Abele Under Fire
Has the Johnny Thomas situation poisoned relations between the county exec and county board?
To County Supervisor Mark Borkowski, nothing was worse than the relationship between former Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker and the county board. “In the last two years of Walker’s regime the tension was brutal. It was not fun. It was ugly.”
This created a tremendous opening for Chris Abele, and in the early going supervisors welcomed him. But of late things have gotten just as ugly, Borkowski contends: “It’s like deja vu all over again.”
Even Supervisor Steve Taylor, who considers himself a supporter of Abele, says “I can see a strain between the second floor (where supervisors have their offices) and third floor (county exec’s office)”
“It’s been strained for several months,” says supervisor Jason Haas.
Worse, the testimony made clear that Farley made misleading comments to Thomas, under directions of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, in hopes of leading him to commit a crime. But a jury deliberated for less than 90 minutes and found Thomas not guilty.
“No one can trust Farley.” says supervisor Gerry Broderick, never shy about attacking the county executive. “Who’s going to want to meet with him?”
“I think Farley should resign,” Jursik declares. “He has violated the most basic principle of good government: trust.”
When asked if she agrees, County Board chair Marina Dimitrijevic offers a carefully worded email from her spokesperson Velia Alvarez that heaps a little more fire on the coals: “That’s a decision for the County Executive. Mr. Farley has admitted to lying to an elected official, just at the time when the Executive and Legislative branches of County government must work together during upcoming budget deliberations.”
It hasn’t helped Abele that the verdict on Thomas came shortly after the firing of Sue Black, which also outraged the board. “The Sue Black firing has not set well at all,” says Taylor.
To some supervisors, the way Abele handled the Black firing — with very little explanation — and the Thomas situation (why not have somebody lower in your administration wear the wire? some supervisors ask) betrays his short history as a politician. “His inexperience as a county executive is finally starting to catch up with him,” says Borkowski.
Perhaps. But Abele did get board approval of Farley’s renomination, even though supervisors were clearly outraged by Farley’s role in the Thomas affair. He got approval of his plan for the 44-floor The Couture development on the lakefront. And my sense from county board members is that he’s likely to get approval of his choice for permanent director of the parks, so long as the candidate doesn’t look like a proponent of privatization.
Abele is quite likely to get more resistance on this budget this fall, given the temper of the board, but Walker faced that on an annual basis, and got to pose for fiscally conservative holy pictures even as the board restored funding for important county functions. In short, more resistance to his budget could actually help Abele politically.
As for the idea that it was politically crazy for Abele to let his top aide try to help convict a board member of political corruption, the county exec’s spokesperson Brendan Conway offers this reply: “If you’re saying Chris did the right thing over the politically expedient thing, he’s okay with that.”
That’s a great answer, but it misses the human dimension of what the Johnny Thomas situation represents. He was a colleague and friend to some board members, who was well on his way to winning the race for comptroller, a position that pays about $125,000 annually. Thomas had a long list of endorsements from political officials and looked like a shoo-in to defeat Martin Matson, a little-known city bureaucrat who won because Thomas had to withdraw from the race. Now Thomas, who resigned from the board to run for comptroller, is left in the political wilderness.
Abele seems tone-deaf to the way this has hit board members, so much so that he may have allowed misconceptions to fester. Conway notes that Abele was a political supporter of Thomas who donated $1,000 to his campaign for comptroller and was the campaign co-chair until Thomas dropped out of the race — which was several months after he had been arrested.
Abele, in short, had no idea who the D.A. had targeted, Conway says, but only knew it was a member of the county board. Farley testified under oath that he went to county auditor Jerry Heer for advice on a situation involving potential misconduct by a board member, and Heer suggested he talk to the DA. Heer says he doesn’t recall this conversation and was surprised by Thomas’ arrest, but this might make sense if Farley didn’t mention the supervisor by name.
The whole situation is mysterious enough that it allows for lots of misunderstandings. The usual solution to such a problem is communication, but not a lot of that is going on these days. Taylor says Abele told him he was among only three board members who called the county exec to ask why Black was fired. Another board member tells me he was cut off from communications from the executive after he voted a way Abele didn’t want. And Borkowski tells me some county board committee chairs do not allow any representative of the executive to attend meetings.
Taylor suggests Abele take a leaf out of Gov. Walker’s playbook: “Maybe the executive needs to have a little beer and brats thing for supervisors at his house.”
Perhaps. But it didn’t seem to improve the governor’s relationship with Democratic legislators.
-My last column noted that the Fire and Police Commission intended to hire the PRI Management Group (for $25,000) to audit the Milwaukee Police Department’s crime statistics, despite Journal Sentinel stories claiming the company is biased because its owner made comments criticizing the newspaper’s reporting and defending Chief Ed Flynn. I’ve now heard from Ald Terry Witkowski, another member of the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee, who says he has no problem with the company doing the audit.
“I don’t believe for $25,000 a firm is going to put out an inaccurate or biased report and risk their livelihood,” Witkowski says. “It’s ludicrous. And if we can’t trust the mayor, Fire and Police Commission, and police chief, then who can put out a contract we can trust?”
“The chief at the Common Council hearing said Milwaukee was not the only city to have a problem with this computer system. I see nothing in the newspaper’s stories that disputes that. Their story shows other departments in the country are also having problems.”