Bruce Murphy

Why Was Sue Black Fired?

The development is a shocker as Abele was a friend and supporter of the highly regarded parks director.

By - Aug 16th, 2012 02:27 pm

Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black was fired Thursday by County Executive Chris Abele, leaving observers buzzing as to why, and speculating as to the possible political blowback for Abele, given Black’s popularity in Milwaukee. At an afternoon news conference Abele repeatedly refused to disclose why he fired her, telling reporters “I don’t owe you gossip.”

It was a stunning development as Abele had been a friend and supporter of Black who argued she was underpaid and under appreciated by her old boss, former County Executive Scott Walker. It was only a few months ago that Abele nominated Black to stay on for another four years. Abele had withstood criticism from the county board to give Black two raises totaling $21,000 in 2011, raising her pay to $140,000, partly in response to an offer Black got to run the Chicago Parks District, which she ultimately turned down.

County Supervisor Jason Haas says he entered the county courthouse at the same time as Black at around 12:45 p.m Thursday afternoon, and they chatted a bit. “We were at the front desk of the the county board chambers. That was the last time I saw her.”

About 15 minutes later, Haas says, Abele sent an email to board members saying Sue Black no longer works with the county. Haas was stunned. Black told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she was there to attend her regular weekly meeting with Abele and he told her “we are going in a another direction. We are letting you go.”

Black said she was locked out of her office in Wauwatosa while she was at the courthouse meeting with Abele.  Her county cellphone was soon cut off. Sources say police were called to escort her from the office. Attempts to reach Black at her job at the parks office were unsuccessful. “She’s not here. She’s no longer employed here,” the person answering the phone said, adding that he had no other phone number for her.

Black, 51, was highly regarded, with a reputation for doing a lot with a parks budget that was constantly getting cut, and winning national honors for her work. She was cited as one of Milwaukee’s 10 most effective leaders in a cover story on leadership in the January issue of Milwaukee Magazine. (Ironically, Abele was also one of the ten leaders cited). The praise for Black in the story was topped by a comment by Badger Meter Chief Executive Rich Meeusen: “Excellent vision and willingness to stand up and take a position.”

Abele’s press release announcing her departure was also quite positive — but this was before Black revealed she had been fired. “Sue has been a strong steward for the Milwaukee County Parks system. Her leadership has helped put us on a solid path as we move forward,” Abele declared. “I thank her for her years of service and wish her well in her future endeavors. Residents should know I remain committed to making sure we have the best parks for everyone.”

Black grew up in Brookfield and then in Fond du Lac after her family moved there. As a child she loved the outdoors, she told Milwaukee Magazine in a November, 2006 profile of her, and would often head to the park as a refuge when family problems occurred. Her parents were divorced when Black was in her teens.

After graduation from UW-Madison, Black got a job with the state parks department, and gradually rose in the field of recreation, becoming operations manager for the Dane County Park System, succeeded by a job as chief of operations for the Arizona State Parks. But she kept her eye on Wisconsin, and jumped at the chance to become state parks director in 1997. She became close to Governor Tommy Thompson, who once called her “the best parks director in the country.” Walker once described Black as being “big buddies with Tommy Thompson.”

But after Thompson was gone, Black lost her position in 2003, under a scenario spookily reminiscent of her latest firing. Black recalled walking into a meeting at the state Department of Natural Resources, to whom she reported, and being handed a letter telling her she was relieved of her position. She was being shifted to an administrative position whose title Black told Milwaukee Magazine she couldn’t even recall.

Walker had been a fan of Black’s work as state parks director and soon recruited her to come to Milwaukee. She quickly took charge, winning converts but also surprising people with her outspoken style. “If this weren’t home,” she said in 2006, “I’d have gotten out of here a long time ago.” Sources close to Black say there was tension between her and Walker, not just over the parks budget but over her pay; he felt she deserved a raise. Abele picked up on that idea in his first run for county executive, arguing she was underpaid.

Steve Thompson, head of the Wisconsin Parks and Recreation Association, once described Black as a “a schemer, but in a good way,” who uses this approach to improve the parks she runs. She won the national Gold Medal in 2009 for excellence in parks management. She is credited with overseeing improvements of Bradford Beach, Lake Park and the Mitchell Park Domes, as well as opening the beer garden at Estabrook Park. On the other hand, she threatened to quit more than once when Walker was her boss, and was at odds with his stance against a proposal to create a dedicated funding source for the parks.

Black is popular with parks lovers, county supervisors and many business leaders. There was talk of her running for county executive after Walker became governor, but she instead supported Abele. Her situation is reminiscent of the late Dave Schulz, who was fired from his job as parks director by then-County Executive William O’Donnell in 1987. Schulz turned around and ran for county executive, defeating his old boss in 1988.

Abele, however, isn’t up for reelection until 2016 — a long time from now. By then, perhaps we’ll learn why Black was fired.

Note to readers:  As the comments below suggest, there is great disagreement about Black’s firing. One Black supporter is asking folks to sign a petition opposing the firing.

Categories: Politics

33 thoughts on “Why Was Sue Black Fired?”

  1. Old Parkie says:

    Long time coming.
    Insiders will breath a sigh of relief.
    No more rants and raves of someone with Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
    Her behind the scenes antics finally caught up with her.


  2. Molly Bradford says:

    This is outrageous. I was just in MKE, my hometown, for a visit 2-weeks ago and my folks and I were relaying her accomplishments and how wonderful Sue was for Milwaukee parks. From working a slashed budget to open-minded ideas like the Estabrook Park Biergarten, she was amazing. I even heard she refused a job in Chicago to stay in MKE… what a sad, sad loss.

  3. Ginny says:

    Well, there goes the parks.

  4. blurondo says:

    Old Parkie may be someone with an ax to grind or maybe someone with a more accurate view of what’s real.

  5. dailywalker says:

    What a HUGE mistake to let go of Sue Black!! I have no doubt that someone will pick her up quickly and she will make there County Parks as good as she made ours. I also have no doubt, that Abele has NO IDEA what he has just done. Unfortunately I think we will all start watching our Parks system slowly go backwards without Sue Black! What a shame

  6. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Explanation? We’re all waiting… there’s gotta be more to the story, right?

  7. Gene Haas says:

    I’ve had the opportunity to work with previous Parks Directors since Howard Gregg and Russ Kurtz back since the early 1950s….and I must say, that Sue Black performed as well, or better, than any of them. I liken her to the late Dave Schulz who also had the courage to put forth ideas and stand by them regardless of what anyone in the political world thought of them.

    What happened? Perhaps we’ll never know the “real” story, but we’re certainly going to miss her talents, performance and results. It’s seems unfathomable to digest why this took place….and those of us who had the opportunity to “work” with Sue during her tenure as Milwaukee County Parks Director are certainly going to miss her. Good Luck to Sue in any and all of her future endeavors.

  8. Relieved says:

    Anyone who had the experience of working under Sue Black could tell you she was a horrible person. There are Milwaukee County employees by the hundreds who believe she should have been fired years ago. Sue has personality problems that were only seen by those who had the displeasure to be one of her employees. I wish her good luck in the future, and I hope she gets the help she desperately needs. Many people are breathing a huge sigh of relief knowing they can go to work tomorrow without experiencing 8 hours of shear terror.

  9. Dan says:

    And, Milwaukee is still stuck in a “Swirly” and going down the drain to Mediocrity…
    What’s good is bad and what’s bad is good!
    Please turn off the lights when ya leave.

  10. sally68 says:

    I can’t take seriously an employee complaining about a boss. Maybe she expected a lot out of her public employees but she got results within a shrinking budget. I bet Abele really wishes he could fire David Clarke.

  11. Chuck Peirce says:

    Why don’t those who have commented here, who seem to have “inside” information, contact Bruce Murphy so someone can nail down what happened?

    Do none of the “hundreds of people who think she should have been fired….” have nothing to say for the record?

  12. Brookfield Betsy says:

    Results are not the be-all and end-all of performance. If it is true that Ms. Black treated her employees as poorly as several posters have indicated, then it was only a matter of time until she pulled the same crap on her boss. Abele doesn’t have a short fuse, but – despite his outwardly mild manner – he’s no pushover, either.

    Good luck to Ms. Black in her future endeavors.

  13. Kevin says:

    Abele is not the type of guy to fire someone on a whim, especially someone with a following like Sue Black.

    One can be somewhat confident that Black was fired for the same reasons anyone gets fired, most likely her mouth got her into trouble.

  14. Grapevine says:

    Or maybe it was the 1000s of dollars in free things she took from local business that may have looked like bribes

  15. Eastside Edna says:

    One wonders what explosions would have occurred in the community if Scott Walker would have acted in the manner of Chris Abele. He would have been called Hitler, a homophobe, fascist, etc. The county board gave Walker nothing but grief for years and I’m sure they rejoiced when an enlightened, coexisting liberal democrat took over office. You get what you deserve, guys. Sue Black was outstanding for the parks. What will we get now? Perhaps Chris Abele will do for the County Park system what he did for Milwaukee Shakespeare.

  16. Renee Hestekin says:


    I just created a petition: Milwaukee County, Wisconsin: Return Sue Black to her Milwaukee County Parks Director Position, because I care deeply about this very important issue.

    I’m trying to collect 100 signatures, and I could really use your help.

    To read more about what I’m trying to do and to sign my petition, click here:

    It’ll just take a minute!

    Once you’re done, please ask your friends to sign the petition as well. Grassroots movements succeed because people like you are willing to spread the word!


  17. Dave Rohde says:

    It’s a purely political decision. The libs just can’t stand anyone who excels. She’s too good for Milwaukee; always has been.
    Good luck, Sue!

  18. Begonia says:

    I know someone who took a top position at Milwaukee Parks. Every time I asked him about his job he talked about how difficult it was to work under the management and politics and said it was a truly terrible place to work. He never named names, though. I always assumed he was frustrated with the County supervisors. He left about a year after taking the job there.

  19. hearher donald says:

    It seems plausible that this has to do with the DNR lawsuit and the missed deadline of black to provide final reports.

  20. justice123 says:

    She had to be fired for over-the-top displays of affection with her girlfriend at the recent Air Show. She was in a park, with many witnesses, and since the show was sponsored by the County Parks, it was just too much. Unfortunately, she has a long-standing problem with alcoholism, and hope this is a wake up call for her to get treatment

  21. Bill Sweeney says:

    Just reading these various comments begs the question of why she was fired which of course leads to Abele’s refusal to provide justification. Are there similar instances where this has happened? Is it fair to the public and to Ms Black to allow speculation and rumor to supplant a considered and reasoned written explanation as to why she was fired? Is the refusal to provide a reason a result of legal advice? So much of what happens in employer/employee, and indeed elsewhere is shaped by the fear of being sued. Obviously, Mr Abele is expecting/praying/hoping that this story will blow over in a couple of days. Just another reason, as if one was needed, for the need for a vigorous 4th estate.

  22. Old Parkie says:

    What goes around DOES come around Sue Black!!

    How soon people forget how Sue Baldwin was publicly fired by Scott Walker. They were ambushed in the parking lot by the media tipped off by Walkers office. Still shameful.

  23. judith ann moriarty says:

    while “news” needs to be reported, and Black’s firing is certainly “news,” the comments tacked on to the tail-end (freedom of speech!) are rude, crude and uniformative.

  24. Dave Reid says:

    @Judith Yup I hear you…

  25. Old Parkie says:

    And more truth than you will ever know Judith…

  26. MilwaukeeObserver says:

    Renee, I am not saying your petition is a bad idea, nor am I saying Ms. Black should have been terminated. What I would offer is please be sure you have facts before doing the petition thing and know all the reasons, then decide. I have no inside information on this situation, but I have seen people go to bat for public officials, then feel foolish with new and factual information comes out.

  27. NealB says:

    Black’s firing has got to be about the Preserve Our Parks opposition to the Couture development on the downtown transit center site. Abele has skin in that game, as we know. It’s a near certainty that Black does, too. The reason for this firing is surely known many politicians, developers, and journalists. Abele wants to get the ball moving on the Couture, Black probably backs a different group’s interests for that location. It’s going to be the biggest real estate development in the history of Wisconsin. I’ve thought well of Sue Black and impressed with her performance in reviving the parks with little support from Republicans in Madison. But Abele’s not going to let her get in the way of the Couture, nor should he.

  28. Paul Peck says:

    Milwaukee county has a Personnel review board for all fired employees. The proceedings are not open to the public. Every time Sherif Clarke fires a deputy, they appeal to the personnel review board and get rehired. The same seems true for all county employees that do something so terrible that it makes it to the press.

    Many state the personnel review board is corrupt because they seldom uphold a termination and because the proceedings are not public. Others state that when corruption is discovered, to make it public is opening a can of worms and it is better to define the problem and immediately remedy it.

    Sue Black however is not seeking an appeal through the personnel review board that traditionally reverses terminations of county employees and has been criticized as being too favorable.

    It seems she is forum shopping based on her political base.

    Some groups are calling for a separate board rather than one that is historically favorable to terminated employees and county supervisors are demanding explanations from the county executive rather than following their own oversight procedures.

    Because review procedures are being circumvented , even in a forum that would be favorable to sue black, it all makes it appear more credible that the county executive was proper in terminating black.

  29. Joe Klein says:

    Whatever his reason, the County Executive is the servant of the people, and the people deserve to know why.

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