Mayor Johnson’s New HR Director Gets Committee Endorsement
Harper Donahue would move from the City of Madison to Milwaukee.
The City of Milwaukee could soon have a new leader in charge of human resources for the more than 6,000 city employees.
Nominee Harper Donahue, IV had his first appearance Thursday morning before the Common Council’s Finance & Personnel Committee. He’s currently the HR director for the City of Madison, but is looking forward to becoming a cabinet member of Mayor Cavalier Johnson‘s administration.
“Milwaukee has a lot to offer that Madison doesn’t,” said Donahue, 45, to the committee. That includes a city government workforce that is approximately twice the size, but also a larger city with more amenities. He said it would be a good move personally and professionally for him.
Donahue, if confirmed, would replace Makda Fessahaye, who left in April for a bigger role and pay raise at UW-Milwaukee after 16 months with the city. The committee unanimously endorsed his appointment, with the full council scheduled to vote on July 12.
He would lead the Department of Employee Relations (DER), which has struggled to keep pace with hiring amidst a tight labor market, surge in turnover and difficulty in managing the growing number of payscale adjustment requests.
But Donahue said he looks forward to the challenge, having started as a civil rights hiring specialist with the City of Madison and believing in the potential government jobs present to people. “I often talk of it as a passport to the middle class,” he said, noting the stability and pension.
“As far as encouraging retention, I don’t have a magic answer in terms of encouraging retention if the city isn’t offering competitive wages and benefits,” he said. But he noted he has a strong belief in developing people after hiring them. Milwaukee has struggled with retention in part after suspending a pay progression system in 2019 in favor of giving all city resident employees a 3% raise.
Alderman Scott Spiker noted that Milwaukee has underperformed on hiring Hispanic workers. Donahue said that could be addressed. He said he was the only Black member of the Madison human resources department when he joined it a decade ago, now it’s a model of diversity. “I think when you communicate your values they come through,” he said.
He also said the city’s hiring issues aren’t unique. “We are competitive [in Madison], but we are still having the same issues you all are having,” said the nominee. “It’s about how we sell our jobs. We talk about the benefits. We talk about the pensions.” Donahue said he believes when employees can be retained for 10 years, they will often finish their entire career at that job.
The Madison HR specialist said he has experience with remote work arrangements, even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. But he said their implementation would require active management from more than the human resources department given the variable productivity that some workers experience. “I think what it means is managers are going to have to manage their folks,” he said. He noted that side issues with sick leave and work-life balance emerge and must be managed.
Ald. Michael Murphy brought up the elephant in the room: the city’s fiscal cliff and the potential need to lay off a quarter of the workforce. A five-year pension smoothing formula will kick in next year, which without a new revenue source for the revenue-restricted city could cause catastrophic issues. What would Donahue do?
“I think the first you want to do is slow down hiring,” said the nominee. “Start moving folks around.” He said given the high number of vacancies, the city could be strategic about eliminating positions but not laying off people. “I would look at layoffs as a last resort.”
He said the city would also need to look at how services are delivered, including things like the frequency of garbage pickups.
Budget director Nik Kovac said he has already directed department heads to identify potential cuts in advance of the September executive budget introduction. “Obviously there is no service any of us is going to point to and say ‘why have we been doing that every year?'” said the former alderman. He said he has also slowed hiring by holding specific requests to fill positions. “We want to pick positions that might be cut in 2023,” he said, ticking off a list that includes an accountant, librarian, clinic director and City Attorney’s Office chief of staff. “I am not saying we got it perfectly right this time, but we are doing it because it because we have an unprecedented budget gap in  and it only looks after ’23.”
Ald. Mark Borkowski brought a bit of self-aware humor and frankness to the discussion. “I might be the council’s drama queen, but I’m going to say this department might be in crisis,” said the southwest side alderman. “You have some challenges in front of you that don’t look like there is an easy sell.”
He suggested the city consider non-financial incentives. “Casual Fridays? I’m just throwing stuff out.”
“Can I respond to that? I’m not sure there was a question in there,” said Donahue after Borkowski had laid out how the city is struggling to retain workers against virtually every public and private employer.
“Milwaukee has a lot of attractive things to sell,” said Donahue. He said the city certainly faces financial challenges, but is “doing a lot of the right things.” He noted that young people were drawn to the city and the city should seek to capitalize that.
Donahue has spent the past 17 years in various HR-related roles with the City of Madison, rising to HR director in 2017. He has a five-year contract that pays him a base salary of $137,000 annually, but ends in January 2023 according to the city’s legislative records system.
The new Milwaukee job wouldn’t net Donahue a large raise, at least initially. City officials are prohibited from earning more than the mayor, $147,335, but a proposal is pending before the council to allow select positions to exceed the limit. It’s one of the many items DER is tasked with studying.
DER has a $6.6 million operating budget in 2022. It is authorized to have 61 full-time equivalent employees.
Donahue holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from UW-Madison. Since 2019 he has served on the State of Wisconsin Group Insurance Board.
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- May 7, 2015 - Nik Kovac received $10 from Cavalier Johnson