Will Waukesha Be Less Hostile to Milwaukee?
Defeat of Mayor Jeff Scrima could mean better relations between the two cities.
Tuesday’s election brought to an an end the bizarre reign of Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima, who had no background in politics prior to being elected and repeatedly demonstrated that inexperience. Scrima was trounced by challenger Shawn Reilly, who won with 62 percent of the vote to Scrima’s 38 percent. Insiders predict this might result in a less-frosty relationship between Waukesha and Milwaukee. It could hardly get worse.
Scrima won election in 2010 by trashing Milwaukee, and charging that any deal to buy water from the state’s biggest city would result in Waukesha losing its “sovereignty” to Milwaukee. (That line had wags suggesting Scrima saw himself as an emperor.) His vague promise that Waukesha didn’t need to buy lake water and could find other solutions, combined with his populist style, won him a majority while threatening to overturn years of work by the Waukesha establishment angling to purchase water from Lake Michigan.
Waukesha has for years faced a problem of dwindling water supplies and polluted wells. The Waukesha Water Utility had spent more than $1 million for consultants to study the various water alternatives, and concluded the only solution was to purchase lake water from Milwaukee, Oak Creek or Racine. An advisory team of 32 experts that did a study for the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (whose board includes prominent Waukesha leaders) reached the same conclusion. Also supporting the Lake Michigan diversion plan was the Waukesha Common Council, former mayors Larry Nelson and Carol Lombardi and the Waukesha County Business Alliance.
But Scrima thumbed his nose at the entire Waukesha establishment and did his best to kill the plan. Waukesha’s leaders worked around him and eventually signed a deal with Oak Creek, which they felt was more attractive and workable than Milwaukee’s proposal.
Unlike the unseasoned Scrima, Reilly is a lawyer with specialties in municipal law and business law. Scrima was an oddball populist, and Reilly is a mainstream, establishment-approved candidate. Scrima was dramatic and mercurial while Reilly is a “calm, mild-mannered, very effective guy,” as Nelson describes him. Scrima was a sort of absentee mayor who rarely attended the meetings of various political bodies, as Nelson documented in a devastating op ed for the Waukesha Freeman, while Reilly seems likely to patch up relations with various local and regional officials.
“I’m sure Reilly will meet with regional leaders,” including those in Milwaukee, Nelson predicts. “I think his election will definitely improve Waukesha’s relations with Milwaukee.”
Pat Curley, chief of staff for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, says that would be welcome. “I think having someone as Waukesha mayor who is responsible and is willing to talk about issues in a way that is not inflammatory would be helpful.”
“Undemocratic” Vote on County Board?
Most Milwaukee County Board members were not happy with the results of Tuesday’s referendum approving a cut in pay and benefits for county supervisors, reducing the position to a part-time. The measure passed overwhelmingly, by a 71 percent to 29 percent margin.
Both board chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic and supervisor David Bowen issued press releases using the same phrase, blasting it as a victory for “wealthy special interests.” The goal was to weaken local control, they both argued.
It’s difficult to see how a local referendum undermines local control. In reality, voters in Milwaukee County voted in 1960 to hand significant control to a county executive, and the board over the years passed various ordinances intended to undermine that change. More recently, in 2010, they ignored the many suburban referendums where overwhelming majorities voted in favor of reducing the size of the board and instead did a minimal redistricting that targeted the elimination of just one member that they hated, supervisor Joe Rice, because he was a proponent of reducing the board’s size. It was the county board that had long operated in defiance of public opinion.
The board will now be part-time, with a salary of $24,000 but no benefits. That is well more than what Milwaukee School Board members earn, and they have never been shy about asserting their power, nor have other part-time boards in the state. County supervisors can still vote to approve or deny proposals of the County Executive Chris Abele. And he must still go before voters in 2016 to defend his record.
Will Sue Black Challenge Abele?
One person who I’m told has strongly considered running against Abele in 2016 is Sue Black, the popular former head of the Milwaukee County Parks. There is precedent for this. In 1988, David Schulz, the popular head of the parks who had been fired by County Executive William F. O’Donnell, ran against his old boss and turned him out of office.
But the timing for Schulz was much better: his firing came not long before the election and the incident created momentum for his run for county exec. Black was fired not long after Abele’s 2012 election and by 2016 her firing will be old news. Meanwhile, she has gotten into a messy situation running the Milwaukee Wave franchise.
I have previously speculated that Black was given ownership of the franchise for nothing. I was clearly wrong about that, and we now know she paid at least $200,000 for the team, and has been sued for failure to pay back a loan she incurred to do this. (The best reporting on this was done by Fox 6.)
Now I wonder if Black overpaid for the franchise. In the latest development. we learned that Wave coach Keith Tozer, one of the best-known soccer coaches in the world, was let go by Black. Both declined to call it a firing, but Tozer had two years left on his contract and was left with no job, so his departure was obviously involuntary and probably part of Black’s push to cut costs for the Wave. Black is now moving the Wave into the lower-budget, Professional Arena Soccer League.
Soccer has been a tough sell, both in Milwaukee and nationally, so Black’s decision might be the right way to go. But in letting the popular Tozer go, she placed herself, ironically, in the same position as Abele when he fired Black.
I sympathize with Black. She is not a deep pockets owner and will really have to hustle to assure the Wave survives. Right now, I’d guess, running for office is the last thing on her mind.
Keith Tozer certainly didn’t let any grass grow beneath his soccer shoes. He already has a new gig lined up, as he announced here.