Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Abele Under Fire

Has the Johnny Thomas situation poisoned relations between the county exec and county board?

By - Aug 29th, 2012 09:58 am

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.

For many board members the biggest outrage was that Abele’s Director of Administration Patrick Farley, helped build the evidence against one of their colleagues, former supervisor Johnny Thomas, for allegedly taking a political payoff. “I think it is totally inappropriate to have the highest administrative officer in county government to be “miked-up” when he talks to legislative branch members,” supervisor Patricia Jursik charges. As her comment suggests, some supervisors worried that Thomas wasn’t the only board member Farley was gathering evidence on — though no proof of this has ever surfaced.

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.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele

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.

 Short Take:

-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.”

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

9 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Abele Under Fire”

  1. Joe says:

    Maybe, just maybe, it’s the County Board that is the problem? If they continue to have issues with the County exec, Walker & Abele, maybe they should look in the mirror first.

  2. getch says:

    If Thomas did believe it was a campaign donation, why did he hide the money in his house?

  3. PaulS says:

    Stepping back from the fray, I would cordially and respectfully remind the Supervisors and the Executive equally that we did not elect you to engage in interminable sandbox wars. We elected you to govern this county. If you bright, well-paid people (all of you) cannot deal with that difficult task, then please resign today. We do not care about your interpersonal failures; we care about your ability to govern this county.

    To claim that office ‘tension’ is making you impotent is a confession of personal incompetence. We still have a parks system that needs improvement and support. We desperately–desperately–need dedicated funding for MCTS, else tens of thousands of workers will lose their primary access to their jobs. And a little positive growth and the implementation of your many good ideas would be just dandy too. You were all elected on some measure of confidence in your abilities; you are expected to start measuring up. Immediately.

    Grow up and get on task. All of you.

  4. Sam says:

    I think all of this boils down to two things:

    1. People elected a county board majority and a county executive with radically different political agendas. We’ve got a majority progressive, urban county board that wants to expand county services, and a relatively conservative (although no Scott Walker) county exec whose primary goal seems to be lower taxes and who couldn’t seem to be more disconnected from the reality of inner city Milwaukee and what county services mean there.

    2. Abele is used to being the guy with the money to throw around (and who therefore gets his way). The county isn’t a program funded by the Argosy Foundation, and as such no-one on the county board feels the need to please him.

    The personality issues are a problem that need to be dealt with, but I honestly think that the political issues are a part of the game when the race is non-partisan (aka party politics are implicit not explicit) exec isn’t a board member. If we don’t want that, then we should get rid of the office of exec.

  5. Sachin Chheda says:

    Getch – He didn’t. The money was not “hidden.” See Charlie Sykes’ blog and today’s Shepherd Express for an explanation — the criminal complaint contained a lie that has since been exposed. The money simply was not hidden.

  6. DHRichards says:

    Dear Bruce,
    Abele, last I heard, was also defying the Board’s will by not signing the Referendum on Corporate Personhood and Campaign Finance…. The group working on this is Move to Amend. The Board voted 14-4 to allow citizens to vote on this in November. You may wish to find out more.

  7. Ed Werstein says:

    As usual I understand the situation better after reading your article. Thanks.
    And yes, I agree with Don. I’d like to see a column on the corporate personhood veto.

  8. We The People says:

    Why is there NO MEDIA on Chris Abele VS “We the People” Against the Corporation..???
    The COUNTY BOARD Voted (July 27) for a MKE County Ballot Referendum calling to Remove Citizens United ruling the “Corporations are People!!!” ~ Board vote 14:4 in FAVOR of this!

    County Executive Chris Abele does not respect our democracy!
    He did NOT Sign to include this Referendum on the Nov MKE Ballot.

    Human beings, not corporations, are entitled to Constitutional rights, and money is not speech!
    This Action speaks VOLUMES on Whom our County Executive bows to…NOT the PEOPLE – But The Corporations themselves.

  9. We The People says:

    PS – Not even the Milwaukee Shepherd EXPress has Printed ONE WORD on the Citizens United / Move To Amend effort in Milwaukee County ~~~ SHAME!

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