Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Elected Officials Lobbied Board for 36% Pay Hike

Actions by constitutional officers raises ethical concerns, county executive's office says.

By - Apr 10th, 2024 05:34 pm
County Treasurer David Cullen, County Clerk George Christenson and Register of Deeds Israel Ramón.

County Treasurer David Cullen, County Clerk George Christenson and Register of Deeds Israel Ramón.

When the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors was considering whether or not to provide three elected officials with unprecedented salary increases, they were going on more than the recommendation of the Human Resources department.

Multiple sources have told Urban Milwaukee that the three officials pushed supervisors in private conversations to support the salary hikes. And a spokesperson for County Executive David Crowley says this raises “ethical concerns” that they were lobbying for their own pay.

In March, the county’s Department of Human Resources proposed giving the Register of Deeds, County Clerk and Treasurer an 11.5% raise. Sup. Tony Staskunas successfully amended the proposal, increasing the raise to 36% by 2028, eventually bringing their pay from $91,483 to $124,513. Staskunas referenced county ordinance and suggested the elected officers should be paid more because other department heads make more than them.

Before the board voted on either proposal, Clerk George L. Christenson, Register of Deeds Israel Ramón and Treasurer David Cullen met with county officials to dispute the county executive’s proposed increase of 11.5% and also reached out to supervisors to discuss the proposal.

Ramón and Christenson both sought to convince supervisors that the county was actually violating an ordinance regarding compensation by not paying them more, according to supervisors and Ramón himself. Christenson and Cullen did not respond to requests for comment.

When the board voted on March 21 only one supervisor voted against the salary increases. County Executive Crowley vetoed the 36% increase a week later and asked the board to reconsider his original proposal.

Ramón told Urban Milwaukee that he, Christenson and Cullen sought a meeting with Human Resources to discuss their compensation. “And my understanding is that there was some hesitancy in HR of meeting with us,” he said, adding that he reviewed the county’s ethics code and found no cause for concern.

He also referenced the same ordinance as Staskunas, which states, “It is recognized that the incumbents of these positions serve as the department head and manager of their respective functional area and thus should be compensated accordingly.”

Ramón noted that department heads in Milwaukee County are paid between $117,000 and $194,000 and that the constitutional officers are paid $91,400, “so clearly, the ordinance is not being abided by, at least in my view.”

Ramón said he spoke with supervisors about the proposed raise. Asked what he told them, he said, “What I said is this: the county is not complying with this particular ordinance.”

Sup. Shawn Rolland told Urban Milwaukee Christenson told him the same thing.

“The county clerk did reach out with information that, you know, might be helpful for the board to know, and I felt like it was,” Rolland said. I didn’t know the county board has an ordinance that says that we should compensate constitutional officers similar to department heads.”

Rolland said he felt like the information from the clerk was useful and “equipped me to be a more informed participant in the conversation.”

While Ramón is an attorney, typically, the register of deeds or county clerk do not dispense legal advice or statutory interpretation to supervisors on policy that is before the body. Such a duty would, normally, fall to the county’s attorneys in the Office of Corporation Counsel (OCC). Did Ramón check with the OCC as to whether his interpretation of county law was correct? No, he told Urban Milwaukee, saying he was confident of his interpretation.

But an April 5 memo from Acting Corporation Counsel Scott Brown, obtained by Urban Milwaukee, shows the office disagrees with Ramón’s interpretation of the ordinance. “OCC review has found no authority in statute, ordinance, or caselaw that requires that the County adopt a specific salary for the positions of the Register of Deeds, County Treasurer, and County Clerk,” the memo states.

The language in the applicable ordinance is “extremely subjective,” Brown wrote, “The question of what it means for county officers to be ‘compensated accordingly’ is answered by the political process. There is no objective legal standard to point to for this issue.”

A spokesperson for the county executive told Urban Milwaukee that Crowley’s office is aware of “possible conversations” between the constitutional officers and supervisors prior to the board’s vote in March.

“In addition, we know for a fact that the three constitutional officers requested and had a formal meeting with the Milwaukee County Department of Human Resources to dispute the administration’s original compensation recommendation,” the spokesperson said. “This situation raises ethical concerns regarding any County employee, including constitutional officers, using their special access, power, and influence to lobby for their own compensation.”

Sup. Liz Sumner said all three elected officers reached out to her to discuss the proposal before a resolution was introduced before the board. “I feel like they were advocating for themselves,” Sumner said. “I guess if you want to call that lobbying, then, I guess, but I do think there is room for some type of additional compensation for them.”

At the time, she hadn’t considered whether it was appropriate for the officers to reach out directly to supervisors seeking a salary increase, Sumner said.

“I will say, the comptroller just got a raise and, like no one, certainly the comptroller was not calling around and asking for it,” she said. “And the county executive, that was put forward and no one was lobbying for it.”

Ethics Violation?

Does lobbying for higher pay violate the county’s ethics code?

It’s a “grey area,” says Attorney Adam Gilmore, the executive director of the county’s Ethics Board.

“Any individual has the ability to seek a raise if they want to seek a raise, and go about the proper channels to do that,” Gilmore told Urban Milwaukee.

And what are the proper channels? It’s not the jurisdiction of the Ethics Board to determine this, Gilmore said. The Ethics Board is more concerned with whether county employees are going above and beyond to “create for themselves a private personal benefit.”

Gilmore would not comment on the specific case of the three elected officers advocating directly to supervisors for higher pay.

The county ordinance governing ethics violations prohibits county officials from using their “public position or office to obtain financial gain or anything of substantial value.” A clearcut example of this sort of violation, Gilmore said, would be using a county computer to run a private side-business.

“Raises is kind of a tricky topic, I guess,” Gilmore said. “It’s not something that the Ethics Board has really ever had to handle in the past.”

Ramón said he does not consider telling supervisors the county is out of compliance with its ordinances as regards his compensation a violation of the ethics code.

“I don’t think any lawyer would say there’s a violation with us pointing out and giving supervisors, or HR primarily, notice that the ordinance on constitutional officer pay – 17.98 –  is not being abided by,” Ramón said. “That’s not improper influence, that’s giving notice to a party that they’re not compliant with the law.”

Except that Ramón’s job isn’t to offer legal interpretations. That’s the job of the county corporation counsel and that office disagrees with his advice.

Board Might Overturn Crowley’s Veto

The board has called a special meeting at 4 p.m. on Friday April 12 to take up County Executive David Crowley‘s veto, according to an agenda published Wednesday.

Requests by Urban Milwaukee sent to the county board’s communications manager, Eddie Cullen, inquiring about a special meeting have gone unanswered. Cullen is a former supervisor and Treasurer Cullen’s son.

The board will need at least 12 supervisors to overturn the veto. But the fact that a special meeting has been called suggests there could be as many as 10 supervisors willing to overturn it, as a special meeting cannot be called without approval from a majority of the board.

Sup. Rolland has drafted a resolution that would provide the three elected officers with the 11.5% increase originally proposed by Crowley’s administration.

Two supervisors have already committed to vote against a veto override. One of them, Sup. Ryan Clancy, was absent when the vote approving the pay hike was passed.

“I was surprised that the the item originally passed, because of the size of those raises to elected officials,” Clancy told Urban Milwaukee, adding that the county executive’s veto was warranted.

Clancy said he thinks the county needs to overhaul its system for compensation and salaries in general. “It is not responsible that we continue to give raises to individual positions piecemeal in the way that we have been for years,” he said. “We need a master plan to look at salaries across the spectrum.”

The lone supervisor to vote against the pay increases in March was Sup. Sheldon Wasserman. He told Urban Milwaukee he had difficulty justifying a 36% raise for three elected officials.

Wasserman, who is chair of the board’s Committee on Parks and Culture, noted that the parks system has massive financial needs and the county will soon be grappling with budget deficits again.

“I find it very hard to justify that amount of raise,” he said, “and that’s why I voted no previously.”

Update 4/10/2024 8:55 p.m.

After publishing, Treasurer Cullen and Clerk Christenson responded to Urban Milwaukee’s request for comment.

Cullen said he did not recall speaking with Sumner or other supervisors, but added that if that’s what she said he likely did. But he disputed that he was involved in lobbying the board and said, “This is a decision for the board to make,” he said, echoing a statement he provided to Urban Milwaukee in March.

“The one thing that I did early on, I did get the salaries of all the department heads,” he said. “[Christenson] and [Ramón] told me to do that.”

Christenson told Urban Milwaukee Human Resources has a “haphazard and piecemeal approach” to raises that puts the board of supervisors in a tough position. He also cast doubt on the validity of the market study the department conducted to develop the 11.5% raise they proposed.

“There was no market study done by HR, you know, to derive it that 11.5%,” Christenson said. “I don’t believe that at all. And so they just came up with a number.”

Christenson confirmed he told supervisors he thought the county was not complying with its compensation ordinance.

“We’re not lobbying for ourselves here,” Christenson said. “You know, I have to get elected to this position. We’re advocating and letting people know that, that these positions are not compensated equitably with other similar positions and department heads.”

Update: Story is updated to reflect that Scott Brown is acting corporation counsel not deputy corporation counsel, following the departure of former corporation counsel Margaret Daun in March.

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Categories: MKE County, Politics

7 thoughts on “MKE County: Elected Officials Lobbied Board for 36% Pay Hike”

  1. lobk says:

    If you don’t like the already hefty salary, don’t run for the office. An 11.5% raise is quite healthy, and much more than many of us have seen in the past decade.

    Shame on these greedy grifters! And shame on the County Supervisors who voted in favor. You are all truly out of touch with reality!

  2. Ryan Cotic says:

    Milwaukee political corruption right out in the open at its finest here folks.

  3. Keith Prochnow says:

    And wasn’t it reported right here in Urban Milwaukee that these three positions are only part time? These guys are comparing their part-time elected jobs to those of full-time department heads and demanding raises? That takes guts! Or gall.

  4. TosaGramps1315 says:

    Keith Prochnow:

    You are absolutely correct about what was reported about these positions being only part-time. I’m all for anyone advocating for themselves, but in doing so they better be able to cite better reasons than “well, so-and-so earns more than me and I don’t like that”.
    If these positions are considered to be department head level, what size of staff are they managing?
    I agree with lobk – if you don’t like the salary or the 11.5% pay increase recommended by Crowley, step down and allow someone else to run for the position. I seriously doubt these are the only people residing in the county that have the ability to fill these jobs.

  5. Jeffrey Martinka says:

    This is so very disappointing. Our Parks and Senior Centers are starving and these part time position holders (part time as judged by those who held them in the past) lobbied our elected County officials, on our time I expect, to increase their projected 11% raises to 36% raises?!? They earn less than other department heads because their job demands are less. If the three think they are underpaid, why did they just run for office? Or apply to run corrections, parks, human services, etc etc.

    Debacles like this, or like the disappointing news that County taxpayers bought roller blades etc for our County Board Chairperson, make it easy for the Legislators in Madison to continue to disparage our community and to underpay us for mandated, Milwaukee County services.

    Kudos for County Executive Crowley for vetoing the big raises package. Taxpayers, please join me in contacting your County Sup to urge them to SUSTAIN that wise veto and do it now before the friday pm vote.

    If the County Board does override the County Executive’s veto, I will be truly disappointed in my votes last week. Truly….

  6. AttyDanAdams says:

    This stuff reads like The Onion – these guys want 6-figure pay for half-time work. The entitlement is unreal. You all should call your supervision (414) 278-4222 and ask that they oppose! Also vote for Teddy Chisholm who is running against Cullen in August and has said he will refuse the pay bump.

  7. CraigR says:

    Whomever would vote to override this veto would be pretty stupid now that the cat is out of the bag. I hope someone will move to eliminate these elected gravy positions.

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