The Mighty County Board
A doormat a decade ago, the board is now far more powerful -- much to Chris Abele’s chagrin.
Given that Milwaukee has had a county executive since 1960, you’d think there would be clear lines of responsibility between the executive and county board. In fact, those lines are rather fuzzy, and keep changing, which is why you keep seeing headlines about power battles and bickering between the Milwaukee County Board and County Executive Chris Abele.
Back when F. Thomas Ament was county exec, from 1992 until he was forced to resign in 2002, the board’s power was pretty limited. In a story I did in 2002 for Milwaukee Magazine, then-County Supervisor Robert Krug described Ament as a “benevolent dictator,” adding that “Ament gets about 95 percent of what he wants.”
Board members told me that Ament, who had formerly served (1976-1992) as county board chair, actually had more power over the board than Karen Ordinans, the board chair at the time. “Tom has a lot more influence than Karen, a lot more power,” Supervisor Jim (Luigi) Schmitt told me.
Much of that power was due to Ament’s mastery of all the details of county government and his skill at handling people (talents which have been completely obscured by his disgrace over the pension scandal). But Ament also had more power structurally. For instance, he had control of intergovernmental affairs (staff who lobby the state and federal government for more funding) and power over the Community Development Business Partners office (which reviews contracts and procurements for compliance with goals to do business with companies headed by minorities or women).
Ament was succeeded by Scott Walker, who seemed weirdly unconcerned about preserving executive power. Where Ament had near total control of the board, Walker had little clout with it. In eight years as county exec, he used the veto 204 times, or about 25 times a year. His vetoes were overridden all but 65 times, or more than two-thirds of the time. I doubt you’d find an executive in Wisconsin history with a greater percentage of vetoes overthrown. It almost never happened to Ament or Mayor John Norquist or former governors Tommy Thompson or Jim Doyle.
Walker seemed to lose power without putting up much of a fight. In 2003, when he proposed to cut their pay and shrink the number of lobbyists from three to two, the board restored the funding and voted to move intergovernmental affairs under the County Board’s oversight. In 2005, Holloway also moved the Community Business Development Partners office from the executive wing to county board, and Walker didn’t seem to mind. (Walker’s choice to run that office, Frieda Webb, retained that position and since July has been under investigation for allegedly taking kickbacks from a contractor.)
Thus, when Abele became county executive in the Spring of 2011, he faced a board that had more power — and was far more aggressive — than back in Tom Ament’s day. This summer, some board members were unhappy with how the developer was chosen for The Couture project on the lakefront, and suggested the board should have more control of the process.
But if you look at the City of Milwaukee, where lines of responsibility are far more clear, it is the mayor, through the Department of City Development, that chooses developers for public land and works out contracts. It was a notable exception when Barry Mandel did an end run around DCD and went to the Common Council to get a different deal. As Brendan Conway, spokesperson for Abele puts it, “no developer wants to deal with 18 different board members.”
The mayor also has most of the power over intergovernmental affairs, with three full-time staffers reporting to him. The council has one lobbyist that reports to it. Abele has said he’d like to have at least one of the county’s lobbyists report to him instead of the board and told the Journal Sentinel that County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic had “at one point she had been open to the idea.” But Dimitrijevic has made it clear she now opposes it. As things stand, Abele has told the newspaper, “I need to ask the chairwoman for permission to even talk to the lobbying staff.”
In May, Dimitrijevic attended a meeting of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council of Milwaukee County and asked to have a vote alongside the 19 mayors and village presidents and County Exec Abele. This would have made her the only non-executive and only member not elected directly by voters (she is elected to her district only and won the board position through a vote of board members). Abele opposed it. Her bid was voted down narrowly.
In a blog by Aaron Rodriguez, who frequently writes about county government, Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo called Dimitrijevic’s attempt “to inject herself into the ICC…yet another example of how this County Board fails to understand its statutory role as a legislative body…During my time in office, I have witnessed this county board overstepping its authority by encroaching on the duties of the executive branch time and time again.”
That’s clearly a minority view among board members, meaning there may be more challenges to Abele in the months to come.
-If Abele is looking to build a better relationship with the board, he probably didn’t help himself yesterday. Before the announcement of a joint city/county partnership to save money by having the city police rather than the county sheriffs patrol the parks and lakefront, Mayor Tom Barrett ran the idea by Common Council President Willie Hines. But Abele said he hadn’t been able to connect with Dimitrijevich about the idea.
-Even before this plan was announced, Sheriff David Clarke was on the air with his conservative champion, radio talker Charlie Sykes, to complain about the proposal. Given the plan’s estimated savings are $1.7 million, and given that Sykes has also been a supporter of Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, I wonder how much backing Sykes will give Clarke?
-Old timers will remember when the board (as recently as the late 1980s) had a moderate-to-conservative, suburban majority that typically carried the day. The board today seems more liberal, with less suburban power, than we’ve seen in decades.
-DA John Chisholm is hurting for prosecutorial staff and badly needs help from Gov. Walker, the man whose staff have been the subject of a John Doe investigation led by Chisholm. Wonder what his chances are of getting the funding? Gretchen Schuldt reports.