The Nuclear Option
Supervisors nuke Chris Abele’s staff salaries. Will this hurt the county?
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.
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 Bargen (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.