Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Nuclear Option

Supervisors nuke Chris Abele’s staff salaries. Will this hurt the county?

By - Nov 7th, 2013 11:22 am
Chris Abele

Chris Abele

One day before the county board’s finance committee met last week, Supervisor David Cullen stopped by the office of County Executive Chris Abele to drop the bomb. The finance committee would be “resetting” — drastically downward — the salaries of administrators working under Abele.

As Abele recalls it, Cullen told him, “because of Act 14, salaries and positions are our nuclear option.” Act 14, of course, is the state legislation Abele helped champion, which reduced the board’s power and salaries.

Abele took it to mean the board was going nuclear in retaliation for Act 14. Cullen, however, said he merely meant this was the only tool the board had left to trim executive staff costs, as he told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Steve Schultze.

I leave it to readers as to which explanation they believe. I think retaliation was to be expected. The law Abele supported might have been good policy (as I argued) but it was a frontal attack on supervisors, whose full time jobs now become part time, with the pay cut in half.

Supervisor Tony Staskunas, who joined the board this year, says he doesn’t think Abele quite understands what a bitter pill he’s making supervisors swallow: “There’s nothing more personal than trying to take someone’s job away.”

And so, with no discussion, the finance committee voted 8-0 to cut salaries for various personnel by anywhere from 5 percent to nearly 16 percent. Under the plan, as Schultz reported, Administrative Services Director Don Tyler would get a $22,100 pay cut, or nearly 16 percent; Human Resources director Kerry Mitchell would get a cut of almost $12,000, or about percent; and Transportation Director Brian Dranzik would lose $6,875, for a cut of 5 percent.

Abele is outraged. This is going to “a massively detrimental impact,” he fumed to the newspaper. He also called me to complain: “To make these radical changes without consulting anyone in these departments is not the way to run a government,” he said.

The 8-0 vote strongly suggests the full board will pass this by a veto-proof majority. The cuts will at the very least dismay staff and in the long term might make it harder for Milwaukee County to recruit and retain administrative staff. But I doubt whether voters will care. Politically speaking, once you make the argument that taxpayers are paying too much for the county board, you open the door for a similar argument about executive staff.

Abele argues the board’s move is illegal. Cullen noted that the county’s new Corporation Counsel Paul Bargren (whom the board wisely left off the list of appointees getting wage cuts) said it was a “close call” as to whether this action was legal.

Sort of. Bargen’s point, he tells me, was that the law explicitly states the county board sets salary levels for civil service jobs, but not for other positions. Under Act 14, he says, “salary decisions should not be made by the board” for non-civil service job holders appointed by Abele, but “should be considered part of the day-to-day management by the county executive.”

In short, the board is setting up a situation where Abele may have to sue to enforce the corp counsel’s opinion. And since Bargren serves both the executive and the board, Abele will have to hire outside counsel, as will the board (which has already paid for advice on such matters from the Hawks Quindel law firm). And we the taxpayers will underwrite it all.

Welcome to the looney bin, Mr. Bargren, and good luck walking the tightrope that requires you to fairly serve two warring sides. This perilous task resulted in your predecessor Kimberly Walker being purged by the board.

But Bargren takes a sunny view of the blood-spattered office he’s inherited. “I’m enjoying the job,” he says. “And I’m pleased to find so many competent public servants to work with.” Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.

More About Local Control 

In reaction to my column about the decline of local control, I got complaints from both Mike Plaisted and Chris Liebenthal, from the Cognitive Dissidence blog, arguing I should have included Act 14 as an example of usurping local control.

But the examples cited in my story, including measures ending residency in Milwaukee or changing how the city assesses billboards, were uniformly opposed by city officials. The proposal to downsize the county board split Milwaukee, with supervisors and some Milwaukee legislators opposing it, and the county executive, some legislators and Greater Milwaukee Committee supporting it. For that matter, huge majorities in many suburbs supported the idea in local referendums.

Because county officials were split on the issue, the Wisconsin Counties Association took no stand on Act 14, whereas it typically opposes legislative changes that interfere with county power.

The situation is reminiscent of the proposal to have the mayor take over management of Milwaukee Public Schools (which I also favored). On one side was Mayor Tom Barrett and some aldermen and Milwaukee legislators; on the other side were other aldermen and Milwaukee legislators.  In this case the legislature backed off (though Barrett never seemed all that passionate about the idea).

Nor was my story meant to suggest that all bills reducing local control are bad. As I noted, there may certainly be “a case to be made” for some of the laws recently passed by Republicans. Gov. Tommy Thompson, for instance, increased school aids while capping school spending, to assure that property tax relief occurred, which was an attempt to strike a reasonable balance between state and local powers.

But the sheer number of laws passed by this legislature to reduce local governmental power is surely newsworthy.

Romney Favors Ryan Over Walker

Does anyone care anymore what unsuccessful presidential candidate Mitt Romney thinks? It was national news that he left Senator Ted Cruz off his list of electable Republican presidential candidates. His short list did include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (whom Romney reportedly rejected as too risky a choice for vice-president) and his former running mate, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan.

Also missing from the list was Gov. Scott Walker, who once was polling as high as third place among possible GOP presidential candidates but seems to be fading to the back of the pack. Ultimately, Walker would have to knock off Ryan in the primaries if he is to have any chance.

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Categories: Murphy's Law

10 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Nuclear Option”

  1. Joel says:

    I support reducing the size of the county board, but Abele is no politician. Cutting the board’s salary, and then feigning outrage when they do the same back to his staff indicates this guy has mental issues. Milwaukee County deserves better than this Kindergartener running it.

  2. Phil B says:

    Actually Milwaukee County and City has exactly the kind of leadership and representation it votes for. Perhaps local government is reflective of voters’ general mental health?

  3. David Ciepluch says:

    A lot was expected of Chris Abele when he ran and was elected to replace the inept and divisive Walker. Possibly too much credibility was placed on a man that had a huge bank account (silver spoon in mouth) but no experience in government, working with many different elected officials, and even understanding the needs and wants of the common voter instead of his usual narrow field of business contacts that do not even live in Milwaukee.

    He reaped what he sowed. Now he needs to go. He had his chance and failed. Voters are stuck with someone until the term ends, as in the case of Walker. So many wasted years and damage done.

  4. Let’s back up for just a moment. The bill restricting the authority of the county board does not ever mention the words ‘part time’. That has always been a talking point in the discussion but it isn’t in the law. So even if the ‘referendum’ passes which I imagine it will, just because supervisors see their pay cut and their benefits removed, doesn’t necessarily make it a part time job. Now that being said, if the powers that be think $24,000 is part time money they have a lot of explaining to do to those Milwaukee County residents who work full time for that kinda part time money. And we know there are a fair number of them.

    And CE Abele didn’t help his own cause by proposing a budget for the county board short of the legally mandated and recently cut maximum by $45,000. That was just as petty as cutting his staffers to $120,000 per year. If he wants this nonsense to end, he’s shown damn little inclination to stop it from his office.

    And if CE Abele thinks that will increase his difficulty in recruiting qualified candidates for those positions, just how does he think there will be qualified candidates for county board going forward? That’s a two edged oratorical sword.

  5. capper says:

    What? No mention of the front line workers, some of whom have taken a much larger cut, percentage-wise, than even the bully boy Don Tyler? No mention that the cuts were proven not to be needed?

    Oh, and as for your claim regarding the WCA and Act 14, they most definitely came out against it:

    Like I said, you often omit important information that greatly changes the story.

  6. Bruce Murphy says:

    Capper, As part of this story, I interviewed Jon Hochkammer, the WCA’s legislative director. He told me the WCA ultimately took no position. As he put it, “We were more of a resource for them. We offered information since the board and executive were divided. We were more of a middle man.”

  7. capper says:

    I’ll go with the hard proof. But don’t get me wrong, I believe that is what Hochkammer told you. But I also know Abele has been putting the lean on people to be yes men to him.

  8. bruce murphy says:

    Capper, I don’t understand this. WCA serves 72 counties and is based in Madison. Are you saying Abele has turned the organization into his puppet?

  9. capper says:

    Not at all. But Abele is most definitely and influence buyer, either towards or against something.

  10. Tim says:

    Yes, I also believe this, there is influence… Either for or against something.

    ps – derp

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