Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

County Micro-Managing At Its Worst?

Board proposal to oversee all county parks bike trail changes is a head scratcher.

By - Apr 20th, 2021 05:43 pm
Oak Leaf Trail. Photo by Dave Reid.

Oak Leaf Trail. Photo by Dave Reid.

Back in the 1980s I did a story explaining how the Milwaukee County Board worked — and didn’t. One of the big complaints was micro-managing of county departments by board members. 

The issue has never gone away, as newcomers to the board learned how to conduct themselves from veteran supervisors. Even after board members were reduced to a part-time salary, it seems, they sometimes have the time and temptation to micro-manage.  

A case in point: Last week Tuesday the board’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee voted 3-2 to create a new policy whereby the board must approve all changes to bike trails by County Parks staff, as Urban Milwaukee was the first to report. The proposal goes before the full board on Thursday. 

As written the proposal says any changes to at least 20% of any bike trail would have to get board review. But how exactly do you measure this? If this can’t be be determined, the proposal says the parks department must then consult with the county supervisor representing that area. This could open the door to any alternation in the county’s bike trails being reviewed, if the neighborhood supervisor objects.   

“We do not want to be micromanagers of our experts. We hired them for a reason,” said Sup. Felesia Martin at the committee meeting. Then she proceeded to vote for the proposal. So did two other supervisors. And another three supervisors are co-sponsors of the proposal. 

“Yes, it’s micro-managing,” said Milwaukee County Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman, who voted against the proposal, in an interview with Urban Milwaukee. “We are making mountains out of molehills.” 

Wasserman has served on the board for five years and has never seen any problems with how County Parks handles bike trails. “I think the parks staff does a very good job of handling this. I really haven’t seen any complaints. It’s not broken so why fix it?”

Adding all this work for parks staff, which has suffered huge budget cuts over the last 20 years, could be “chaotic,” Wasserman says.  

“The parks department is absolutely underfunded. It’s absolutely understaffed.” 

Parks director Guy Smith told reporter Chelsey Lewis it “may not be practical” for his staff to do all these reviews of bike trail changes with the county board.  

County Parks operations manager Ramsey Radakovich, also quoted in the story, said “I worry about the feasibility when we have one trails coordinator, we have a limited amount of staff to be able to do this, and it’s a timely process,” he said. “We have a lot of trails out there. To be able to make changes, in some cases we have to do it in quick fashion… That presents a challenge for our department and the resources that we have. We’re pretty thin the way it is.” 

And all because of one complaint about a bike trail change. Indeed, the history of this proposal raises more questions about why some board members have jumped on this bandwagon. 

As Graham Kilmer reported for Urban Milwaukee, the change in policy was first proposed by Sup. John Weishan, Jr. in 2019, but didn’t get passed by the parks committee until now, suggesting it’s less than an urgent matter. 

At issue are changes to the Kegel-Alpha Trail which parks staff made “to protect the historic Mangan Woods which it runs through,” Kilmer reported. “Mangan Woods sits east of Whitnall Park across 92nd Street, and north of W. Rawson Avenue. When the ground is wet or when it snows, sections of the current trail are unusable, and this causes riders to use hiking trails and unofficial ‘social trails.’ This leads to degradation of local plant life and erosion of existing trails.”

But some residents in the area weren’t happy because the changes brought the bike trail within 50 feet of their property. Wasserman and others say the complaints may have been “displaced” anger from residents who for years have complained about the nearby Rock Sports Complex in Franklin and the noise it causes, as reported by Urban Milwaukee.

“There’s a lot of frustration over this.” Wasserman says. “It’s ‘the Rock, the Rock, the Rock,’ we’ve been hearing about this for years.”

Then there’s the role of Weishan, who does not represent this area. So why has he proposed the policy change? He didn’t reply to my request for comment. 

In an interview with Urban Milwaukee, Sup. Anthony Staskunas, who does represent the area, concedes that anger over the Rock Sports Complex had probably contributed to the residents’ complaints about the bike trail changes. 

Staskunas also concedes another point Wasserman made, that board members are frustrated because so much power has been taken away from them. 

Pushed by for former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, the state Legislature first reduced board members to part-time status and then passed a second law reducing their power over some areas of county policy. 

“The county board has lost so much power,” Staskunas says. “Whether we used to micro-manage before, we certainly can’t anymore.” 

Staskunas argues the proposed policy only involves mountain bike trails and is “much ado about nothing.” There are only five mountain bike trails in the system, he says, and that shouldn’t involve much work for parks staff to deal with board oversight. 

But the legislation includes all bike trails, which includes 130 miles of the Oak Leaf Trail and another 15 miles or so of mountain bike trails, all of which would be affected by this legislation.   

Like Wasserman, Staskunas could not recall any other complaint about a bike trail in his eight years on the board. So is that enough to justify a policy change for all bike trails? 

No, says Wasserman. “Are we going to have the parks committee go in and look at a trail and say, ‘well that trail looks good over there’?”

“Our job,” he says, “is policy oversight.”  

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4 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: County Micro-Managing At Its Worst?”

  1. Mingus says:

    Residents in Franklin complain about the Rock while the city of Franklin has given the developers over $20,000,000 for the development. The owners came to the city a few years ago and asked for $5,000,000 more because of increased costs. The residents are financing their own public nuisance.

  2. mkeumkenews09 says:

    OMG – 50 feet from someone’s property line! Then don’t buy your property next to a park! NIMBYism at its worst.

    Sheldon Wasserman is right – the board’s job is policy oversight. It is not staff and project management. Let the people do their jobs.

  3. gerrybroderick says:

    Comments made are all on point. I chaired the Paks, Energy& Environment Committee of the Milwaukee County Board for 8 years and Supervisor Wasserman’s view, in particular, is one I share. Our overburdened and undervalued Park’s staff possess the necessary expertise to make decisions on the best use of parkland and consequent environmental impacts.

    Supervisor’s would best serve the public interest by focusing on providing the necessary resources to permit them to do so. The last thing our Parks Department needs is to be controlled by Supervisors attempting to answer the complaints of a few self-interested squeaky wheels.

  4. Larraine says:

    I respectfully disagree with your position. I lived on the Milwaukee river for many years and we loved walking. Over time the off road bikers became off putting to the walkers- and the habitat.
    Milwaukee River Advocates sent me these talking points, which I
    Paste here:
    While off road biking has a place in the mix of County recreation opportunities, Mangan Woods is not the location for this type of activity.
    Off road biking is inconsistent with the conservation values of Milwaukee County Parks. Mangan Woods is a unique opportunity for the County to preserve an important remnant of a large, intact mesic forest for the enjoyment of its citizens. This stand of old growth forest is one of only two or three in Milwaukee County.
    Off road bikes are an intrusion on wildlife habitats anywhere, and they disturb the peace and quiet that natural areas offer to humans who visit them.
    Mangan Woods has been designated as a Natural Areas of Regional Significance by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC). These areas are unique habitats that contain remnant native plant populations or harbor plant species which are endangered.
    State and Federal endangered and threatened species in Mangan Woods include:
    – Acadian Flycatcher – These woods are the lone nesting site for this bird in Milwaukee County
    – Rusty patched Bumble bee
    – Red Trillium
    – Hooded warbler

    Our parks are only as good as our most devoted caretakers. What is your problem with oversight?

    Larraine McNamara-McGraw

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