Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Milwaukee County Great Place to Lose Your Job

Both the county exec and county board have made the courthouse a perilous place for appointed staff.

By - Jun 27th, 2013 12:44 pm

It was just another day for the Milwaukee County Board on June 20th, as they decided to fire Corporation Counsel Kimberly Walker. Walker had been there all of two years, which is beginning to seem like a long tenure for county employees.

The vote last week was by a resounding 13-5, making it veto-proof. Critics suggested this was done to punish County Executive Chris Abele for his successful advocacy of a state law that reduces the board’s budget and power. Defenders claimed it was due to missteps by Walker. Most likely it was because she was seen as more helpful to Abele, who picked her for the job, than to the board, which approved the hiring. But it would take a Solomon to try to equally please the ever-feuding board and executive.

Milwaukee County has become a place where staff don’t seem to last long. Often times they just seem to disappear, with little explanation. In October, Frank Busalacchi left his job as county transportation director after less than a year on the job. He was a high profile hire who had previously served as state transportation director under Gov. Jim Doyle, but one day, poof, he was gone. At the time, Brendan Conway, Abele’s spokesperson, declined to say whether Busalacchi quit or was fired. Abele’s nemesis, County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, naturally, deplored the loss. “I’m surprised and I find it unfortunate,” she said.

Other Abele hires who left mysteriously include George Aldrich, his first chief of staff, who left in 2011, and Jeff Bentoff, who served as deputy chief of staff and spokesperson for Abele, who left in 2012. This year Paula Lucey resigned as administrator of the Behavioral Health Division in March after just six months on the job and Jim Burton left his post as facilities maintenance manager in March after about nine months on the job. Abeles’s office called Lucey’s departure a retirement after more than 30 years working for the county, but it was curious that this wasn’t announced (or even discussed) by Lucey.

Of course, Abele’s most famous firing was that of parks director Sue Black. She certainly had many supporters, but there were reasons for her firing, as I’ve written previously. Board members, however, point to this and other departures to make the case that Abele can’t hold on to staff.

Conway counters that Abele oversees 4,400 employees and the board directly supervises only their staff of 38 people. And Dimitrijevich, elected board chair little more than a year ago, is already on her third communications person, Bill Zaferos, who succeeded Velia Alvarez, who succeeded Harold Mester. She also lost longtime research analyst Glen Bultman, whose departure occurred with no announcement or explanation.

A certain amount of turnover is inevitable in government, but the county seems plagued by the problem, as staff (like Walker) get caught between the ever-feuding board and executive. Thus, the board recently voted against confirmation of Kathleen Eilers as head of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex not because she lacked qualifications for the job, but more because the board was flexing its political muscles and sending a message to Abele.

Then was case of Economic Development Director Brian Taffora, appointed by Abele in June 2011 and approved by the board. Because he lived outside Milwaukee County, the rules stated that he had six months to move.

Taffora put his home on the market for $349,000, which was $91,000 less than he had paid in 2005, but got no offers. In June 2012, Taffora was granted a residency waiver by the Abele administration.

But the county board figured out a way to nullify that decision. In December 2012, the board changed the title of his job from Economic Development Director to Director of County Economic Development in a budget amendment. This move meant Taffora had to reapply for his job. Instead of trying to fight for confirmation once again for what was really the same job, Taffora announced on December 19, 2012 that he would resign his job. “It’s actually become extremely difficult for me to do my job with the new leadership in place,” Taffora said, referring to Dimitrjevic. Dimitrijevic declared it “highly disappointing that Mr. Taffora never found the will nor the means to move into Milwaukee County.”

As with Eilers and Walker, the board’s decision seemed to have had little to do with Taffora’s performance or qualifications for the job. Because Abele’s administration dared to give Taffora a waiver, the board stepped in and showed its power to prevent this.

Then there was the infamous case of Patrick Farley, director of the Department of Administration Services. Farley cooperated with the DA’s office in a sting operation against then-county supervisor Johnny L. Thomas, who was then charged with felony bribery and misconduct. But a jury found Thomas not guilty.

Abele praised Farley for cooperating with law enforcement authorities in a criminal investigation, and there is little doubt the board had thin grounds for opposing his reappointment, as I wrote at the time.

But board members were outraged at the idea that Farley was wearing a wire trying to nab Thomas and worried that he was also recording conversations with other supervisors. Abele and Farley may have tried to do the right thing, but the result helped poison relations with the board and made it impossible for Farley to do his job. It was just dumb politics.  Abele eventually had to let Farley go, giving him a job with Abele’s Argosy Foundation.

That’s life at the ever-dysfunctional courthouse. Abele, Dimitrijevic and the board have together sent a strong message that anyone is expendable, and can be let go for little or no reason. Amid all the power battles, the courthouse has become a perilous place for appointees trying to do the people’s business.

Categories: Murphy's Law

11 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Milwaukee County Great Place to Lose Your Job”

  1. GT says:

    As you’ve mentioned in the past, there needs to be a clearer definition of purpose and responsibility for the position of Exec and Supervisor. These high profile squabbles reflect frequent and far reaching low profile squabbles that significantly damage the County’s performance/service/image. Are job descriptions for electeds too much to ask?

  2. The Danimal says:

    Please explain to me how trying to entrap someone is “doing the right thing.” Pretty sure the jury deliberated about his innocence for only an hour and a half. In the words on one juror “I really felt it was an unfair (case). It was pretty much a waste of tax dollars.”

    Your odd vendetta against the board really harms your journalistic integrity and makes me now question the validity of other pieces of yours.

  3. Bruce Murphy says:

    Dan, it was the DA”s decision to try this case, not Farley or Abele’s. It certainly seems like the DA made a mistake. I don’t have a vendetta against the board but have felt since I first covered the county in 1989 that there was too much duplication between the board and executive, and have suggested, long before the current board, that the county needed to address the issue.

  4. Nathan Berman says:

    The county board seems united in their opposition to Chris Abele. Why is that? People need to ask Chris Abele why the board has such an adversarial with him. He is the executive and ultimately, he is the one who is accountable for the successes and/or failures of the milwaukee county government.

    These “squabbles” make the county executive look like an ineffective leader.

  5. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    These people are a statewide embarrassment and have been for decades. Wonder why the state never sends any money to Milwaukee?
    By lying to Mike ellis, they dug their own little grave.

  6. capper says:

    Busalacchi was fired because he refused to fire an underling that Abele was mad at.

    Lucey was advised to leave because she wouldn’t dump patients at BHD into the community without proper support. Abele found that unacceptable.

    The thing I find interesting about the Farley/Thomas incident is the timing. It happened when Thomas was leaving the county and running for city comptroller. Meanwhile, Abele’s bought and paid for supervisor, Deanna Alexander, was lagging in the polls in her race to replace Thomas. Just coincidence? I doubt it, since it fits Abele’s method of running things.

  7. Matt says:

    Perhaps if Abele had to defend himself occasionally rather than rely on the taxpayer funded “news”boy/mouthpiece that is Brendan Conway he would be a little more aware that his “aw shucks I’m just a rich boy trying to help the county” shtick isn’t working anymore.

    That doesn’t explain how dumb the board is though.

  8. STACY MOSS says:

    Watch out for anyone who has been downsized by another.

    After all is said and done, they tend to be too short to take the high road.

  9. old moderate says:

    The problem is that there really isn’t a need for a County Executive. It is a relatively new position. A better solution would be for the County Board to hire a Professional County Manager.

  10. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Walker looks like genius again. First he dumps that silly train that would have cost billions, Ca. will maybe cost a trillion. that silly thing would have dumped our budget, increased taxes or have to cut valuable services now he looks even smarter by not buying into this mess called obamacare.
    Guarantee if he would have set up these exchanges, no one knew how to do it, and they would have had this mess that is happneing” another train wreck from the Left”, they would have been blaming Walker, now they can just blame themselves.

  11. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Scott Walker our hero. Anderson Cooper just did expose on Ca. Halfast rail and the fact that it will probably cost a trillion dollars and take 50 years to finish. thank you Scott for saving us from this boondoggle.
    Rail works where there are lots of people and cars, buses are too slow. In Ca. they would be better off paying off their trillions in unpaid pensions and healthcare debts then building this turkey. they make Greece look well run.

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