Virginia Small
Op Ed

Marcus Center Has No County Board Oversight

That’s because a state law handed all authority over most county facilities to County Executive Abele.

By - May 6th, 2019 11:25 am
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in April 2019. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in April 2019. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

If you worry that your voice isn’t being heard, well, you’re right to do so if you live in Milwaukee County. We taxpayers own property worth hundreds of millions of dollars that we no longer have any say about in a public forum—and over which county supervisors have no control.

Tucked within the proceedings of a recent hearing at City Hall was an alarming exchange that ought to be on billboards. It happened during a five-hour discussion about proposed historic designation of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Don’t worry–I’m not writing about those trees.

As an observer of governmental goings-on, I get concerned when the people are blocked from having input about decisions made regarding public assets. In this case, $10 million from Milwaukee County taxpayers already has been committed for renovations to the Marcus Center building and grounds. Nonetheless, the public has not had, nor will have, any say about the design of those changes—unless the Marcus Center gets historic designation, which automatically requires public review of exterior renovations.

At the April 30th meeting of the city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development (ZND) Committee, the lack of public review by Milwaukee County of the Marcus Center’s redevelopment plans was mentioned. An illuminating exchange began between Robert Bauman, a Milwaukee alderman and member of the ZND Committee, and Steven Shea, a Milwaukee County supervisor. Shea attended to voice support for preserving the Marcus Center’s grove designed by renowned landscape architect Dan Kiley. He spoke briefly “as a county supervisor and as a citizen of Milwaukee County.” Like others, he could do so because the city’s governmental structure affords public process about this issue.

The following excerpted exchange ensued (starting around 3:00):

Ald. Bauman: “Did the county board or any committee of the county board ever hold public hearings on any of the proposed renovations that the PAC [Performing Arts Center] is proposing?”

Sup. Shea: “No.”

Bauman: “Has there been any opportunity, to your knowledge, for public input, public comment, hearings such as this where we can hear from experts on landscape architecture, and other experts…? Was there any opportunity before the elected representatives of Milwaukee County for that kind of interaction and input from the public?”

Shea: “None whatsoever…”

Bauman: “…And Milwaukee County owns this building?”

Shea: “It does, and owns the land.”

Bauman: “So it’s owned by the people, a public building?”

Shea: “It is.”

Bauman: “And yet there has been no public input, no public hearing, no public interaction regarding proposed changes that the PAC is recommending for this site. They are just going to decide to do it?”

Shea: “That is exactly the case.”

Bauman: “And is it fair to say that the Historic Preservation Commission, under the current legal structure that restricts County Board supervision and oversight, that the only opportunity for any public input on any alterations, good or bad—maybe we do change the grove—but the only opportunity for public input on that type of an issue, or expansion, or accessibility issues, would be the Historic Preservation Commission and this council?”

Shea: “That is correct.”

At that point, Paul Mathews, CEO of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., seated next to Shea, interjected, “Mr. Chairman, if I could just clarify that Mr. Shea is correct that the County Board does not have official oversight of this particular building by virtue of the fact that state law was changed several years ago that gave the county executive and, I believe, the comptroller, the authority to negotiate non-parkland leases. We’re not a park. And so what we have is a statement from the County’s Department of Administrative Services indicating preliminary approval of the plan, which includes the grove. It will have to go back to them for final approval of the plan, which is indicated in the letter. So they will be having additional oversight over the grove. But it’s just a matter of how the county does business. The county executive’s office oversees these particular…non-parkland leases.”

Ald. Khalif Rainey: “Mr. Shea, is the county executive on record anywhere expressing his support for maintaining the grove?”

Shea: “Publicly, I don’t believe so…About two weeks ago, I asked [Chris Abele] about the grove…at a committee meeting, he happened to be there testifying on another matter…and I happened to be sitting next to him. He said that he didn’t realize that the grove was going to be removed and that he would prefer that the grove be made handicapped accessible, but retained.”

Rainey: “So that was just a whispered conversation; that wasn’t a public remark?”

Shea: “No, it was not a public remark.”

Ald. Jose Perez: “So I just want be clear…since the change in law and the leases and county property that are under the purview of the county executive, issues have not been routed through any committees and discussed  at the county level then, with the supervisors and chair of the supervisors?”

Mathews: “No, the only issue at the time, going back…to 2016, the county board does have oversight over budget still. And so we have a 10-year capital/operating agreement that was adopted at that time…And that is an amendment to the lease….So there is a $10 million commitment of capital and operating money through 2026 that’s attached to the lease.”

Representative Democracy on the Line

What concerns me–and what should matter to anyone in a representative democracy–is this: How did it come to pass that transparent public process regarding the disposition of public assets is no longer a routine right involving residents of Milwaukee County? And what might be implications and ramifications for other issues, and other individuals, when no public forum or process is available to debate issues relating to county assets owned collectively by citizens?

In other words, what does it mean for Milwaukee County taxpayers that democratically elected county supervisors have no oversight over a portfolio of public assets of immense dollar value and sometimes incalculable cultural value? The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts is merely one of many county jewels in which taxpayers have invested millions over time. Now citizens’ elected representatives (county supervisors) have no oversight role in the mandated stewardship of those assets. That stewardship role has been taken away–by a Republican-controlled state legislature through Act 55–and given to Chris Abele, whose county-executive powers are unparalled in Wisconsin. Checks and balances have been upended.

Here’s the bottom line: $10 million from taxpayers has been set aside for Marcus Center renovations. However, specific plans for its plaza have since drastically changed from what was presented during Milwaukee County’s budgeting process several years ago. Now the board will have no further say about the matter—and taxpayers also are left in the lurch.

Last month, Milwaukee Film screened What is Democracy?, a documentary that “reflects on a word we too often take for granted.” It analyzes the fragile “rule by the people,” which can deteriorate or die if not vigilantly maintained.

Regarding this Marcus Center debate, we have been missing the forest—democracy—for the trees.

Virginia Small of Milwaukee is an independent journalist and former editor of a national magazine.

6 thoughts on “Op Ed: Marcus Center Has No County Board Oversight”

  1. Patricia Jursik says:

    This is an important story. In addition to the issue pointed out in this article regarding leases, the 2016 law also changed how park land is defined. Most parks are owned, operated and supported by county, but now parks are defined by zoning, only a municipal action. So even if the entire county paid for these public parks, if a municipality decides to change zoning, the park can be zoned into a new classification. Now such park land could be subject to these leases giving rights to private developers without Supervisors input. This smacks of taxation without representation.

  2. Virginia Small says:

    Patricia, you are correct that zoning indeed can be easily changed. The Trust for Public Land has published research showing that zoning is usually ineffective in protecting and preserving public land, since it is constantly subject to rezoning.

    Other vulnerable property in Milwaukee County is noted at the end of this article.

  3. Patricia Jursik says:

    Reply to item 2: In fact, I think the ability for municipal governments to change zoning is not for protection of parks, it is an advantage for developers. They need only deal with a local government. So many of our cities are suffering under the past administration”s reductions to shared revenue, that any developer could come in and tempt these local aldermen with a new tax base. Parks are tax exempt. If citizens are not vigilant, they could start losing these public parks, with no say or representation. It continues to irritate this citizen, that we can find money for private enterprise such as building a new arena to replace one just built in the 1980s, but we can’t fund public assets and are experiencing the eroding of our representative government. This all has a purpose, it makes it more difficult to protect public parks.

  4. Mary says:

    re: “Shea: “Publicly, I don’t believe so…About two weeks ago, I asked [Chris Abele] about the grove…at a committee meeting, he happened to be there testifying on another matter…and I happened to be sitting next to him. He said that he didn’t realize that the grove was going to be removed and that he would prefer that the grove be made handicapped accessible, but retained.”

    Has any local reporter or journalist, Urban Milwaukee, Shepherd Express, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Neighborhood News Service, WUWM, print or otherwise, tried to obtain a public comment from County Exec Chris Abele? or tried to interview him on this topic?

  5. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @Mary – I emailed the County Executive’s office immediately after he made that remark. I did not get a response.

  6. Virginia Small says:

    Mary, I too have called and emailed Chris Abele multiple times specifically about this issue, including after he made similar remarks to me in a private setting. Also no response, despite initial promises from his PR manager.

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