Monday, March 24, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

A recent column explored the basic civic duty for voters in participating in the April 1 election – but also attacked in passing how Sheldon Lubar, the Greater Milwaukee Committee and other business allies of County Executive Chris Abele are putting more than $100,000 behind marketing a one-sentence resolution that clears the field for them while sounding like cost savings. 

They can get away with this because most citizens have never read that ballot sentence (given at the end of this article) and how it doesn’t touch the existing odorous essence of Act 14.  Media commentators should be all over this deception but remain disturbingly silent on the eve of the vote.

The resolution is  actually a pretense to fool the citizenry  into thinking the common man and woman – the voters – are as important in Madison as the big bucks lobbyist machinery, which has already put most of Act 14 in place.  You’ll hear the resolution will encourage diversity on the county board, which is deeply false. The board is already brimming with “citizen legislators” representing all political stripes and colors, elected by citizens to give all 18 districts in the county responsible representation, with civility required under parliamentary rules. 

Nothing in this question promotes more good people to lend their abilities for a better county. The only people who could afford to run for office and work for pennies if the resolution passes are members and cohorts of the 1% pretending to an interest in public affairs.

It is unlikely that low turnout voters, stumbling into these issues for the first time, will prove adept enough to resist the marketing blandishments.  Many are on fixed incomes and resentful of public employees for having not much but more than they do. 

The Madison majority and their business allies are really eyeing a weaker less attentive county board and a more powerful executive from a comforting white bread background of wealth and privilege.  (Of course, if the next county executive is more attuned to raising up the ordinary working family by emphasizing living wages, more balance in growth opportunities and more public transit, then the people now backing Act 14 will be the first to scream about excessive power.  In any case, it’s not a thoughtfully worked out law.)

You’ll also hear that the salary cuts that can’t start until two years from now are speeding process (!)  in county government. That’s demonstrably not true either. The salary cuts looming in the far distance are the tip of the Act 14 iceberg that is already causing the Good Ship Democracy to founder.

Much of this enterprise is not about salary but how to use the lure of reduction to rob citizens of balanced representation and provide a lopsided insider track for the county executive and his financial allies. Madison has chopped into the economic, audit and legal oversight that has actually kept Abele out of regulatory trouble and kept the taxpayers involved in the process.

No doubt the situation before Act 14 was hardly ideal. It could frustrate both citizens in need and developers who want public land or contract approval more swiftly. But balance among the branches of local government and measured open discussion also have saved the taxpayers from throwing away their money on unproven promises. It’s belatedly rescued them, or encouraged behind the scenes negotiations rather than blunt and costly confrontation. The pace of democracy can seem snail-like, but it is a Vladimir Putin dream of autocracy to drown the baby of cooperation in the toilet. 

Supervisor Broderick sees a goldmine for
lawyers on all sides.
Cutting salaries to force part-time status  is part of this  myth of cost-saving. In actuality,   lawyers are sharpening their pencils as Act 14 paves the way for legal challenges, delays and court action, actually elevating the expense of county operations because of ethical rules about how many eyeballs from different branches of government must approve transactions.

Lawyers contacted echo that  observation. As does Supervisor Gerry Broderick, who always intended to retire in 2016 and would be unaffected by the ballot language, though he feels  the board has already been hamstrung by Act 14. 

“Huge costs for the public will unpeel like layers of an onion,” Broderick predicts.  “This is really a full employment act for lawyers.” 

The business community has pushed for Act 14 since last summer -- but not out of altruism. They are conditioned for profit opportunity, expecting quicker access to parks, transit and other contracts. But managerial acumen is different in profit-free government, just as society’s most capable “job creators” are not the people behind Act 14. If you examine these old-fashioned trade groups and their public statements, they have a quite fuzzy record on cutting-edge best practices, tight budgeting and embracing proven principles of government cooperation, particularly the report card “A” grade of “working well with others.”  So whatever the excuses,  Act 14 has become a walking exercise in divisiveness disguised as cutting through red tape. 

There are 71 other counties, many run by Republicans, that would secede from Wisconsin rather than let the Madison legislators treat them as they have been intruding on local control for the state’s only First Class City (legal definition), largest economic engine and biggest voting bloc.  But the Madison chambers, perhaps because the Democrats are still in charge,  are  always eager to stick it to Milwaukee, the subject of a dozen bills this session alone. Whether rural envy, suburban rivalry or just general ignorance of urban problems, Act 14 has emerged as Exhibit A, hastily written and stabbing in broad thrusts at the complex revenue environment. 

It tells Milwaukee’s 750,000 county residents that Big Brother knows best, that none of you are worth a full time county supervisor.  Doesn’t matter that most of these 18 supervisors put in 60 hours a week reading proposals, attending meetings, fielding neighborhood complaints, holding forums or jawing with the communities they live in.   The Madison legislature decrees this is all unnecessary and asks the voters to lower the barely reputable annual salary of $50,000 to an insulting $24,000, in effect mandating the job as part time no matter what the locals may think, need or want. It’s known as undermining the voice of the people and then blaming the people for doing it.

How they came up with $24,000 confirms the depth of the insult.  That figure is the  per capita average of everyone in Milwaukee County – nonworkers, workers, retirees and on  and on.  So no effort to raise the population out of financial doldrums, to close the gap between the haves and have-nots, just bring county elected leaders and their families down to the lowest denominator.  No discussion of worthy ideas to combine services, no forums among the many local agencies and municipalities, just broad demeaning strokes. 

Salary changes to prior law must be approved by voters, and can’t start until the next election in 2016. But even these pay cuts are a useless gesture in size in a $1.2 billion county budget, in contrast to thoughtful frugality.

The resolution deliberately wounds the younger talented public servants on the county board. They regard their jobs as a career and will never have enough money to campaign against this attack. 

There’s always natural turnover on the county board (four supervisors are likely to retire anyway in 2016). There are already three lawyers on the board thankfully willing to do double duty – and one, Patricia Jursik, has become crucial in exposing the legalistic and procedural weaknesses of Abele’s appointees.  Two current supervisors  are now lead  candidates for other public offices with more job security. A conservative board member could augment his income if he becomes mayor in Franklin, gaining $20,000 in salary and expenses.

But the majority on the board are parents with children at home, many small children, relying on their income. Most are in districts mandating full time service and devotion. Many are minorities truly representative of their communities, not offshoots from traditional family income. 

Moreover, and this must particularly gall Abele and his business allies,  the board has been quite unified in recent years, progressive in ideas, and regularly overrides Abele’s attacks on its scrutiny.  Ironically most on the board agree with many of his goals – but balance heavy-handed tactics with diplomatic outreach.  Abele is not famous for sharing toys or taking advice. Ask some of the strong managers he either fired or encouraged to leave such as Sue Black at parks and Frank Busalacchi at transportation.

You can honor business advice as he clearly does, but still admit their lobbying arms support Act 14 because they smell an opportunity to get faster hands on county park land, transit contracts and cheaper standards for contracted workers. Those pesky questions from the county board about his department picks or actual operations should actually be welcome by the exec as part of open democratic government.

A funny thing. The real harm of Act 14 is not on the ballot. It’s already been done. It changes prior laws that don’t require voter approval. So it reduced the term of an elected supervisor to two years from four.  It prevents the current board from acting against any Abele appointed department head – an action the board has rarely taken except for cause.

The county exec’s authority is increased over all county agencies and in  all contract negotiations. Where the board once had review authority, that is taken away – it must deal only with his approval. While the corporation counsel was once “required” to work with the board, now the board “may use” the counsel, a massive change in accord and representation that will spur greater hires by all sides of outside lawyers at taxpayer expense. Madison stepped in to address an ongoing counsel dispute and clearly has concocted a new one.

The talented support staff of the county board has been cut back, causing an exodus of experienced monitors and investigators. Abele’s staff and agency heads  remain largely political appointees not proven professionals. Several have never previously worked in county government.

While there used to be no statutory limit on tax levy expenses for county board operations, these are now limited to .4% of the levy. That may cripple travel but it largely cripples oversight.  The state’s own neutral legislative analysis confirms how radically Act 14 transfers authority to the exec from the board.   Of course, the board could still use its legislative power to choke the exec’s authority, but it apparently won’t be as vindictive. 

All that’s on the ballot is what the state  constitution leaves to the voters --  cuts in salaries and benefits for supervisors starting in 2016. County historians will point out that while the board has been ponderous at times,  it has also been a much needed  check and balance on the executive – in fact, major abuse, corruption and misjudgment of  county finances stemmed from the executive and his political appointees. Sometimes the board went along to the community’s detriment. Sometimes they stepped in to rectify mistakes, which is mainly what Act 14 cuts into.

New Supervisor David Bowen
 demonstrated immediate enterprise
Abele’s sense of remoteness from the needs of the community is likely to be exacerbated. The most prominent example was something freshman Supervisor David Bowen sponsored to veto proof majority -- raising the minimum wage for county employees and those working for businesses contracted by the county to $11.33 an hour. That’s hardly a fortune (most workers, especially union ones, get more), though you would think it was a fortune from the panic engendered  in Madison, Abele’s office and among business organizations. They all used the same doomsday analysis that flies in the face of actual results reported from around the nation.

Initial attack came from a bill in Madison seeking to prevent any municipality from doing better for its citizens in minimum wage if government money was involved. It was  aimed not only at existing laws that  have proved quite successful in Dane County  but quite specifically to thwart Milwaukee’s effort that could instantly benefit more than 2,000 low-paid Family Care workers. 

TV screenshot of protest in front of Abele mansion.
A handful of  level-headed Republicans blocked that move, but Abele plodded on.  He vetoed the increase, using that Walker-Lite projection of select higher tax costs five years down the road. That prompted dozens of low income workers March 13 to picket in front of his Lake Drive mansion waving shoes and encouraging him to walk in theirs. 

A few days later the board overrode his veto, citing the contrast between lip service about helping workers (a slap at Abele) and actual action (a self-compliment for standing firm).

Act 14 is emerging as yet  another example  of Abele’s distance from community needs. It seemed particularly cruel and callous legislation to cripple dedicated families to $24,000, unworthy of a nominal Democrat and dismissive of attracting quality talent to the county that might argue with him. Abele’s actions have prompted simplistic psychological analysis that only a billionaire’s son could act this way, someone unfamiliar with poverty or with the daily struggle to support a family.

That viewpoint, while clearly overwrought class analysis, is becoming harder to refute. He may give financial support to LBGT causes, international feminism and select local candidates eager to work with him.  But what counts more with citizens is the argument that he can afford such abstract gestures while the common folk who have kept charity organizations like United Way alive are doing so with dollars they can’t spare.

The rhetorical contrast is telling. Sympathy has gone over to the workers who picketed the remote figure behind the brick wall on Lake Drive and to other Abele’s critics who interpret his history at the county as trying to bully the entire sandbox. His actions don’t comfort observers who held out higher hope for him.

Since Act 14 has already done so much damage, does that  mean that a vote “no” is a waste of time? Hardly.  First it is a clear slap to the behavior of both Abele and the Madison GOP for preempting local discussion, control and quality talent.  It rebuffs the attitude of Lubar and the business community that they can buy votes, though they’ve become quite good at that.

Most pundits  expect the resolution  will sail through. If so, that is more a comment on public ignorance about the complexities in a $1.2 billion budget where property taxes don’t even cover a third of the needs. 

What Act 14 takes away is the scrupulous monitoring, the multiple eyes and rounded approval mandated in the complicated mass mixing of federal and state revenue.  Even experienced politicos can be taken for a ride by such requirements. 

Witness what just happened to Willie Hines, longtime president of the Common Council, the city equivalent of the county board.  If ever there was an astute insider of the requirements of government regulation, Hines was it. Yet when he resigned for a higher paying job with the housing authority, even Hines ran afoul of federal conflict of interest rules.  He had to resign and will probably sit for months hoping for a federal waiver.

The county budget is full of similar thickets. The Madison fashioners took a fleeting stab at trying to anticipate the complex rules, but on track record alone their perception is dubious.  The legal community and scholars of revenue monitoring expect Act 14 will cost taxpayers a bundle. So if fairness doesn’t sway voters, economic common sense should.  

The actual wording requiring intelligent citizens to vote no:

“Shall that portion of 2013 Wisconsin Act 14 which limits the compensation of members of the board of supervisors of Milwaukee County other than the chairperson of the board and chairperson of the finance committee to receipt of an annual salary of not more than the annual per capita income of this county, which in 2012 was $24,051, and which limits the compensation of the chairperson of the board to  not more than 150 percent of that amount and the chairperson of the finance committee to not more than 125 percent of that amount, subject to limitations and adjustments specified by law; and which prohibits supervisors from receiving any compensation or benefits not specifically authorized or required by law become effective in this county on April 18, 2016?”

For 10 years the author, Dominique Paul Noth, served as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press until its demise in 2013 and continues to freelance to many publications as well as write for his own websites. A professional journalist since the 1960s he has won multiple cultural and political journalism awards and for nearly two decades was film and drama critic before serving as  senior editor at the Milwaukee Journal.

No comments:

Post a Comment