Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Demands Control of Lobbying, Despite Mayoral Pushback

Mayor and council president at impasse, council set to take more control.

By - Jul 24th, 2023 05:07 pm
Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee Common Council is done waiting. It’s moving to overhaul the city’s lobbying practices despite the opposition of Mayor Cavalier Johnson on the issue.

Common Council President José G. Pérez said he’s looking to clean up a six-decade-old, “convoluted” ordinance, as he puts it, in a “modest” and “logical” way.

The issue came to a head due to the council’s perceptions of how Mayor Johnson and the two members of the Intergovernmental Relations Division negotiated with state leaders on Act 12, the sales tax and shared revenue agreement. Council members have publicly praised Pérez for stepping in to improve the deal for the city, while still saying the city got “hosed.”

“As long as the council is the ultimate decider, it’s only logical we’re involved from the beginning,” said Alderman Robert Bauman at a meeting of the Judiciary & Legislation Committee Monday. “I would love it to be a cooperative arrangement.”

Under the pending ordinance, the council would have the final say over the city’s legislative package (the city’s official positions on intergovernmental issues) and would prohibit the city’s lobbying team or department leaders from deviating from the package in discussions. If a change is needed quickly, the council president or relevant committee chair could approve it.

The administration’s three-member lobbying division would see funding for a vacant position transferred to the council-directed City Clerk‘s Office so that each side would have two lobbyists.

The council president, with support from Ald. Mark Chambers, Jr., first introduced the proposal in June, but committees have twice held off acting to allow for more negotiation with the mayor. Pérez said things are now at an “impasse.”

“It’s not about me. I want a system in place that works for the council,” said the council president.

“We heard the president loud and clear,” said Department of Administration director Preston Cole, a high-ranking city official to which the lobbying team reports. “We know that there is yet work do so you can see yourself in the room.”

He also asked the council to delay acting again so the change could be “sent back to the drawing board.”

“I don’t think it does any of us any good to not allow the chief of the City of Milwaukee to have a role,” said the new administration director. But Ald. Michael Murphy and others noted that the mayor and any other elected official wouldn’t, and can’t, be restricted from presenting their opinion.

“No one is stifling the mayor from stating his opinion,” said Pérez.

Cole said the administration was acting in good faith and had already agreed to transfer the vacant lobbying position to the council. “Let’s seek higher ground, both from the council and from the administration.” He said he favored an agreement on practices versus overhauling the ordinance.

“That means nothing,” said Pérez.

Cole challenged the idea that Pérez didn’t already have a voice in negotiations, noting that he went to Madison frequently on the sales tax issue.

“First of all, [the mayor and I] weren’t together at every meeting,” said Pérez. “There were discussions, there were things that weren’t followed through on.”

The council president said the council was asked to approve an “expensive” contract for a lobbyist that was supposed to provide reports to the council. He contended he instead got “zero.”

“I never got anything that made any sense. The control of that was just ridiculous,” said Pérez. He said requests on the enabling legislation format and diversity, equity and inclusion restrictions were ignored. “It’s just the reality of it.”

Bauman said the issue has previously reared its head with negotiations over the financing package for Fiserv Forum and is poised to reoccur with the Milwaukee Brewers and American Family Field.

“I see the potential to do some good here,” he said, quickly throwing out several options to shift the ballpark’s ownership to different governmental entities.

He said the Milwaukee Bucks agreement was negotiated by then-Mayor Tom Barrett without the council, and then the council had to vote for it or be blamed for the Bucks leaving town. “I refuse to be put in that position again,” said the alderman. He said involving the council could help the city better frame deals, so it wasn’t negotiating from a position of weakness. “Right now I feel we go in naked essentially.”

But Cole said Pérez and the council are asking for too much. “I am here as an emissary of goodwill,” he said. Cole raised the specter that it would be more difficult to work with the city because of confusion over differing opinions between the mayor and council.

Chambers, who had vowed action instead of another hold, asked Cole what he thought should be done when the mayor and council disagreed. Did the city need two legislative packages?

Cole said that presented a “wonderful opportunity” to negotiate more and for the council to delay acting. Chambers laughed, while Bauman, off-camera, added: “you knew he was going to go there.”

The committee unanimously endorsed the change.

The full council is expected to vote on the matter on July 31, satisfying an earlier pledge by Pérez not to let the issue drag into the August recess.

Jim Bohl, a former alderman, leads the administration’s lobbying team and serves in a cabinet position required by state statute. Jordan Primakow is the deputy. Justin Moralez, a former Cudahy alderman and school choice lobbyist, was recently hired as the council lobbyist, a position that Bauman pushed to create approximately a decade ago.

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Related Legislation: File 230358

Categories: City Hall, Politics

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