Does the Wisconsin Counties Association Help Milwaukee?
Some county officials say no, and are pushing to withdraw from the group.
This association is an organization that is meant to represent and advocate for all 72 counties at the state level for legislative agendas and policies that meet the interests of county governments.
Others on the board are opposed to leaving the association. Like Sup. Willie Johnson, Jr. who has a seat on the WCA Board of Directors. His position is that, if there are changes that Milwaukee County wants to see at the WCA, then they need to be a member in the organization.
Sup. Sequanna Taylor, who is also a Milwaukee County representative to the WCA, said being a member helps transmit Milwaukee’s perspective on important issues. It helps other counties “have a different understanding of what happens in Milwaukee,” she said.
Compared to the county’s annual budget of $1.18 billion, the $42,231 membership fee for the WCA is tiny. But then again, as Sup. Eddie Cullen noted, the county has no shortage of workers that deserve a raise or projects that need funding.
“We have a lobbyist for the board right now,” Cullen said. “I can’t wrap my head around paying our lobbyist and then paying an organization to potentially pay another lobbyist who’s lobbying for another policy.”
The 2021 Milwaukee County budget placed the majority of the county’s dues to the WCA in an account to withhold while the county addresses concerns with the association. In a letter to the Executive Director Mark O’Connell, Sup. Joe Czarnezki and Christenson outlined a number of conditions the WCA would have to meet for the county’s continued membership.
Among them were commitments to equity and diversity and plans for promoting diversity within the organization, greater transparency of WCA finances, addressing potential conflicts of interest between members and the organization, and competitive bidding processes for services contacted and paid for by the WCA.
In a response to the county’s letter, Lance Pliml, chairman of the WCA board of directors, said the board did recently pass a racial equity resolution, and created a committee to address some of Milwaukee’s conditions.
The WCA is “simply courting us for the money,” he said.
Christensen also noted that the WCA joined a lawsuit prior to the spring election that was in direct opposition to Milwaukee County’s position. The WCA favored moving forward with the April 2020 without the infrastructure, staff or systems in place that Milwaukee County felt was necessary for a pandemic election. This led to the hours-long lines of voters across the City of Milwaukee that grabbed national attention.
WCA attorneys also worked on behalf of the Green Party to put their candidates on the ballot “despite not qualifying,” Christensen said, which, had it been successful, would have cost millions of dollars to counties around the state to reprint ballots.
Now, the WCA has met with Republican lawmakers on “election reform” legislation. This, several supervisors said, is concerning.
“Call me a pessimist, when I hear Republican legislators talk about election reform, I hear a code word for voter suppression, particularly the suppression of black and brown voters in Milwaukee,” Czarnezki said.
Kyle Christianson, WCA director of government affairs, said the WCA met with Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Sen. Kathy Bernier, chair of the Senate’s Committee on Elections, Ethics and Rural Issues. When they met, Christianson said, they advocated for “Monday Legislation” which is a bill that would let election commissions start counting absentee ballots the Monday before an election. A policy, he said, which Milwaukee County has supported.
O’Connell, the WCA’s executive director, addressed the committee and echoed some of the statements in the WCA response letter. He said, “Milwaukee County has been very, very good about building bridges” to other counties and communities through the WCA. And he said Milwaukee will have a better chance to succeed in advocating for itself when it has other counties working with it.
“We have complex issues that require a lot of attention,” he said. “And we have a lot of shared revenue and a lot of sales revenue that just gets sucked out of this county.”
Alec Knutson, director of Government Affairs for Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, said the county executive’s office has been working with the WCA on important issues like a local sales tax initiative, the upcoming state budget and lobbying on COVID-19 related issues at the federal and state level. “We need that help and we need that access,” he said.
The committee ultimately voted 3-2 in favor of releasing the funds to the WCA, with Cullen and Sup. Tony Staskunas voting against it.