was racist. Only a few remote blogs, not the newspaper or talk radio, revealed how last March Walker had even suggested in an email – “My two-cents worth . . . Just a thought” – a way for Abele to dodge Freedom of Information requirements: “With the exception of my email, this email string will not be exempt from open records requests. Should you wish to preclude its disclosure, please send additional comments, revisions etc., only to me with the names of others who should see it, and I can forward,” she advised.
Agree with the firing or not, that is the fuller context – the elements that haven’t been reported. The public deserved to know the buildup and the background rather than the selective partiality it has been subjected to. It’s unfortunate how many issues of local coverage that applies to.
Correction: An earlier version of this column said that Walker had admitted in documents that she tended to champion Abele’s policies over the legislative policymaking arm, the board. No evidence of this has been presented.
Free lance writer Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. Until 1995 he was a senior editor and manager at Journal Communications.