Board Rejoins WI Counties Association
Board had withheld membership dues in January but decides to rejoin group after WCA leaders offer assurances.
The WCA, is a lobbying and consulting organization for counties in the state. Lobbying state government on behalf of counties is a huge part of what it does. Some on the county board and in county government feel like the association, to which it is a dues-paying member, does not represent Milwaukee’s interests and at times actively works against it.
Two issues in the past year became a flashpoint for the county’s participation in the association. The first was the association’s joining of a lawsuit regarding the Spring 2020 election that was directly opposite to the position of the county. The second was in the run-up to the November 2020 election when attorneys for the association were representing the Green Party in a bid to get the candidates on the ballot — a move that would have required the county to reprint ballots costing thousands of dollars. Once again, it was in direct opposition to the county’s own position.
For County Clerk George L. Christenson and some county board members, these disagreements raised the question “What is the county paying for?”
The county has asked the WCA for more financial transparency concerning how the dues, which are funded with public tax revenue, are being spent. Also, concerns remain regarding how the organization does its bidding and avoids conflicts of interest — like the Green Party suit.
Earlier in February, after withholding the funds for the first month of the year, Clancy told his colleagues at a meeting of the board that the association has a history of not cooperating with the county’s interest, but since the funds were withheld, “they’ve been extremely receptive.”
“I want to do whatever I can to make sure they are advocating for us throughout the year, not just when we threaten to divorce from them,” he said. That drove his decision to vote against releasing the funds earlier in the month. At the board meeting Wednesday, Clancy said, “To me this issue comes back to what’s best for our Milwaukee County? Can we ensure that our interests are best served by waiting to see tangible results before we rejoin the WCA or… is the threat of us leaving and having been out for a few months enough?”
Johnson Jr., who serves as a Milwaukee representative on the WCA board, maintained that in order to change the organization so that it better reflects the values of Milwaukee the county must remain a member. “There are things that can be done, but we’re not gonna be doing them if we’re not member of WCA,” he said.
This was echoed by Taylor, who also serves on the WCA board, and who questioned whether the county would have any leverage in checking the organization if it is not a member.
Corporation Counsel Margaret Daun and her office were tasked with communicating with the association this past month about some of the county’s concerns and identifying ways to work on them. On Wednesday Daun said she had numerous conversations with WCA outside counsel Andrew Phillips of the law firm von Briesen & Roper, s.c and WCA President Mark O’Connell.
The association maintains that the changes the county seeks are best achieved by working within the organization. She also said Phillips and O’Connell gave her “their word” that, although they believed the Green Party was not a formally legal conflict of interest, it “simply would never happen again.”
County Executive David Crowley’s office has been in favor of remaining in the WCA. As it gears up to fight for the sales tax option in the 2021 state biennial budget, Alec Knutson, director of government affairs for the county executive, previously said, the office sees the WCA as an important ally in those efforts.
Christenson released a statement following the vote to release the funds saying that after receiving word from the association of a commitment to addressing Milwaukee’s concerns, “I have faith in the leadership of County Executive Crowley and Board Chairwoman Nicholson to lead an effort for positive change at WCA and I’m cautiously optimistic that our relationship with the organization will be productive in the long run.”