The Curious Case of Kimberly Walker
The board is angry at Abele so they fired Walker. Go figure.
It was back in June 2011, when Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele was still enjoying his brief honeymoon period with the county board, that he named Kimberly Walker to become the county’s corporation counsel. Walker was then the in-house lawyer for Johnson Controls and had also served as head of the state Energy Division under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Abele complimented her “breadth of experience,” the board approved the appointment, and everything was coming up roses.
But by November 2011, board member were irate over a state law Abele promoted to create a new position of independently elected comptroller. The bill was passed, supervisors were outraged, and so began what gradually turned into a long-running war between board members and Abele.
This created a tricky situation for Walker. As corp counsel, her job was to provide legal advice to both the board and the executive, even on issues where they were diametrically opposed. It was rather like being the referee stuck between the feuding Hatfields and McCoys, each of whom was looking to use her legal decisions as ammunition.
For nearly two years Walker somehow managed this delicate dance, but on June 20th the county board voted 13 to 5 to fire her. Abele has vetoed this measure but needs to turn around two votes or Walker will be dismissed.
County Board chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic hasn’t said a word about the firing. Instead the point person on this issue has been Supervisor Patricia Jursik an attorney who can be fiercely independent and has offered some lawyerly justifications for the firing that were largely swallowed by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Steve Schultze. Writer Dominique Paul Noth’s op ed for Urban Milwaukee also hewed to a similar line.
Jursik contends that it was Walker who disclosed the discussions in a closed-door county board committee meeting in March where board members discussed the issue of negotiating with unions. The committee had expelled Abele’s liason to the county board, Raisa Koltun, from the meeting, but others who directly report to the county exec were also in the meeting, including labor negotiator Fred Bau and then-Budget Director Craig Kammholz.
“Could Kammholz have communicated with Abele? Simply, Yes,” Jursik replied via email to my question. She added that “I can not speak for… Walker.” Walker tells me that no one from her office disclosed a word of the closed-door meeting to Abele.
In short, there is no evidence Walker talked to Abele about the issue. Once Abele learned the board was considering negotiating with unions, he asked Walker for a legal opinion as to how this squared with Act 10, which outlawed such negotiations. Walker’s job required her to answer and she wrote a memo saying that despite some court cases raising doubts about Act 10, the county must still comply with it at this point. Nothing in the memo mentions the closed door committee meeting.
Eventually the media learned about the memo, but once again there is no evidence Walker shared this information. The list of possible leakers includes Abele, his staff, and five county supervisors who opposed any negotiations with the unions. Once the media wrote about this, Republican legislators were outraged and decided to speed up passage of Act 14, the bill to reduce the funding and powers of the county board.
Nonetheless, many board members blamed Walker for the situation. Jursik wrote a letter on April 23 to Walker suggesting that Walker’s actions “provided the political platform” for Abele’s “political attack” on the board for negotiating with unions. Jursik and others wanted Walker to allow outside counsel for the board’s legal challenge of Act 14, and Walker agreed, saying “we believe that we can ethically provide advice,” but “due to the exceptional level of controversy over this matter and to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest,” she would approve the request for outside counsel.
Some supervisors jumped on this, claiming Walker admitted to a conflict of interest. In fact, she was going overboard to be purer than pure and to defuse a trumped-up “controversy” which was based on an unproven claim by Jursik and other board members.
Jursik and others have also criticized Walker for a March 2 email she wrote to Abele staffers describing how to protect the confidentiality of the email exchange. Blogger Cory Liebmann disclosed the email on May 6, and board members jumped on this, seeing it as the smoking gun that proves Walker is more loyal to Abele and was advising him on how to evade the Freedom of Information law.
So did board members ask Walker to explain herself? I twice asked Jursik this via email and she twice declined to answer. Here is what Walker tells me: “When this issue was raised by Supervisor (Theo) Lipscomb during the May County Board meeting, the Chairwoman did not acknowledge me, and give me the opportunity to respond. The advice that was provided to the County Executive’s Office regarding public records has been consistently provided to other elected officials, department heads and employees during my time as Corporation Counsel. Further, I understand that the advice provided under my leadership is consistent with the advice given under my predecessor, Judge Bill Domina. This is attorney-client privilege communications 101.”
Finally, Jursik and others contend Walker failed to communicate with the board regarding Abele’s handling of The Couture. That’s an odd one, because there has been little disagreement between the board and Abele on this issue. The full Board voted 19-0 in 2011 to sell the county transit center so the land could be developed and then voted 18-0 in 2012 to move forward on The Couture project.
In January, the board voted to authorize funding for expert attorneys at the Reinhart Boerner law firm to “take any actions as may be appropriate and necessary” to get a title insurance policy on The Couture site. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has twice ruled the land can be developed and is not in conflict with the lakebed public trust doctrine, but an attorney with Preserve Our Parks has disagreed.
The Reinhart lawyers consulted with Teig Whaley-Smith, the county economic development director, and apparently with Walker, and decided to try to get an amendment added to the state budget that would essentially declare the transit center property is not in the lake bed. Whaley-Smith contacted Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), who led the effort to add the amendment. Abele claimed he supported but did not initiate the move.
Supervisors at a June 10th meeting of the Economic and Community Development Committee brought Whaley-Smith before them and expressed outrage at what he did. The language they used was revealing. Supervisor Michael Mayo actually compared Whaley-Smith to a child trying to sneak around his father, the county board. Supervisor Gerry Broderick, a non-committee member, joined the meeting and declared that “we find ourselves having to zealously guard our policy-making authority.”
Even under the old, badly-separated powers between board and executive, Whaley-Smith and the lawyers arguably were simply carrying out the policy directive of the January resolution. But under the new state law clarifying the powers of board and executive, the board role in land sales is limited to prevent micro-managing.
But his success getting the budget amendment passed was just another reminder of Abele’s clout with the legislature, and clearly rubbed salt in the wounds of supervisors still angry about the reduction in their powers. So they lashed out not at Whaley-Smith, who testified that he led the way in contacting Stone, but at Walker, for not disclosing the decision of outside counsel (who technically report to her) to board members.
No, it doesn’t make much sense. It’s an emotional decision by board members frustrated at how they’ve been outflanked by Abele, and so they are taking out a staff member they see as too loyal to him. They might be right that Walker is closer to Abele than to them, but they’ve provided no evidence this has affected her performance on the job. And once she’s gone, Abele has the right to appoint his choice for the next corporation counsel, so how exactly will that change anything?
In one of emails to me, Jursik wrote this: “I think Abele came into his job without having good advisors around him, ones that understood how county government worked. He has gotten better on this count, but there are still problems and Walker is one of them.”
She recently described the Abele administration to the Journal Sentinel as “so smug and so beyond themselves.”
But there is little Jursik and the board can do right now to punish Abele. So they’ve apparently decided to take out their frustrations on Walker.
Editors’ Note: An early version of this story was entitled “The Political Lynching of Kimberly Walker,” which some readers complained was excessive. Upon reflection, we agree, and we changed the headline.