Virginia Small

The Mystery of Abele’s Domes Committee

Who’s serving on his advisory committee? So far, he won’t say.

By - Apr 14th, 2016 01:27 pm
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele speaking at the press conference unveiling the plan for the museum to acquire O'Donnell Park. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele speaking at the press conference unveiling the plan for the museum to acquire O’Donnell Park. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

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 did list some of the groups or categories that will have representation on the committee, including Friends of the Domes, Clarke Square Neighborhood Initiative, Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, VISIT Milwaukee, NEWaukee, Journey House and Milwaukee Public Schools, as well as a “Milwaukee County resident, a “Horticultural Practitioner,” a representative of a “Historical Preservation Group,” the county Horticultural Services Manager and the head of the Parks Department. But not one name.

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.

The Domes

Categories: Politics, Real Estate

10 thoughts on “The Mystery of Abele’s Domes Committee”

  1. Pete Mingle says:

    People who don’t like glass houses shouldn’t form stoning, “uh, uh, uh” steering committees.

    I’ll wager that transparency-phobic Chris Abele will disband his conservatory committee rather than allow its meetings to be conducted in public.

    With the ungodly power that Abele has been granted by his Republican buddies in the state Legislature, there’s good reason to tweak the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law. They should consider enacting special legislation to install a cyber-portal into Abele’s brain with a transcribed feed on the county website. That way, citizens could have open access to the various voices in his “meetings of HIS mind” as he plots the fate of the Domes and other county assets. Apparently, those are the only voices he listens to.

  2. Barbara says:

    Abele is going to put an architect in charge of his committee? Looks to me like its primary purpose will be to come up with some glitzy, eye-catching replacement to get people to accept replacing this historic treasure. Don’t forget what happened with the Arena. At the first hearing I attended, there was very little interest in investing in another one. Then came the big rollout of new plans, with much fanfare and promises of economic development. Essentially the same thing happened with the Stadium.

    The way to turn public trusts into private fortunes is to neglect or undermine them until they can be deemed failures. Walker started this process with our parks system and Abele is continuing down the same road. It won’t stop with the Domes.

  3. Eddee Daniel says:

    My latest column in Milwaukee Magazine relates to this issue:

  4. Dave K says:

    @Barbara, we can also see that the Walker administration and Republicans are methodically working to create a failure in public schools so they can justify privatization of public education using public funds.

  5. Barbara says:

    Dave K, I think that’s clear as well. In fact, I just made that statement this week!

  6. Virginia Small says:

    PBS is airing an excellent one-hour documentary called 10 Parks That Changed America, with several showings in the next two days. It summarizes 250 years of parks history, from Savannah Square to Central Park and the High Line. It shows how public spaces helped shape and improve America. Great cities invest in their public spaces, which in turn spurs economic growth and high livability in a productive loop.

  7. Jeremy says:

    I’ve just noticed that this article is not an Op-ed and Urban Milwaukee was the entity named as having requested information from Abele’s office. Has Urban Milwaukee brought Ms. Small and her paranoia on staff?

  8. Pete Mingle says:

    @ Jeremy: Paranoia? Ms Small’s pithy exposes are the epitome of rationality and reason. Snarksters such as yourself can’t handle the truth and apparently it makes you uncomfortable when someone is willing to call a spade a spade. If that’s a problem, keep reading Don Behm over at the Journal-Sentinel. He doesn’t bury the proverbial “lead” in his reporting. He ignores it entirely.

  9. Nicki says:

    The real mystery here is, how did Chris Abele get reelected?!?

  10. Scott says:

    He got reelected because he spent millions to run for a position that pays 100K a year

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