The movement that culminated in Act 14 was launched by the Greater MilwaukeeThe sad part is that we haven't even seen the worst of it. That is still to come as Abele tries to position himself for a run for higher office.
Committee (GMC), a conservative business group with close ties to Abele and his friend and key advisor, conservative venture capitalist Sheldon Lubar. The bill was introduced in early 2013 by two suburban Republicans, former supervisor turned state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) and state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), with the blessing of Abele. The effort went far beyond any sort of “reform” pushed by Abele’s predecessor, Scott Walker.
Act 14, signed into law by Walker in May 2013, gutted the board’s power in unprecedented ways and deprived Milwaukee County taxpayers of the checks and balances on the county executive’s power to cut corrupt deals with his selected cronies. Act 14 turned the Milwaukee County executive into the most powerful one in Wisconsin. The 18 supervisors now have no ability to amend a contract, and contracts worth between $100,000 and $300,000 don’t even need full board approval but only the blessing of the Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee. Those worth less than $100,000 don’t get sent to the board at all. Only those contracts worth at least $300,000 need the full board’s approval. In addition, county supervisors lost their staffers, who were the ones who would spend the hundreds of hours carefully examining contracts and legislation, had their terms cut from four years to two, can’t weigh in on collective bargaining negotiations, and can’t get involved in the day-to-day operations of county business. Thanks to a referendum mandated in the bill, county voters cut supervisors’ pay to about $24,000, beginning in 2016.
As the board lost power, the county executive filled the vacuum, gaining almost unchecked power for a public office. Abele now has the power to make appointments of department heads and fill those vacancies without a confirmation by supervisors; call special meetings of the board and introduce legislation; and submit contracts to the board, when necessary, that only receive an up-or-down vote by the board.
But that’s not the only radical change in county government. Earlier this year, Abele sought and won a new state law—again, pushed by Sanfelippo, this time with state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa)—that created a new Mental Health Board (MHB) made up of appointed members. According to the new Act 203, this unelected board has the power to craft a budget for the county’s mental health services that the board can’t cut, although Abele can make adjustments, and it doesn’t have to present much information to the board or the taxpayers. In addition, the MHB has the power to enter into contracts that the board cannot consider, including contracts to privatize services.
Thanks to these two new laws, the Abele administration now runs the county with little oversight from the board, almost obliterating any notion of checks and balances that are found in clean and open government run by co-equal branches. Abele is now free to preside over county government with little public input or transparency, a strategy he’s come to use over and over again. When dubious actions like this occur in developing countries, democratic countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and most of Europe are sharply critical.
“It goes beyond Act 14,” Supervisor Theo Lipscomb told the Shepherd. “It’s the attitude of this administration. It’s the reason they wanted Act 14 but it’s their attitude toward governing. They push their agenda through and they don’t expect there to be oversight.”
Lipscomb, a member of the Finance, Personnel and Audit Committee, which is tasked with vetting contracts and working through a line-by-line review of the budget, said Abele’s penchant for secrecy is worse than anything seen under Walker. At least the Walker administration presented its budgets on time and had aides on hand during the board’s deliberations to clarify policy items within it, Lipscomb said.
This year, in contrast, Abele delivered his budget later than in previous years, with no details about big policy items such as a major restructuring of employee benefits, offered no aides to provide information to supervisors as they amended the budget, and then sent over his two dozen vetoes less than 24 hours before the board was scheduled to review and vote on them. When Abele finally did provide details about his changes to the county’s benefits package, they showed that he was cutting employees’ pay by 4.8% to 8%.
“I’d say it’s worse under the Abele administration,” Lipscomb said. “Clearly in the amount of detail they provided up front in the budget document but also in the fact that they just weren’t available for budget hearings.”
Lipcomb also pointed to a contract to privatize security services at the Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Building. The Abele administration sent a boilerplate resolution for privatizing security “at county facilities” to the board, and Lipscomb said the company in question was in the courthouse the day of the vote, apparently to pitch its services for courthouse security as well. The language only changed to target the Coggs building after supervisors raised questions about it, Lipscomb said.
“We had to really pull teeth to sort of extract that information,” Lipscomb said.
Maybe it's time that we stop referring to Abele as Walker's Mini-me. Abele is surpassing Walker in secrecy, corruption and betraying the public trust.
What I still don't understand is why the Democratic Party not only continues to tolerate Abele but embraces him and gives him honors he most definitely doesn't deserve.