Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Will Waukesha Be Less Hostile to Milwaukee?

Defeat of Mayor Jeff Scrima could mean better relations between the two cities.

By - Apr 3rd, 2014 12:08 pm
Jeff Scrima

Jeff Scrima

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.

Ironically, Scrima’s stance put him in agreement with some Milwaukee  environmentalists, who have long argued that Waukesha could solve its problems with a combination of well water, conservation and limits on growth in the county. There is likely to be continuing opposition to the proposed deal with Oak Creek, which must hurdle many obstacles, including gaining the approval of every governor of a Great Lakes state, before it can happen. But it has a better chance of succeeding with Reilly in charge.

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?

Sue Black

Sue Black

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.

Short Take

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.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

14 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Will Waukesha Be Less Hostile to Milwaukee?”

  1. Jay Bullock says:

    Unless MPS board members have voted themselves a raise in the last year or so that I missed, this statement is not true:
    “The board will now be part-time, with a salary of $24,000 but no benefits. That is far less than what Milwaukee School Board members earn.”

    The pay for an MPS board member is ~$18k (with some benefits, yes), less than the new county board salary.

  2. Andy says:

    Even if we see Reilly being more open with Milwaukee, will we see a more accepting city of Milwaukee towards Reilly and Waukesha? The water deal as Milwaukee proposed had unrelated constraints that made for a bad deal for Waukesha. Both sides are guilty of the back and forth that hurts the entire region… If Reilly truly is more open in dealing with Milwaukee, I hope to see it reciprocated in kind.

  3. Bruce Murphy says:

    You’re right Jay, I meant to say school board earns less and still isn’t shy about asserting power. Anyway, it’s corrected and thanks.

  4. Observer says:

    Question-“the proposed deal with Oak Creek, which must hurdle many obstacles, including gaining the approval of every governor of a Great Lakes state, before it can happen.”
    Don’t the Canadian Provinces also have a veto power? It’s seldom mentioned but I thought that was true.

    Also I had a friend inside the locker room following the Admirals last game and Tozer learned he was unemployed. He gave a nice farewell to his former players and wished them well.

    Isn’t Sue Black another my way or the highway poorer clone of Abele?

  5. Bill Kurtz says:

    Andy, how about a more accepting Waukesha attitude towards Milwaukee? But instead of continuing the sniping back and forth, I’d back a grand bargain: Lake Michigan water for Waukesha, in return for a regional transit authority.

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @Observer No I believe the Canadian Provinces don’t actually have a vote, that would have required a treaty (I think). Their role is advisory.

  7. Andy says:

    Bill Kurtz, that was kind of the point I think Bruce was trying to make… that perhaps Reilly will be less confrontational with Milwaukee. I hope that happens, and in turn I hope Milwaukee is more open towards Waukesha as well.

  8. Urban dweller says:

    Ontario does have veto power, and this is spelled out in a treaty administered by the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes.

  9. Dave Reid says:

    @Urban dweller It is my understanding that the IJC’s role is advisory. Here:

  10. Sean S. says:

    Waukesha will never get it’s water because no Great Lakes state is going to vote to set precedent for diversion in the Great Lakes Compact. End of story. They should have thought about their water problems before approving significant sprawl expansion and growth. And how can people comment here about water without knowing about the Great Lakes Water Compact?

  11. WaukAnon says:

    The growth started many years before this came to light in Waukesha, and the service area is set by the state DNR, so that point is pretty mute.

    There was significant investigation into other options – digging deeper wells, added filtration, etc, and it either proved out to be far too costly, or not even feasible from a design standpoint. The reason Waukesha is pursuing it is that it’s best and only option (the proposal could only go forward if it was the city’s only option).

    If it gets denied, then the city is going to end up spending multiple millions on mitigation which may not work out on the already stressed aquifers, or end up not lasting very long and require revisiting again in 10-20 years.

    Personally, I’m very hopeful that our newly elected mayor can do a much improved job of communicating all of this than our outgoing mayor who early in the job put a body part inside an orifice (I’ll let everyone who which in what) in the city’s relationship with Milwaukee, and I think there are a LOT of folks who think that’s the way all of Waukesha views Milwaukee (far from it), and it seems like a lot of the trepidation from folks in MKE have grown because of that. But again, I’m hopeful our new mayor can put a better foot forward and rebuild some of those conceptions that people hold.

    Turning those kinds of attitudes towards each other could only benefit everyone involved – be it our need for safe water, or Milwaukee’s need to rebuild the Bradley center. Be it optimistic as it may, I’d rather this perceived notion of ‘us vs them’ from both sides scale back and move on.

    Sorry for the mini rant!

  12. Sean S. says:


    The “relationship” with the City of Milwaukee has nothing to do with Waukesha’s application being approved, and everything to do with the Great Water Compact and attendant treaty with the Canadian provinces. Unless the mayor of Waukesha plan’s to do a full court press to the Governor’s and Prime Minister’s mansions in every state and province, Waukesha’s application is dead in the water. It has to be a unanimous agreement from all 9 governments to allow diversion, and there is simply no desire on the part of the 9 governments to do anything close to that. If they allow Waukesha to do so, what stop’s all the suburbs of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, etc, taking water? The answer is very little. Absolutely no one has a desire to approve this thing.

  13. Tom D says:

    Sean S (post 13), actually Michigan can pretty much take all the water they want without asking. Unlike Wisconsin, almost the entire state of Michigan is within the Great Lakes watershed (and therefore eligible to use it without asking permission of anybody).

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