The City’s Most Curious Lobbyist
Why is fire fighters’ president quietly lobbying on issues unrelated to his job?
Questions are revolving around the shadowy role of Dave Seager, the Milwaukee Professional Fire Fighters Association president, and his work as as a part-time lobbyist on issues having nothing to do with fire fighting.
Seager has long been a registered lobbyist in Madison for the fire fighters, and was instrumental in getting the Legislature to end the residency requirement for city employees, which the city’s police and fire unions had long coveted.
But his lobbying in Milwaukee is something quite different, if not downright bizarre. Back in the summer of 2016, Seager lobbied against Madison developer Chris Houden’s proposal to build 27-story high-rise apartment complex behind the old Goll Mansion on Prospect Ave. But some time last fall Seager switched to the other side, lobbying for the high-rise.
But Seager went even further last month, buttressing his flip-flop with the additional support of the Fire Fighters Association: in a letter carrying the group’s letterhead, Seager suggested the project had special significance for fire fighters because it would increase the tax base, provide jobs and save the historic Goll Mansion (which would be preserved while the high-rise was constructed behind it).
But by that rationale, the fire fighters would support any development proposal in the city with some historic impact. But the group hasn’t. Ald. Robert Bauman, who’s served the city for 13 years, says he can’t recall the group ever taking a position, pro or con, for any proposed development.
Seager’s reason for lobbying seems clear. A city disclosure form filled out with the 1522 on the Lake condominium association, which opposes Houden’s development, shows the group paid Seager $5,000 to lobby against the project. Residents in 1522 have long opposed any such development because of its impact on traffic and parking, though some have suggested the main reason is it would obstruct their views of the lake.
According to one source close to the 1522 group, Seager said he had a good relationship with aldermen Mark Borkowski and Tony Zielinski, and later told the group he had convinced the two men to oppose the project.
Those votes were crucial. Under city ordinance, the zoning change needed to allow construction of the 27-story building required a super majority — support of 12 of the 15 members of the council — because a protest petition had been signed by condo owners making up at least 20 percent of adjacent property owners. Bauman, who opposed the project in his downtown district, had gotten aldermen Jose G. Perez and Cavalier Johnson to join him in opposition, but needed at least one more vote. The addition of Borkowski and Zielinski to his team killed the project.
After the vote, which was on July 26, 2016, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Daykin did a story noting Seager’s unusual role, which had generated discussion from surprised council members. The story suggested Seager had an impact on the vote of Zielinski and Borkowski. Zielinski declined to say whether Seager spoke to him while Borkowski offered a memorably ambiguous answer to Daykin: “I’m just saying that’s an interesting question,” Borkowski said. “That’s my answer.”
Daykin speculated that Seager’s involvement with the issue was because he was friends with a condo owner in the 1522 building, but that was before the 1522 group filed the disclosure statement showing its $5,000 payment to Seager.
Curiously, Seager never registered as a lobbyist for the 1522 group. Under the law, according to Milwaukee City Clerk Jim Owczarski, anyone engaged in lobbying for at least two hours in a six month period, must register with the city.
Yet Seager has since registered for the other side, as a lobbyist for Houden’s company, Palisade Property Management, and the registration indicates any such activity ended on October 1, 2016. But Seager has since re-registered and is listed in 2017 as an active lobbyist for the 1550 Prospect Ave. Development, which is the address for Houden’s high-rise.
Once again, Seager seems to have brought Ald. Borkowski along with him. At the November 1, 2016 Common Council meeting, Borkowski proposed that the high-rise project be reconsidered. This was little more than three months after Borkowski voted against the proposal. When asked by a council member why he switched positions, Borkowski declared “I’ve seen the light.”
The flip-flop seemed to offend some council members. Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II noted that such reconsideration is normally not done for at least a year, and switched his vote to oppose the project, so it once again was rejected. Nine months later the proposal was revived and came again before the City Plan Commission, which approved it in August, as my colleague Jeramey Jannene reported.
As a sweetener, Houden has made promises to use union labor and to voluntary comply with city programs designed to provide jobs for under- or unemployed city residents and minority-owned firms, which are required of developers who get a city subsidy. But Houden is not asking for a subsidy.
Bauman notes that all of these promises “are on their face unenforceable,” and has just drafted a bill that would require Houden’s company to sign an agreement to put $3.5 million in escrow which he could lose if he doesn’t live up his promises.
But Houden also has Seager on his side, who has delivered Borkowski, while there are conflicting reports of how Zielinski will vote.
If Seager was worth $5,000 to lobby for 1522 on the Lake, how much more must he be worth if can deliver the backing of the Fire Fighters Association?
“Certainly, if not for the name of the institution he represents, Seager would just be another guy lobbying, like any other suburbanite, whose weight on the issue would not be very great,” Bauman says.
Seager’s lobbying registration form shows he took advantage of the state law ending the residency requirement and now lives on Brookside Dr. in the Village of Jackson, some 34 miles from the proposed high-rise his letter says is so important to fire fighters like him.
All of which raises a flock of questions. What is Seager getting paid by Houden? Is he sharing some of the money with the Fire Fighters Association? Has he gotten approval of the group’s board of directors to use its name in his lobbying? Why didn’t he register as a lobbyist for the 1522 group?
And how does Borkowski explain such intense interest and flip-flopping on an issue the constituents of his southwest side district probably care little about?
Borkowski did not respond to requests for an interview, and Houden declined to say how much he was paying Seager. Nor did I hear back from Joesph M. Haasch, vice-president of the Fire Fighters (the group’s website doesn’t list all members of its board).
As for Seager, he initially said he was too busy to talk then later called back to explain why the fire fighters are supporting the project: “originally the project didn’t include the use of union workers but now it does.”
The obvious follow-up question is why the fire fighters have suddenly gotten into the business of supporting real estate development, but Seager cut me off, saying “that’s the statement, thank you,” and hung up. I emailed him to note I had other questions, but never heard back from him.
The issue will next come before the Common Council’s zoning committee on September 19th and after that will come before the full council. Those could be some very interesting meetings.