Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Is Ament’s Pension Deal Biased Against Blacks?

By - Jan 31st, 2002 12:01 pm

In the wake of the pension controversy, County Executive F. Thomas Ament has attempted to woo the black community in hopes that strong support there might keep him in office. While most county supervisors signed a letter asking Ament to resign, not one member of the board’s African American contingent would sign. Supervisor Lee Holloway even referred to the recall effort as a “lynching.” Other supervisors who have not deserted Ament include James G. White, Joe Davis, Michael Mayo, Elizabeth Coggs-Jones and Willie Johnson, Jr.

But the pension deal is far more attractive to white workers. The unprecedented 25 percent boost in pension benefits goes to workers who started prior to 1982, and county statistics show only 26 percent of those workers are minority. By contrast, 42 percent of workers hired after 1982 are minority. Blacks account for 22.5 percent of workers hired before 1982 and 34 percent of those hired after 1982.

Not one of the African American supervisors took office prior to 1982, whereas three white board members (Richard Nyklewicz, Penny Podell and Tom Bailey) will get the big handout. Indeed, of the estimated 16 county officials elected prior to 1982, I can’t think of one minority.

It should be pointed out that all county workers get some goodies in this package, as the younger workers saw their pension credit for years of service go from 1.5 percent to 2 percent of salary for each year worked. But this provision simply brought newer workers up to the level older workers have always enjoyed. It’s a cinch the big 25 percent pension increase will never be offered again, and 74 percent of the beneficiaries are white.

Ament Waves a Red Flag

There has been speculation in this column that Ament had hired a PR person to work on “crisis management,” but the Ament camp denies. “Part of the problem is that the crisis was last October and had already passed,” says an Ament strategist, referring to the original stories on the pension that ran here last fall.

Perhaps, but the crisis has continued, and Ament could have used someone to advise him not to admit he would be challenging the signatures on the recall petitions. That was waving a red flag at the recall organizers. One Ament insider predicted what could happen: “they could come in with 100,000 signatures and leave with less than 73,000 when Friebert and Finnerty get through. They’re election law experts, there’s no doubt.”

The Ament administration recently admitted the county executive has hired the legal firm and will use his own money to pay them. Recall organizers, though, are now hoping to get 150,000 signatures. Can Ament’s team find problems with 77,000 signatures?

Everybody’s Candidate

What is it about Circuit Court judge Jeff Wagner that gets him mentioned as a possible candidate for other races? In the past, Wagner has been touted as a possible candidate for mayor and a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article by Spivak and Bice pegs him as a candidate for county executive. If the Spice Boys had read my earlier article (September 4, 2001) or did some research, they would have known Wagner couldn’t run.

The problem is Article VII, Section 10 of the state constitution, which says “no justice of the supreme court or any court of record shall hold any other office of public trust… during the term for which elected.”

Since Wagner’s term runs until 2006, he wouldn’t be able to run for any other office “of public trust” until after the day in 2006 when his judicial term of office expires, even if he resigned his judgeship.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has already interpreted the state constitution’s prohibition, in the case involving former U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, who resigned from his position as circuit judge and won the election for Senator in 1947. The court upheld McCarthy’s election; in essence declaring the state constitution has no power over federal elections. But the ruling also interpreted the state constitution to bar judges from running for any other state office during the term elected.

In the early 1990s, Judge Mac Davis faced this prohibition when he was considering running for attorney general. His supporters managed to get the legislature to support an amendment to the constitution in two separate sessions (1993 and 1995), but the final step needed to get a constitutional amendment failed, as the state voters soundly defeated this referendum measure in 1995.

Wagner, who has reportedly been looking for a constitutional lawyer to handle this issue, conceded, “you’d want something like this cleared up before you run.”

Wagner says he may ask for an opinion from the attorney general or ask for “declaratory relief,” meaning he would petition the state supreme court for opinion on the matter. But given the legislative as well as case law history on this, it’s hard to imagine the court saying the constitutional provision doesn’t matter. Wagner could, of course, take his chances and run anyway, but how many voters would want to replace a recalled county exec with one who could be constitutionally tossed out?

What the County Board Knew

Eric Skindzelewski doesn’t buy the claim of some county board members that they didn’t see the October milwaukeeworld article on the Ament pension. Skindzelewski, who runs the volunteer Lakeshore Fisherman group, organized his group to protest the proposed elimination of the county fish hatchery program, which stocks all the county park lagoons with fish. And he went to the county board committee meeting armed with photocopies of my October stories.

“Here they were going to cut that [fish stocking program] out,” Skindzelewski say, “and yet they were lining their pockets.”

Skindzelewski says the 22 or so county lagoons are tremendously popular. “These are the heaviest fished waters in Wisconsin. A lot of old people won’t drive out to some lake, so the parks are their recreation. You have anyone from four years old to 90 fishing at the lagoons.”

His group organizes fishing trips to the lagoons for nursing homes, battered children, scout troupes, the handicapped and others. So they were dismayed to see the county eliminating the $190,000 annual funding for the program.

So Skindzelewski and others attended a board committee meeting on the budget last October and handed out copies of the milwaukeeworld story. “There were at least 12 board members at the table or in the audience. We gave them to everyone. We gave them out all over the place. So they fully knew what was going on.”

Skindzelewski’s group also handed a copy to Ament’s liaison to the board, Maureen Murphy. “She looked at me, got red-faced and handed it back.”

The chastened board restored the fish-stocking program on a 25-0 vote.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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