Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Abele Bids to Be King?

Proposal increasing county exec’s authority is a naked power grab with no public discussion or hearings and dangerously unforeseen consequences.

By - Jul 7th, 2015 10:49 am
King Chris Abele

King Chris Abele

It was just two years ago that the state legislature, at the urging of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, expanded his power at the expense of the county board. Now, Abele wants to further expand his authority. As Milwaukee County Board chair Marina Dimitrijevic put it, “Milwaukee County is not served well when every time the Executive doesn’t get his way back home he runs to Madison and asks the Republicans in the legislature to enhance his powers.”

As regular readers know, I was a strong supporter of reducing the board’s power and cutting back supervisors to part-time pay. Many readers disagreed, but whatever the pros and cons of that change, it was in line with public opinion. Voters in the county approved the creation of a county executive in 1960s, only to see the board retake more power over the years at the expense of the executive. And local referendums in recent years showed voters in this county supported making the position of supervisor a part-time one.

But the latest proposed changes, contained in a last minute amendment to the state budget — it was item 67, the last of a very long list of surprise additions — are simply something Abele wanted, county voters know nothing about, and Republicans are happy to give him, partly because it will allow Abele to award county land (for $1) to the Milwaukee Bucks’ owners without having to get the county board’s approval.

More broadly, the budget item will strip the board of any power over all county land sales (other than parks), and remove its authority over transfers of county property, over the construction, maintenance and financing of “county-owned building and public works projects” and over “leasing lands to the (state) Department of Natural Resources” while handing all this power to the county exec.

In addition, the County Executive would be given “sole authority… without any review or approval of the county board” over “procurement, including requests for proposals,” and “contracting” and “administrative review of appeals of the denial… of a contract award.”

Wow. This is a major power grab. Abele’s glib press release paints it as a way to “modernize” county government and enhance its ability to provide “more and better services to residents.” But there are numerous reasons to be suspicious of this proposal, including:

It’s a huge change buried in a budget amendment: This proposal has no fiscal impact for the state and doesn’t belong in the budget. It needs to be a separate bill that allows for public review and discussion. Burying this in the budget gives it the smell of an undemocratic power grab and raises the question, what are Abele and the Republicans trying to hide?

It’s far too soon to give the county exec more power: We don’t even know what the impact of the 2013 law is, because county supervisors won’t see their pay reduced to part time until Spring 2016. This is likely to change who serves on the county board, what kind of hours they work and how much time they have to contest county executive initiatives. Until we see how this changes county government, it’s premature to strip the board of even more power.

The 2013 law also specified that the county board only had the power to approve contracts of more than $300,000, and we’ve had little opportunity to see how this works. Yet Abele has now demanded that the board should have no power whatsoever over county contracts, without offering any analysis or examples of problems caused by the current law.

Abele’s entire rationale is thread-bare: His press release declares the new structure for county government will enhance economic development without offering one example of how it is currently hampered. He claims it will “take the politics out of contracting.” But contracting will be overseen by an elected county exec, how is that unpolitical? The implication, of course, is that only board members are politicians. The press release also tells us that “The County Executive will not have any involvement in the review process of any single contract.” No, it will be overseen by his department heads — all of whom work for Abele.

The law is suspiciously specific: It allows the board to retain its power over county parks, except for O’Donnell Park. You may recall that Abele wanted to hand over O’Donnell Park to Northwestern Mutual for a very attractive price, in a deal that placed few restrictions on what the company did with the land. Abele lost the board’s support by a razor-thin margin, 9 to 8 against the proposal, so it was hardly a case of supervisors being immune to argument. The reality is that Abele and Northwestern Mutual did a poor job selling this proposal and lost in the court of public opinion. So now Abele turns around and asks the legislature to overturn the board’s decision. This isn’t a broad policy decision by the legislature, its micro-managing one issue in Milwaukee County.

Then there is the clause giving the county exec sole power to lease county land to the state Department of Natural Resources. This too, is remarkably specific, and quite unexplained, and leaves us to wonder: is this some wink wink deal Abele is offering legislators that we citizens know nothing about?

The law is based on a suspect model: Abele argues that the change in the procurement process is based on how state government works. Even if that be true, it’s worth noting that the state legislature is a very different body than county supervisors. Legislators write laws on nearly anything affecting citizens of this state whereas county supervisors, as their name suggests, largely supervise and write ordinances to manage county government. If you take away most of the board’s policy making authority over county land, procurement, buildings and projects, what exactly is left to do? This is a huge question that requires study and public discussion before any such change is made.

It lacks checks and balances: We are being asked to put way too much faith in Abele as objective technocrat here. The only area where this law provides some check on him is county land sales, which must be approved by a majority of three people: the county exec, county comptroller (who is independently elected) and a real estate expert appointed by the Milwaukee County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council, whose members are all the mayors or village board presidents of 19 municipalities in the county. I do think this concept is an interesting one that might be worth further discussion or tinkering with, but as currently written Abele starts with one vote and need get only a second, which is not the most robust check on his power. (Sean Ryan the Business Journal wrongly suggested land sales would need the approval of four people.)

The law is undemocratic and unvetted: Ultimately, what is most egregious about this proposal is that it has been written into law by a handful of legislators who remain anonymous (and Abele’s office declined to reveal their names), at the urging of an executive who will get all the power. If Abele really cared about democracy, he would want this proposal to be discussed by the citizens of the county he serves. If he cared about “best practices,” an approach he often touts, he would have no fear of having the proposals contained in this law studied and discussed. The way this law is being passed is even more disturbing than what it contains, and what it tells us about Abele is frankly, quite disturbing.

Update July 10: In the final version of the budget going to Gov. Walker for his likely signature the legislature trimmed back the provision on county government, but retained the language giving the county executive sole authority over the sale of non-park land (which will prevent the board from voting on the sale of Park East land to the Bucks owners). But the rewritten provision did not include the exception for O’Donnell Park, meaning the board will continue to have voting power over what happens with that land.

18 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Abele Bids to Be King?”

  1. Adam says:

    The impetus for the change is to ensure the County Board does not foul up this arena deal. Everything you say is true Bruce. Abele’s politics are messy indeed, he is no ideologue or political purist to be sure. But he strikes me as a pragmatist that is doing what he thinks is best to provide better services to MKE county and better position the region for economic competitiveness. And I think he has done a pretty good job cleaning up the mess Walker left behind. For these reasons I am giving him the benefit of the doubt here.

  2. PMD says:

    Isn’t Abele basically Walker save for supporting gay marriage?

  3. Tom D says:

    So the state legislature is giving Abele authority to do almost anything EXCEPT help the streetcar.

    So what happens to the proposed streetcar maintenance facility (at the SW corner of 4th and Clybourn)? According to the streetcar’s Environmental Assessment document, that land is owned by the County, but controlled by Wisconsin DoT (it’s underneath I-794).

    I guess that selling the land to the City for $1 is now out-of-the-question (since that would violate the new state law prohibiting the County from supporting the streetcar. Even a sale at market rates be would subject to a court challenge (“Is it REALLY market rate?”)

  4. toimw says:

    Walker left a mess – yes but to clean that up we should then trust Abele? I don’t know because eventually Abele retires, moves on and then who? Your assumption, Adam, is the “good person” theory of government which is pretty scary. Democracy is messy but it is also a means to assure that no one person makes all the decisions. I think that’s called dictatorship and there have been benevolent dictators. However, I think we need checks and balances of some sort like a county board even when that board seems at times dysfunctional or too “political”. The same group of “politicians” are giving us Chris the Dictator AND seeking to hide government processes! Makes me nervous! I think what we have is a victory of “group think” or ideology in which those in Madison are enamored of themselves and their “solutions” that they are willing to do anything to stay in power (thus hide the processes of government thus eliminating challenges) but also manipulate others to achieve their goals(thus give Abele all the power he wants – which matters little to them except for the “problem” of the Bucks).

  5. M says:

    It’s ironic that Abele’s family foundation (Argosy) was a major donor to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava–close on the list behind the Quadraccis. Too bad Betty Q is not around to give him a smack-down! How can he justify trying to stab MAM in the back to keep them from preserving their public access and parking by way of O’Donnell Park? It’s worse than just the disconnect of a power-mongering technocrat. He’d rather mess up a world-class museum’s future so he can triumph over the personal defeat of his plan to sell a public park.

    Abele seems to only care about serving his ego (surely giving away stuff–family money, county land to friends, etc. must make him feel good). Has anyone ever heard him say anything inspiring and truly civic minded other than about LGBT rights?

    Bruce points out though that regardless of potential for “improving government,” this whole process–with all the GOP legislators signing on– smacks of total contempt for democracy. How is Abele any different than the mega-rich guy who got someone to write state legislation to lower his child-custody bill? It’s just that Abele’s tailor-made provision has far more potentially devastating consequences.

    He’s Walker without trying to pretend he’s Ronald Reagan. More ham-handed and pathetically petty. But equally ruthless.

  6. Will says:

    “Without the Milwaukee County Board the city/County will suffer!” –Said no one ever. They are worthless

  7. Wis Conservative Digest says:

    we should not concentrate power in hands of very few people but the county board is statewide embarassment especially after Dimitrjvic lied to Ellis and others in Mad city. They do the dumbest things like Baby boy Weishan and the other clowns. None of you realize how much this hurts Milwaukee county compared to when Doyne, Walker were heads. They has credibility in Madison. Most out state people look at Milwaukee aas giant hole of murders and welfare, lousy schools etc.

  8. PMD says:

    So before any elected official in Milwaukee or Milwaukee County make a decision, should they stop and ask “What are out state people going to think of this?”

  9. M says:

    Will, that’s something to consider if democracy is merely a luxury. If you leave aside personalities and tolerate the usual messiness of policy making, it’s what comes with the democratic territory. But many have considered fascism more efficient (trains running on time, and all–sometimes…)

    Churchill got credit for quoting an unknown professor: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all others…” It’s more than just a romantic notion.

    We may soon end up with “best county government Chris Abele (and his cronies) can buy.” That will go nicely with “the best Wisconsin Supreme Court money can buy.”

    To those wanting to strangle the county board, be careful what you wish for. I would not want even the late great Mayor Frank Zeidler to have unbounded powers and no checks and balances…Of course, neither would he have…Perhaps Abele has no knowledge of Frank Zeidler–except as the name on the Municipal Building.

  10. john wintheiser says:

    Abele has no respect for democracy. He just wants to dictate what is to happen. Even give that democracy is often messy, do we want a dictator? And why should the state be able to change the structure of Milwaukee county government without the consent of the residents. And why do the changes in county government apply only to Milwaukee. The state seems totally uninterested in interfering in county governments in other parts of Wisconsin.

  11. Beer Baron says:

    Blame Marina and her silly self-serving antics for these foul laws! Had she been an adult and a real progressive, none of this would be needed. We need a real progressive in Bayview, not her.

  12. The question is – who will run against him and who can defeat him???

  13. Ryan says:

    Abele doesn’t have complete control, other people still have to sign off on all sales, they’re just not elected officials. County board is useless, maybe the power could be given back once all the clowns leave when they become part time.

    Abele won’t lose, he has done a great job and he would be running against a Republican who likely wouldn’t win, even in a spring election at this time in Milwaukee County. I’m glad he’s in office, an actual pragmatist who isn’t an ideologue that votes pure party line.

  14. Abele is an elitist who does not have the time or desire to meet and talk with the commoners or the workers – at least that is my experience. Do an open records request on my e-mail ( to his office and his gatekeepers. It was probably easier for a serf to get an audience with the Tsar in the time of Alexander II than for a common citizen to meet with Abele.

  15. Clown Car says:

    i’m torn on this because I don’t like the concentration of power but the Board deserves this and I say that as a former County employee.

    These clowns don’t read reports and refuse to meet with staff to learn about proposals. They don’t read the budget. They scrutinize every single contract for hours on end and treat dedicated staff who are trying to do the right thing like crap, taking every opportunity to grandstand for a non-existent audience at Committee meetings.

    The former co-chair of the finance committee, who now occasionally warms a chair as Treasurer, had to have HR terms explained to him every month. Another co-chair admitted to a department head he wasn’t listening when the impacts of a major policy issue were discussed. They voted to prevent the creation of new positions in 2014 that they had voted to approve in the 2014 budget just to screw with the administration. When the airport brought forth a contract for concessions they tried to violate State and Federal law by going outside the RFP process. They tried to tell the federal HUD that they should get to ignore federal law in how CDBG funds are allocated.

    Current members don’t understand or refuse to accept that debt service costs really are part of operating a facility. One member asked if the County could force Southwest Airlines to give seat assignments. They think they should get to determine every single employee’s salary even though the County’s own ordinances say they can’t for new hires and State Law says they can’t for managers.

    No, this law should not be necessary. In the other 71 counties in the state it’s not because the boards stick to broad policy and let the managers manage. But unfortunately with this batch, nice though some of them are personally, it’s necessary just so the organization can function on a daily basis.

  16. Marie says:

    JTK: If you were Chris Abele would you bother to meet with the common folk? Priorities. Efficient time management. Technocratic regimens.

    Before Abele ascended to his public throne, Milwaukee Mag did a long profile on him (which he got super touchy about–demanding some national magazine fact-check it after publication). It said he would “hold court” many mornings at Bella’s in the Third Ward. Those seeking his family’s foundation money stood in line outside (in all weather?) to get an audience with Prince Chris…

    Now he’ll be a Tea Party “Darling” for making county government “small enough to drown it in a bathtub” (or whatever that inane quote is). For those who think participatory democracy is over-rated, has run its course, Abele’s your man!

  17. Tom D says:

    Ryan (post 13), why do you say Abele “would be running against a Republican…”?

    Since the County Executive office is non-partisan, Abele could runn against a Democrat.

  18. Tony Muhammad says:

    There are two cliche that stand true in Milwaukee politics that are understated – “Be careful what you wish for,” and “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Chris Abele rise to power exemplifies both phrases.

    Chris Abele was voted into office by 61% majority of County (voting) residents to act as a hatchet man to chop away at Supervisors powers and oversight of County board involvement in county business deals – that is the picture I’m viewing.

    I did not vote for Chris because I never heard of a Chris Abele before April 4th, 2011, nor did I vote for him April 3rd, 2012. I’m one Black commoner that do not like surprise meat thrown on my plate even if it is Kings Meat.

    Also, the County Executive race in 2011 was more about the horrid race relations in Milwaukee (nationally recognized as the most hyper-segregated city in the nation) than Milwaukee politicians and business community – Black and White – desire to discuss openly.

    Thereby maintaining Milwaukee historical covenant to limit Black empowerment in the State of Wisconsin. This covenant goes unchallenged by the Black Clergy and Black Elected official that assist knowningly and unknowingly towards upkeep and practice of the covenant.

    The covenant is the “wish” of the founding fathers of the City of Milwaukee / County governments and big businessmen. The wish is passed downtown to their childrens to maintain and practice this “covenant.”

    What do Milwaukee race relations have to do with Chris Abele county government power grab Tony Muhammad?

    Nothing I can empirically prove, but race relations is always worth mentioning when there exist a social environment maintaining hyper-segregation conditions. Also worth mentioning is the fact – After Milwaukee County government was busted in their grand insurance scheme (2002) the holders of the covenant decided it appropriate to strip Milwaukee county board of supervisors power and stewardship of county lands.

    That is all that we are witnessing the value of the “picture” painted by Bruce Murphy outlining and exposing Chris Abele actions and tactics. This Black commoner viewpoint about Abele is comparable to Mayor Tom Barrett administration both has the smiles and demeanor of trojan horses voted into government by, to trusting and religious voting populace in City of Milwaukee and County.

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