Michael Horne
Plenty of Horne

Wisconsin Center’s Leadership Adrift?

Many of the board's seats are either vacant or held by legally unqualified individuals.

By - Mar 10th, 2014 12:01 pm
Convention Center. Photo by Dave Reid.

Convention Center. Photo by Dave Reid.

One third of the seats on the 15-member board of the Wisconsin Center District are either vacant, held by unqualified individuals, or held by persons whose terms have expired, raising serious questions about the governance of the taxing entity.  Depending on the residential status of two other members, there may be as few as eight people legitimately holding positions on the convention center board. Is this any way to run a business that receives $9 million from facilities rental and another $28 million a year in tax revenue?

I wrote in November 2013 that County Executive Chris Abele had made an illegal appointment when he named City of Milwaukee resident Andy Nunemaker to the board, since Abele’s appointments must be from Milwaukee County, but outside the city. That problem still hasn’t been fixed.

Then there’s board member Jim Kaminski, a mayoral appointee, who apparently remains on the board although his term expired in 2009, according to information provided by the district.

The board chairman, Atty. Franklyn Gimbel, appointed by the governor, continues to serve in that capacity, typically being quoted as spokesperson for the Wisconsin Center, even though his appointment expired nearly two years ago, in May, 2012.

Additionally, two seats remain unfilled, one a gubernatorial appointee and the other a mayoral appointee.

The district operates the downtown convention center now called the Wisconsin Center, plus the Milwaukee Theatre (the refurbished Auditorium, whose creation was Gimbel’s baby) and the U.S. Cellular Arena, but at times does so as if the facilities were part of a private club, not a public entity.

It took months of calls, letters and other communications to get the district to release a simple statement of who the members are, their terms in office, and who appointed them. I had a bicycle messenger deliver, by hand, a request for this information. The district claimed that it never got the document. I will stand by the Milwaukee Courier Company in this matter.

Finally, two days ago, I was able to prevail, and the information suggests there are serious issues regarding the board’s leadership, this at a time when its President & CEO Richard Geyer has announced his retirement (in April) and when Chairman Gimbel and the board are preparing plans to spend up to $400 million to expand the convention facility as recommended in a $60,000 study. The convention center, with under 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, is dwarfed by comparable facilities in peer communities.

The Wisconsin Center District was created by the legislature in 1994 to build, own and operate the facilities. It was an attempt to spread financial and oversight responsibility beyond the city. Attempts to make it a regional district failed for the usual reasons (resistance of adjoining counties), but it does collect a 2.5 percent hotel room tax, a 3 percent rental car tax, and a 0.5 percent food and beverage tax in Milwaukee County. Additionally, it collects a 7 percent hotel room tax in the City of Milwaukee.

The 1994 legislation also sets membership and qualifications for board seats.

The governor gets to appoint four members to three-year terms, two of which must reside in the City of Milwaukee and two outside the city but within Milwaukee County.  In May, 2013 Gov. Walker appointed Stephen H. Marcus “of River Hills” of the Marcus Corporation to his second term on the board, as a representative of the lodging industry. In July, 2013 he appointed restaurateur Joe Bartolotta to his first term on the board as a representative of the food and beverage industry. Both appointments are problematic. Bartolotta lives in Elm Grove, in Waukesha County, so the governor has no right to appoint him as a member. As for Marcus, if he still lives in River Hills, as the state Blue Book suggests, he would qualify as a non-city resident of Milwaukee County, as Walker apparently appointed him to be. But Marcus lives in the University Club tower downtown, meaning he is actually a city appointee of the governor, and would not be be designated as such.

The governor also has one vacancy he hasn’t filled. Then there’s Gimbel, whose term as a gubernatorial appointee ended on May 1 2012 and is given a footnote in the Wisconsin Center’s list of board members saying, “Numerous letters have been sent to the Governor & Mayor’s office regarding reappointment.” Meanwhile, Gimbel still is quoted in news stories as being the board chair as recently as Wednesday.

The Milwaukee County Executive has three appointments to the board. One must be the mayor or president of a city or community “that contributes room taxes” to the Wisconsin Center District.  Abele chose Mayor Kathy Ehley of Wauwatosa for that position in April 2012. His other two appointments must reside in the County, but outside the City. He chose Jeff Sherman of OnMilwaukee.com for one seat in June 2012. (Sherman, despite the name of his publication, actually lives in the Village of Shorewood, so he is OK.) However, as reported here in November, 2013, Nunemaker very much is a City of Milwaukee resident, so that appointment is invalid. But the way things operate at the WCD, that seems of little concern.

The Mayor of Milwaukee gets two private sector appointees. One is Joel Brennan, a longtime Barrett crony, serving his second term. But since the mayor has not filled his other open position, Jim Kaminski, whose term ended in 2009, continues to be listed as a member according to the Wisconsin Center District. However, the Blue Book makes no mention of Kaminski, just Brennan and the vacancy. Abele told me he thought Barrett should appoint Nunemaker to the vacant seat for a city resident. 

The Milwaukee Common Council President serves as a matter of right, so Ald. Michael Murphy joined the board, and Willie Hines left in February. The council president gets to make two public sector board appointments who must be city residents. They are Ald. Ashanti Hamilton, in his second term, and Ald. Robert Puente, in his first term, who will remain on the board until 2015, provided they remain in office.

The City Comptroller, currently Martin Matson, gets a spot on the board as long as he is in office.

The head of the state Department of Administration, or his designee, gets a seat on the board. Deputy Secretary Chris Schoenherr is the current designee.

Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills is on the board, as the appointee of the Senate co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance. She has been on the board since 2003. Her counterpart on the committee, Rep. Dale Kooyenga, of Brookfield, was appointed by the Assembly JCF co-chair. Both serve during the duration of their terms.

Finally, the District is run by Richard Geyer, who has announced his plans to retire in April. The board, however, will keep him on as a consultant for up to a year at $200 per hour while a search for a replacement is conducted.

Categories: Plenty of Horne

3 thoughts on “Plenty of Horne: Wisconsin Center’s Leadership Adrift?”

  1. Justin Lockridge says:

    Is there nothing in their bylaws about a quorum? How are they holding any meetings? This is a group with large amounts of tax funding and MUST be able to function properly and, seemingly, cannot given their current status.

  2. Jeff Joran says:

    Let me ramp up on the comments by Justin. Who has been attending the meetings? Are there any committee’s? If so are they meeting, what are they doing, and who is actually running the asylum?

  3. Jim Bouman says:

    Well done. The drones at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have abdicated their role as the eyes and ears of the urban (and, in this case, regional) public. That rag is derelict, unwilling and unable to prod inept and uncaring officials.
    Urban Milwaukee becomes the newspaper-of-record by default. We shall see whether this example prods the inept and uncaring bunch at 4th and State.

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