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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

Shrinky dinks: are we due for a part time Milwaukee County Board again?

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They're being true to form, this newly minted Wisconsin legislature.  

The stated mission of the folks in Madison, as per Governor Scott Walker, is jobs.   And, that's exactly what incoming Representative Joe Sanfilippo and veteran Senator Alberta Darling are addressing in a measure they're working together on: turning the full-time gigs of Milwaukee County Board members into part-time ones.

Some will say Madison should worry first about those without jobs instead of supervisors who are already getting paychecks, but this push is on the fast track, its supporters hoping to have it on the April ballot.

The pressure builds as tensions rise between County Executive Chris Abele, the board and it's chairperson, Marina Dimitrijevic.  The Journal/Sentinel's Dan Bice reports this week the there's outside impetus as well, coming in the form of the Greater Milwaukee Committee--"it's their baby", a GOP source tells Bice--perhaps to gin up turnout for the upcoming Supreme Court race.   Nothing like a hot-button local-control referendum to spice up an otherwise snoozy ballot in the most populous county in an election-weary state.

The Shepherd Express dismisses the push as an Abele power play, pure and simple. 

"Abele is getting his playbook from his octogenarian Republican advisor, Sheldon Lubar, a veteran of the Reagan administration and more recently the chair of a committee for the Greater Milwaukee Committee on the future of Milwaukee County," the Express editorial says. "Lubar came up with the conclusion that Milwaukee County should be 'blown up.'  He then worked to get his boy, Abele, elected county executive to carry out his agenda...Abele's efforts over the past two years have been easily thwarted by the voters through their elected county supervisors."

Before assigning motives, a bit of history.  It comes from's Bruce Murphy who points out that the full-time board member is a fairly recent beast.   With the creation of County Executive in 1960 came the evolution of a different way of doing things--the County Exec as head of a cabinet form of government with departments run by various heads--leaving supervisors, Murphy notes, with less to do amid dwindling power.  He says they responded by hiring assistants and pushing for full-time status.   They got it, along with more and more pay--accelerating, Murphy says, when Tom Anent was board chairman even though supervisory obligations dwindled: Murphy points out that the state now runs welfare and the child foster care system, that the Public Museum is no longer on their watch, nor is the former Done Hospital.  

And, we all know what happened when Anent became County Exec.   The pension scandal on his watch occurred with a full-time board that was supposed to be a guardian for the taxpayers they represent.   Instead, we got the biggest local governmental scandal EVER.  Ament quit, recalls ensued, yet supervisors remained full-time, some more so than others.  Paul Cesarz, one of members swept in amid the recalls is best-remembered for his prolonged Courthouse absences.  He's no longer a supervisor.

The Shepherd editorial says, "Abele will have his Republican pals who control the state Legislature pass a bill that will 'restructure Milwaukee county' even if the vast majority of Milwaukee County residents do not want it 'restructured'."   They forget 2012, when a dozen county suburbs voted overwhelmingly to reduce the board's size.  Murphy does not.  Supervisors responded by lopping all of one seat off, leaving us with the current 18 member configuration.  Had they taken the will of the people a little more seriously and chopped a few more of their own, we might not be where we are today.   Abele isn't cutting the number of supervisors--just their pay.  The job stays the same, as does the amount of work on each member's plate.   Nothing changes structurally.   So, where's that power grab?  

And remember: this isn't just about full-time supervisors, as I'm guessing each of those full-time aides they have will also be going way.   More savings.  More money that can be used to run the things the county is still responsible for at a time when such cash is getting harder to come by. 

At a time of limited resources, when all aspects of government need to be evaluated for efficiency and production, why NOT let voters have a say on this issue?   Let the people figure out if this is a well-thought-out switch or another bit of county drama and dysfunction.  What's more democratic than that?  

The case can be made that Madison has bigger fish to fry--where are all those jobs we've been promised, and what are lawmakers doing about that, other than trying to bring back a controversial mining bill that Native Americans are certain to drag into court if it passes?    And is this issue being brought up to spark electorate interest in upcoming ballots many may yawn at?   That's politics.

The question is solid, the issue legit.  And, the way it's being put to the public makes it a case study in democracy.    The late Lee Dreyfus always said, "Let the people decide!" as his Cinderella run for Governor ended with his victory over Martin Schreiber in 1978.  

Seems to fit here, too.  We had a part-time county board for ions, when Milwaukee was responsible for much, much more than it is today.  Things ran fine.   Maybe the old way can be "new" again.  It certainly would be cheaper.

Let the people decide, indeed.


(An addendum: Hales Corners NOW says part-time village board members are thinking about raising their $300 a month pay (plus the $25 monthly travel stipend they receive).  Any raise would be their first in 26 years.  One trustee is arguing against it, saying he considers the work a community service and is proud of the fact that the pay hasn't gone up in more than a quarter-century.  The board will discuss a possible change next month.)

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