Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Crowley Corrects the County Board

Getting to be a pattern by the county exec, as the board makes questionable decisions.

By - Nov 30th, 2022 10:04 am
David Crowley. Photo from the candidate's website.

David Crowley. Photo from the candidate’s website.

Fights between the Milwaukee County Board and the county executive go back decades, almost since the executive position was first created by state law in 1960, as Urban Milwaukee has reported.  Most recently there were constant battles between County Executive Chris Abele and board members. Abele and former board chair Marina Dimitrijevic (now an alderwoman) were frequently embattled and things only got worse when Theo Lipscomb became board chair in 2016.

From 2016 to 2018 there was overt hostility between Abele and Lipscomb,” former supervisor Jason Haas told Urban Milwaukee. It was exhausting for us on the board. And for administrators.”

So naturally board members welcomed the change when Abele stepped down and former Democratic Rep. David Crowley won the election for county exec in May 2020. And sure enough, we soon saw an era of good feelings at the county, “by far the best relationship Ive ever seen between an executive and the legislature,” as board member and former legislator Sheldon Wasserman told Urban Milwaukee.

A big part of that has been the close relationship between Crowley and Board Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson, who succeeded Lipscomb (who ran unsuccessfully for county executive). Crowley and Nicholson are old friends and meet with each other regularly. This was a deliberate effort by us to build a collaborative relationship,” she noted.

But in recent months, Crowley has increasingly been at odds with the board, at times issuing statements that seem like slap downs. With one exception, his disputes have not been with actions led by Nicholson, but by other board members.

Back in June the county board approved a proposal to create a downtown roller rink by installing a protective barrier on top of the concrete slab in Red Arrow Park used for ice skating in the winter. The idea had merit, but was rushed and its actual cost was not clear. Yet county parks staff were supposed to make this happen quickly, so it could be used during the ongoing summer. Notably the idea was pushed by Nicholson.

But the parks staff was resistant and Crowley waited as long as he could, until July 27, one day before the next full board meeting, to veto the proposal.

While applauding the board for its “willingness to consider out-of-the-box ideas on how to utilize our world-class parks,” Crowley’s veto message noted the proposal relied on an informal cost estimate that county parks staff explicitly asked the board not to use for budgeting, as Urban Milwaukee reported.

He also chastised the board for using contingency funding for the proposal at a time when the financially-strapped county needed to resist such spending. “Every dollar spent out of contingency until the end of the year is another dollar added to the deficit. And every dollar the county is in deficit in 2022 will require a dollar cut from the 2023 budget.”

The board tried but failed to override the veto and the soonest they can try to revive the idea is for next summer.

In September, the board approved legislation asking the parks department to seek a listing for the Mitchell Park Domes on the National Historic Register. In theory the proposal cost nothing, but its obvious intent was to build support for the idea of saving the deteriorating domes, while failing to confront the issue of how they could be fixed or funded. Down came another Crowley veto message in late October blasting the proposal as an exercise in wishful thinking.

Any plan for the domes, he said, should be based on data that is verifiable and realistic” and not speculative or aspirational,” as Urban Milwaukee reported.

The plan should not include any largely speculative development assumptions related to tax credit structures or private donations or other investment,” he said.

Crowley’s message also opened the door to not saving the domes, something Abele had suggested, to much criticism from board members and parks proponents. Jeremy Ebersole, executive director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, pronounced himself “shocked and disappointed” by Crowley’s veto message, “especially given the very strong support by the county board” of the proposal.

But the board couldn’t muster the votes to override Crowley.

Crowley’s most recent veto came on November 16 after the board passed a budget amendment giving residents living on Wahl Ave. control of four acres of parkland from Wahl Ave. all the way down to Lincoln Memorial Dr., including the right, in perpetuity, to fix, repair, and maintain bluffs and other parkland areas.”

This sentence was struck down by Crowley in what he called a partial veto, but effectively killed an astonishing grant of power to residents who might care more about their view of Lake Michigan than the good of the park or its users. Some may remember that back in 2001 a resident of Wahl Ave. used a chainsaw to illegally cut down a couple of trees blocking his view of the lake. The board’s proposal might well have allowed this.

Even when Crowley declined to veto a board decision, also in mid-November, the message was a diplomatic but firm corrective. The county exec had decided to rename the House of Correction the Community Reintegration Center (CRC) to emphasize that the institution would be focused more on rehabilitation of inmates rather than punishment. The idea was probably supported by most board members, but some were miffed they hadn’t been consulted and so the board voted to remove $158,000 in funding needed for new signs and uniforms, etc. for the renaming.

Though your points concerning the need for both additional communications to the Board and a track record establishing successful reintegration outcomes were well-made and well-taken,” Crowley said, “I want to be clear that I have renamed this facility… It is my hope that after a full discussion of the merits of the programming and reintegration work currently being done by the CRC, the Board will approve the funding… to physically change the signage, uniforms, and other markers of the prior name.”

In short, Crowley recognized that the board would eventually get over this little temper tantrum and do the right thing. It was another masterful veto message, a velvet-gloved punch that left the county exec looking like a leader while board members seemed small and spiteful.

One thought on “Murphy’s Law: Crowley Corrects the County Board”

  1. says:

    David Crowley appears (according to this article) to have the right mix of common sense, care for county dollars and political acumen. Good job.

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