Back in 1996 when I first ran for County Supervisor I was urged to seek the endorsement of then Alderman Tom Nardelli. At the time I knew nothing of him and he knew nothing of me except that I was running against a person he disliked.
Nardelli gave me his endorsement in what I later learned was because I was the more conservative of the two candidates. I had always been interested in pubic office and my main opponent was widely seen as a walk on and I, the long shot. It wasn’t that I thought my opponent was a bad guy — it was just that he had been fairly ineffective while serving in the State Assembly and if you’re a regular reader of Watchdog Milwaukee, you’ll realize that my tolerance for ineffective public servants is fairly low.
One of the words of advice Nardelli gave me while leaning back in his impressive looking chair in his city hall office, and I’ll never forget this, was to listen to AM talk radio. After getting elected I came to realize that he found them a source to take his orders from rather than to lead.
I would like to say that Tom Nardelli is a good guy. Unfortunately I cannot say that.
When I was on the board I was seeking a way to increase recreation for your people in my district. I was big into green space. ‘The city fathers’, people would tell me, ‘had the foresight to set aside land for public parks’ and we were all the beneficiary of them. That was my goal. While I was on the County Board I worked to create four new parks (Melody View Preserve, Kohl Park, Servite Park Preserve and the Granville Dog Park). In short, there wasn’t a chunk of clean green space I didn’t want to acquire for the public if I saw that there was a recreational need in a community.
This brings me to my story about a chunk of land off of 107th street just north of Mill Road.
MPS owned a big chunk of land out there. They had considered hanging on to it for a middle school which their studies had shown was needed in the area. I was asked by a group of area residents to see about acquiring the land from MPS to use as a park. I looked into it and it made sense. The City of Milwaukee’s own Department of City Development had labeled the neighborhood severely “recreationally under served”. SEWRPC, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, made the same comments on their report of the area.
Why then, is MPS considering selling the land?
MPS, as long as I have known, has always been cash strapped. But I have always been one of those people who believes that good people, when faced with dilemmas, will make good decisions. I have not always been right in that regard.
I attended the MPS school board meeting where this land sale was about to be slam dunked through. I testified and made an appeal to the board to at very least, not sell the land just yet. I explained the various studies and I listened as one school board member after another spoke to the issue and several commented on how grateful they were that a County Supervisor would com to a meeting and show an interest.
Then it happened.
A majority of the board commented at that meeting that it was a good idea to not sell of the public land. It was in the bag — or so I thought.
Then school board member Leon Todd stood up and started walking behind other school board members and whispering things in their ears. This was unusual. Seconds later the chair called for a vote and unbelievably nearly all of the school board members voted to give away the land for a song. They then called a recess and all marched off stage, away from the crowd with no opportunity for anyone to talk to them.
I was dumbfounded.
I was sickened.
Publicly they had said they supported not selling their land. Something happened. What had Todd said to them? This was not acceptable. This slimy approach of whispering in the ears of colleagues and betraying the public trust by giving away the land for a song was so beyond my comprehension that I was beside myself. What happened?
I wanted answers.
So I did what I doubt anyone else has done before. I walked up on the stage and followed them back to their break room. In truth it was not just a break room. They had a lovely catered meal back there served buffet style. I don’t exactly think they were shelling out what it cost for this little perk but that’s another story for another day.
Todd would not talk to me. I approached another school board member who I had seen at events socially. What happened, I asked? It was Nardelli he responded. Nardelli wanted this developer to get the property and as chair of the city’s powerful finance committee, Nardelli promised that if he didn’t get his way on this, MPS wouldn’t get their bonding for capital improvement projects. I was unclear on what the connection was here between capital improvement projects and MPS. Why did MPS need the city? Well it turns out that school boards cannot bond for capital needs in Wisconsin. They must either do a referendum or they must use their city as a conduit to acquire the financing.
Nardelli had effectively neutered the Milwaukee Public School Board with his threat. The message was clear — do what I want or you’re screwed and I’ll make you look like idiots.
But there was something else. Why was Nardelli so adamant about this developer getting a slice of the city?
It turned out that the same family who had contacted me to work on their behalf had also contacted a reporter. I don’t recall the reporters name but he had uncovered that Nardelli had received fat campaign donations from the developer. Amazingly, it was swept under the table.
Well in that place I had hoped would be a combination of playground and meadow, the Heritage Heights subdivision stands. It’s an exclusive subdivision with a few million dollar homes. And it turns out that Alderman Tom Nardelli got a plum pick of the lots. He later bragged to me that the developer asked him what street he wanted to live on and that Nardelli could name it. “Coventry” he replied. To this day, there is only one person who lives on Coventry street in the city of Milwaukee and that is Tom Nardelli.
So when I read that Nardelli, with his hard ball back room politics and ability to wheel and deal without getting caught, was to be the new Chief of Staff to Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker I just shook my head.