The Mystery of Abele’s Domes Committee
Who’s serving on his advisory committee? So far, he won’t say.
County Executive Chris Abele says he intends to conduct a “transparent and open” process in deciding the future of the Mitchell Park Conservatory, known as the Domes. However, the dealings and names of Abele’s handpicked committee have so far not been revealed, though an initial meeting was already held. Or was it?
On March 28, The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C., which has added the Domes to its list of “nationally significant cultural landscapes and landscape features that are threatened and at-risk,” contacted the Abele administration, asking what actions are being taken. Abele responded, saying “Earlier this month I launched a steering committee comprised of stakeholders from the business community, non-profit community, neighborhood groups, and more, that has already begun meeting.”
Upon learning of this, Urban Milwaukee contacted his office and asked who is chairing the committee, and who else has been appointed to it. Despite repeated requests since March 30, that information has not been disclosed. Nor has any information about what took place at the meeting.
Abele spokesperson Melissa Baldauff’s responded to our request, by email, saying “Membership of the Conservatory Advisory Committee is not yet final, and the committee has not begun its official work.” Though her office told the Cultural Landscape Foundation the steering committee had been “launched,” she now says the March 23rd gathering was “a preliminary briefing to provide representatives of interested organizations with background information on the state of the Domes, to share examples of community engagement, and to seek input on other groups to invite to join the committee or to include during community engagement sessions. We’re working to assemble a group that is representative of a diverse set of opinions on the future of the conservatory.”
Baldauff added that the committee “will host its first official meeting in May,” and has been named the “Conservatory Advisory Committee.”
Did Abele violate the state open records law with this initial meeting? Certainly, launching the committee at a closed-door meeting without public notice and without revealing names of attendees, would violate the law. From the sound of it, some of his appointees did attend this meeting, though we can only guess, since no names were revealed.
According to the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide, one category that qualifies as a “state or local body created by resolution, rule or order” is a “citizen’s advisory committee appointed by a county executive.” Both Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, and Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki, indicated that the steering committee would qualify as a governmental body, meaning its membership must be revealed and meetings must be conducted in public.
As Urban Milwaukee has previously reported, there are dueling Domes committees being assembled. The county board on March 17 passed a resolution to create a 11-member task force to analyze all options for “repair and preservation” of the Domes. Abele’s steering committee, by contrast, will have “all options… on the table,” including repair, restoration, rebuilding from the ground up, or a totally new facility of some kind.
Baldauff has confirmed to Urban Milwaukee that a contract “not to exceed $30,000” would be signed soon with GRAEF principal Larry Witzling to conduct Abele’s “community engagement” process, including advising Abele’s steering committee. “We have an ongoing agreement with GRAEF and are creating a separate extension for the community engagement work. We expect it to be finalized in the next two weeks or so,” she wrote back on March 30. She earlier said the funding would be drawn from the Domes capital project budget as approved by the board.
We’ll happily report the names of committee members and details of the May meeting when the information is released to us.