Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Did Brooks Exceed His Authority At Wisconsin Center?

CEO’s decision to remove art works raises questions about governance of public entity.

By - Apr 18th, 2023 04:52 pm
Wisconsin Center art installation. Photo by Meg Strobel.

Wisconsin Center art installation. Photo by Meg Strobel.

When is a public entity run more like a private entity? The question arises in the case of the Wisconsin Center District (WCD), a tax supported, public entity with a 17-member board that includes 10 elected officials

Two weeks ago Urban Milwaukee broke the news that the WCD intended to tear down a literary artwork permanently installed at the convention center in 1998 as part of a very involved, publicly funded Milwaukee Arts Board project.

There was no dispute over the WCD’s power to do this. The original contract for the work gave it the power to decommission the work should it decide to do so. The question was who spoke for the Wisconsin Center District, and what was the public process that led to this decision.

The decision, it turned out, had been made by the district’s President/CEO Marty Brooks, who had never consulted the board. “There has been no discussion,” said Alderman Bob Bauman, who serves on the WCD board, and in whose district the convention center is located, in an interview with Urban Milwaukee. “It has never been reported to the board or debated or voted on.”

Brooks did not respond to requests for comment from Urban Milwaukee (and would later blow off a request for comment by the Green Bay Press Gazette, which also did a story), but his vice-president of marketing and communications Sarah Maio later spoke to me and confirmed that Brooks hadn’t consulted the board. Brooks said that the board’s approval of the 2020 resolution to approve expansion “authorized the CEO to manage and mitigate every decision and challenge” of the expansion, Miao said.

There is no copy of this resolution on the WCD website. There is one resolution regarding expansion from Aug 16, 2019 on the WCD website. In Section 1 of this document it gives Brooks and the board chairperson authority over financing and marketing: “The Chairperson and President/CEO are hereby authorized to take any action, execute any document or give any consent which may be required to effectuate and enhance the marketing, and otherwise assist in the financings, and which may be required from time to time under this Resolution.”

This is clearly not the sweeping authority Brooks has said he was given. Nor does it include decisions over scrapping public art. And it gives the same authority to the board’s chairperson James Kanter. But Brooks’ statement suggests he never consulted Kanter. (Kanter has not responded to requests for comment.)

Moreover, the resolution says in Section 2 that “The President/CEO shall provide regular updates to the Board of Directors regarding the progress of this Project and procurement of services.” The WCD bylaws also state that the President is “subject to the control of the Board” (section 5.09).

So if Brooks didn’t consult the board as required and the 2019 resolution didn’t give him the power he claims to have, what resolution does? I emailed Brooks on April 17 asking him to send me a copy of the resolution that gave him this sweeping authority.

Brooks responded with an email describing mine as “a public records request” and noting “we will immediately begin to review your request to determine what, if any, applicable documents we have pursuant to your request. We typically provide our responses within seven (7) days of the original request.”

I shared Brooks’ response with Bill Lueders, the longtime journalist and president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and he said this:

“The Wisconsin Open Records Law directs public officials to provide records ‘as soon as practicable and without delay.’ While it is not uncommon for public officials to take seven days or more to respond to a records request, in this case I struggle to see how anything short of releasing this record on request does not constitute improper delay. If there really is a document that shows the Wisconsin Center District board authorized Director Marty Brooks to make hugely controversial and consequential decisions without consulting the board or anyone on it, he ought to produce it right away. I think his failure to do so is against the law and a violation of public trust.”

In response to Urban Milwaukee’s reporting, Bauman and five other Milwaukee Common Council members, council president José G. Pérez and Milele Coggs (both also members of the WCD board), along with Michael Murphy, Mark Borkowski and Jonathan Brostoff, sent a letter to Brooks saying “We read with concern the news reports of the literary art installation… If these reports were correct the decision to remove it was made without reference to either the Milwaukee Arts Board which supervised the original installation or your own Wisconsin Center District Board. Surely an art piece of this consequence could have been spared pending a review by either or both boards.”

In response to this, Brooks agreed to delay removal of the literary art work, which would have effectively destroyed it, and meet with representatives of Woodland Pattern, which oversaw a panel of seven people who spent more than a year choosing the literary texts and sculptor Jill Sebastian, who handled the art side of the installation. With luck those discussions will have a happy ending.

But the controversy has raised questions about Brooks’ style of managing the Wisconsin Center District and his responsiveness to the public and board of directors. As Bauman puts it, “Marty Brooks believes he has considerable authority as the chief executive officer. There’s this sense that he runs it like some private corporation.”

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4 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Did Brooks Exceed His Authority At Wisconsin Center?”

  1. Thomas Gaudynski says:

    Thanks Bruce for keeping on this important cultural issue.

  2. lccfccoop2 says:

    Just heard Brooks on WTMJ where he was getting softball questions from Vince Vitrano. Brooks is an arrogant jerk. But where was the Board that it took an airman Milwaukee article to clue them in?

  3. lccfccoop2 says:

    Pardon my typo. I meant to write “an Urban Milwaukee article”

  4. Virginia Small says:

    So if the Wisconsin Center District is a “municipality” and the president of this municipality claims (without producing evidence) that his “board” has given him absolute control over every decision about a $456 million “public” project, we’re talking about something much bigger than Marty Brooks dumping an art installation not to his liking. DUMPING DEMOCRACY is what’s really at stake. Including state-mandated open meetings, open records, etc.

    Brooks keeps saying “We own this art” and everything else in the “public” building. But who is that “royal we”? If, as claimed, the WCD has decided to abdicate its role of representing the public, then “We the People” certainly don’t own any of this, no matter how much taxpayers pay for it.

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