Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Abele’s Power Over County Transit Targeted

Proposal gives county supervisors and employees more power over county bus system.

By - Jul 11th, 2019 12:23 pm
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Milwaukee County Transti System bus. photo by Dave Reid.

Milwaukee County Transti System bus. photo by Dave Reid.

A county board committee unanimously advanced legislation Wednesday that seeks to change the management structure of Milwaukee Transportation Services (MTS), which oversees the county bus system. The timing is notable, coming while management and the bus drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union 998, are locked in a bitter standstill over negotiations.

Sup. John Weishan, Jr., chair of the committee on Transportation, Transit and Public Works, authored the resolution, which would change the composition of the board overseeing the MTS. His reasoning is that “The MTS Board of Directors does not meet on a regular basis and provides insufficient oversight over the operations of the Milwaukee County Transit System and needs to be reconstituted.” Weishan also notes that 75 percent of the board is appointed by County Executive Chris Abele.

The MTS board is the managing body for Milwaukee Transportation Services, Inc. the quasi-governmental non-stock, not-for-profit corporation that operates transit in Milwaukee. It was incorporated in 1975.

The changes proposed by Weishan’s resolution include: increasing the boards membership from 5 seats to 6, removing the Fiscal and Budget Administrator of the Milwaukee County Department of Transportation from the board, making the managing director of MCTS, the position held by Dan Boehm, a non-voting position, making the chair of the Transportation, Public Works and Transit committee – Weishan – an automatic member and adding two new seats to the board that would be appointed by the Chair of the County Board of Supervisors, currently Theodore Lipscomb, Sr. The net effect is to give the county board more power and county executive less power over the board. 

According to Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun, the county board has no authority under “articles, bylaws, or state laws” to change the composition of the MTS board. This resolution gets around that by asking the five members of the board, most of them appointed by Abele or answerable to him, to vote to alter the board by adding two county board appointed positions. Or it would require one board member to vote in favor of removing him or her from the board, and/or another board member voting to restrict his/her own ability to vote on future board actions. All of this seems unlikely to happen.

The resolution also asks the MTS board to inject county board authority directly into the management structure of MTS, allowing it oversight of operations and administrative functions. “The only way you get to the root of that administrative function is by changing the board of directors, because then the board of directors at MTS could direct their manager to institute whatever policy as any other corporate board of directors would do,” Weishan said.

Weishan said he wants the board of directors to be “a little more evenly balanced,” with workers and community members appointed by the county board chair.

A representative from Abele’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this resolution. Nor did Lipscomb comment on the proposal.

The resolution was passed unanimously by the committee’s five board members. Sup. Dan Sebring endorsed the resolution and was added as a co-sponsor. He said, “I believe as a committee, as a board of supervisors, we do not have adequate oversight when it comes to the day-to-day operations of MCTS.” Sebring has been an advocate of putting law enforcement on the buses, deriding the transit security officers MCTS provides.

Donna Brown-Martin, Director of the county’s Department of Transportation, said the proposal is not needed, saying: “Management overall is not necessary from additional boards or committees.”

For more than a year MCTS and the Amalgamated Transit Union 998 have been engaged in bitter negotiations. Recently, negotiations have broken down with the union refusing to meet for the past three months. The deadlock began with the union’s strong objection to a healthcare proposal MCTS put forward, which would have increased out-of-pocket expenses for workers. The union has also used committee meetings to decry the security services MCTS provides for the system and operators, workers compensation policies and sick leave policies.

While discussing his resolution, Weishan noted that administrative policies like, “workplace rules” and “benefit packages” were outside the purview of the county board, and changing them required restructuring the MTS board. Boehm, managing director of MCTS disagreed. “Those activities are guided largely by the collective bargaining agreements because so much of our workforce is represented [by the union],” he said.

That bargaining process has hit a brick wall, with President James Macon imploring MCTS to maintain current co-pays for health insurance, and for other issues, like security, to be addressed. MCTS recently offered open arbitration on healthcare and other contract provisions, which Macon has refused. ATU saw arbitration as an attempt to force a concession on wages. He told the committee Wednesday that if Boehm mentions arbitration one more time he’s going to call a strike vote on the last contract offer from MCTS. “I’m not going to arbitration so do not bring it up to me again,” Macon said.

Bruce Colburn, former president of ATU 998, who still works with the union, told Urban Milwaukee, “We certainly have spoken in support of changing the governance.” There is a major problem,” he said, because the current governance “is picked by Chris Abele and it leads to a situation where there really is not any oversight.”

Colburn said MCTS’ track record with its employees is very poor. And while conceding a change in the MTS board structure wouldn’t solve all the problems, Colburn contended the current board is “a factor of what hasn’t worked.”

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Categories: MKE County, Politics

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