Reform County Government — Eliminate the Executive

It was a grand experiment, but adding the layer of County Government that is least connected to the people has turned out to be a dismal failure. It’s time to get back to our roots and eliminate the position of County Executive.

In theory it should have worked out well. In reality it has resulted in contention, dishonesty and a scramble to assess blame rather than accepting personal responsibility.

Budgets fraught with phantom revenues and understated expenses have been sent to the board over the last three decades. The board has been forced to rewrite these budgets to reflect reality. Policies and ordinances have been sent to the board, stripped of critical information and insight with the demand that they be passed nearly sight-unseen. When problems happen it is the board, not the Executive, who has taken the heat.

Power struggles in politics are not uncommon, but adding the layer of County Executive has resulted in more of a fight for power than reasonable arguments over policy. Today County government is faced with a County Executive who cries that reform of the branch of government closest to the people must be reformed. That reform will allow him to concentrate his power.

Since when did concentrating power in the hands of one person become reform? Power mongering is not reform.

Even the elections for Executive have become a corrupted exercise in our democracy. To be elected you must be either wealthy enough to finance your own campaign or well connected enough to a political party that you can raise suitcases full of money from others. Neither option is in the interest of the public.

Optimally county government should be eliminated since legislatively it runs at the will of state government. State politicians overrule the actions of the county, pass along the costs of mandates, and pat themselves on the back for saving money that was never saved. Counties become scapegoats for lazy state politicians. Since politicians would rather diddle around the edges of real reform, county government is here to stay.

Now politicians are lining up to say the board needs to be reduced in size and only compensated with a part time salary. The vast diversity of talent and experiences that could be called upon to solve complex problems will evaporate. Qualified common people will not run for a position that will not even allow them to pay their household expenses. Less oversight and less accountability is not reform.

Still others claim that efficiency will come from reducing salaries. There’s just one problem with their claims — arithmetic. The County Board costs less than 1% of the budget. Eliminating oversight will cost more in missed efficiencies. Less eyes on the problem is not a solution unless you’re the one who wants to hide something.

There once was a time when smaller, local government was considered the best government. Those days are apparently over.


Los Angeles County Board is a Poor Comparison to the Milwaukee County Board

Thinking people across Southeastern Wisconsin are shaking their head in disbelief at the ignorance being sold as “reform” these days. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is busy turd polishing big government legislation that rookie State Legislator Joe Sanfelippo wants to drop on Milwaukee County. Sanfelippo thinks that the Milwaukee County board should be downsized and salaries of Supervisors reduced to just $15,000 per year — effectively making it impossible for any of them to continue to serve full time.

Los Angeles County is being held as the panacea. They only have 5 County Supervisors for the whole county, downsizing advocates cry. But here’s the problem — Los Angeles County is not at all like Milwaukee County. First, Los Angeles County has nearly 10 million residents. Milwaukee County has less than a million. A Los Angeles County Supervisor makes $178,789 per year. A Milwaukee County Supervisor makes about $50,000 (the same as it was over a decade ago). Each one of the Los Angeles County Supervisors represents about 2 million people. Try, just try to get them on the phone if one of their constituents calls with a problem. It’s not going to happen. In Milwaukee County, you can usually have your county supervisor call you back the same day — in person.

Financing a campaign for a seat where the incumbent represents 2 million people is ridiculously expensive. In the end, candidates who are not independently wealthy must figure out how to raise millions of dollars to run. Who do you think antes up that kind of cash? Do you seriously think for a minute that these seats will ever be able to be won by the common man with the interest only for the people he represents? The Los Angeles County board has only had one change in a board member since 1998. Effectively, Los Angeles Supervisor incumbents have a fiefdom where they can do what they want. Why would we want that system of government here?

Now why should we care? Really now, from a basic cost perspective, doesn’t it makes sense to reduce the board salaries? If you don’t care much about how government works, and can’t see past the dollar amounts being spent, then the short answer would be yes. Unfortunately that myopic approach just might pass the state legislature.

But there are other factors at play here. First, the entire legislative branch, even at current salaries is less than 1% of the County budget. That 1% gives county residents someone who can, to the best of their ability, assess projects to make sure that they are cost effective. That 1% buys someone who can advocate for issues of importance to district residents who may have otherwise been neglected.

That 1% allows people who have had expertise in an array of fields to come together to debate issues. A Supervisor who was a nurse can lend their expertise to a healthcare issue. A Supervisor who was a programmer can give their expert advice on technical matters in the county. A contractor can offer cost saving ideas for public works projects. Take away those three people and you could spend hundreds of millions of dollars that you didn’t have to.

I’m going to get specific here. In the interest of full disclosure I used to serve on the Milwaukee County Board. When I was a Supervisor we had a project come before us for the repaving of Lincoln Memorial Drive. Now I don’t recall the exact numbers, but I do remember that what was being proposed by the County Executive at the time was a simple repaving. It would have put 3 inches of asphalt over the entire roadway. For the sake of simplicity let’s say that the cost would have been 5 million. Now me and several of my colleagues looked into this. The project would have had to be repaved in another 6 years which, conveniently, was when the County Executive at the time planned to retire. We discovered that the engineers were calling the road bed “swiss cheese”. We found out that if we would spend about 8 million, we could have the road re-engineered and reconstructed and the new road would not only fix drainage problems but would last in excess of 20 years.

Now let’s do a little simple math.

The way the Exec wanted to go would have cost taxpayers $5 million divided by the 6 years it was estimated to have lasted. That is a cost of $833,333 per year to keep the road going but not fixing any structural problems.

The way the County Board wanted go (and what was eventually adopted) was a cost of $8 million divided by 20 years. That is a cost of $400,000 per year — less than half the per year cost!

There were other benefits. The new plan added much needed parking and also had several traffic slowing features which made the road safer for what is basically a parkway which many used to use as a high speed freeway. This improved the road and made it safer for bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike.

With that one project alone, the Milwaukee County Board more than paid for itself as well as provided ongoing legislative representation for each of the 50,000 constituents that each of them represent.

But that’s not the only example over oversight and efficiency that an effective board can bring. Personally I recall sitting in a parks committee meeting. A railroad came by and needed local approval so they could access federal funds for a multi-million dollar enhancement to part of their railroad. The Parks Department was in favor of it. Simple enough right?

Not so fast.

There was a piece of land that the county had wanted to purchase from the railroad for a long time. The railroad was not using it. The railroad was not even returning calls. Why the parks department did not come out and connect the dots here, I don’t know, but I objected to us approving their grant proposal until they worked out an agreement with the Parks Department for the County to at least have a right of way to put a bike path adjacent to the land the railroad wasn’t even using. The railroad lobbyist was irate. I didn’t care. He was being paid plenty well and it was Milwaukee County residents who were getting the shaft. I asked for the item to be laid over until the railroad came back with an agreement with the parks department. That’s what a partnership is. That’s what an effective Supervisor can do.

There are many other examples of efficiencies that an effective full-time Supervisor can bring. But the point is that the public doesn’t know about these sorts of improvements. The media doesn’t publicize them because a longer lasting road isn’t a sexy issue.

Newsmen often say “if it bleeds, it leads”. Well, road improvements at lower costs don’t bleed.

Thinking people will understand that ramrodding Sanfelippo’s plan through isn’t a reform. It’s just a change. Sometimes change is good. Sometimes it isn’t. This one isn’t.


The Era of Big Government Alive and Well with Rep Joe Sanfelippo

Government is at its best when it is small and local — at least that was the sentiment when Ronald Reagan was the head of the Republican party. Now, well let’s just say not so much.

Rookie State Representative Joe Sanfelippo has decided to make his mark by pushing through legislation that would bring about one of the largest top down, statist controls that has ever happened in Wisconsin history.

Statist Sanfelippo, who serves as a Republican in the legislative branch of state government making more than $50,000 per year, wants to reduce size of the Milwaukee County Board (but not other, larger county boards in Wisconsin). Sanfelippo represents about 50,000 people, or roughly the same amount as he represented when he served one term on the Milwaukee County board.

It stands to reason that if Sanfelippo believes that he has earned the right to cut the salary of someone in another legislative branch who represents the same amount of people, that Sanfelippo would cut his own salary to just $15,000 per year as well, but don’t hold your breath. Sanfelippo follows the “do as I say, not as I do” approach to governing.

He wants to do this now because it will no longer affect him. This is not uncommon. Many politicians like to take away the benefits from other people who may serve in the future, but never themselves. As early as just over a year ago, former Milwaukee County Supervisor turned State Senator Chris Larsen took a parting shot at his colleagues by introducing legislation in that body to limit benefits for the County Board. When asked about this issue by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Larsen says he prefer to let local government make these kind of decisions.

Now Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has weighed in supporting Sanfelippo’s idea. Abele knows full well that this would neuter the current board of Supervisors. They would no longer be able to devote their full time attention to either district needs or to amending the budget that is sent to them from the County Executive each year. The board would be reduced to people who, like Abele, were not reliant upon a salary to serve and who had sufficient time on their hands. For the most part, a restructured County Board would consist of government hobbyists, individuals bought and paid for by contributors and wealthy retirees.


Governor Walker making Poor Decision on Mansion Kitchen Remodel

At a time when Governor Scott Walker is asking so many to give up so much he’s planning on a nearly half million dollar renovation to the kitchen in the Governor’s mansion. Sadly, he’s out of touch with what many Wisconsinites are going through right now.

Walker has built his reputation as a penny pinching fiscal hawk but a closer look at his policies don’t reflect a lot of fiscal discipline. Borrowing to spend while cutting revenues to pay back the borrowing his been how he has managed to fund his brand of governing, but the public has been mostly shielded from that fact.

Walker has used his predecessor, Governor Jim Doyle, as a punching bag for passing blame. In fact, if you look at Walker’s entire political career he has built himself up by tearing others down. This project is going to be tough for him to blame on anyone else. After all, Doyle didn’t push for the taxpayer to borrow to pay for a kitchen remodel — Walker is.

As a contractor I understand that these types of projects can be done in-house. He doesn’t need an engineer or a fancy designer. All Walker needs is to use some of the competent people who already work for the state. Going to outside contractors isn’t going to save money — using in-house talent will.

Much of the money, Walker says, will be raised by private donations. Still, he is asking for nearly a half million to be funded by the taxpayers. If Walker and his wife, Tonette, want this renovation they should raise private funds to pay for it entirely. If we’re using tax dollars, we should be more focused on fixing the states crumbling infrastructure instead of whether Tonette can have a nicer kitchen to make a tasty crumble.

Here is the reality — major kitchen renovations are expensive. If Walker really wants this luxury, he shouldn’t be turning to the taxpayers to fund it. Like the french Queen, Marie Antoinette, Walker seems to be firmly out of touch with the economic struggles of the general public during this recession. But unlike the royalty of Antoinette’s era, Walker has to stand for election every few years. His actions don’t speak well for his decision making abilities. Those actions appear to be saying that the pubic is made up of foolish peasants here to pay for the whims and luxuries of an entitled Governor.


County Suffering from Poor Communication

There is a lot of blame to go around these days in Milwaukee County government and communication seems to be one of the major casualties in the war between the County Board and the County Exec. Neither has any benefit of how government can or should work because neither has had the historically normal benefit of being able to learn from their predecessors.

Until Communication is restoredExecutive Chris Abele is left to learn his role only by the example of his predecessor, County Executive (now Governor) Scott Walker. Walker tried to run County government in a top down fashion. His style of government was extremely divisive and partisan and if Walker wanted something, he didn’t hesitate to step on others to get. Although county government is technically non-partisan and has been run in a traditionally non-partisan fashion for decades, Walker changed that. Walker’s style of government was to divide, assign blame and to conquer. When he did not get what he wanted, he could always run to the AM talk radio guys whose own partisan loyalty enabled them to back up anything Walker said whether it was fictional or not. When Walker was elected Governor, the more democratic leaning Abele was elected to fill out Walker’s term. That left no predecessor of any political or philosophical similarity for Abele to turn to for advice.

County Board Chairman Marina Dimitrijevic was similarly saddled with a responsibility and no decent role model to turn to in order to understand how the County Board should run. Her predecessor, Lee Holloway, had been elected by a coalition of suburban republican Walker loyalists and racially loyal central city African-Americans. From the moment of his selection as Chairman by his colleagues, it was clear that nothing would be accomplished on the County Board for four long years. There was no way that Holloway would get his racially-centric agenda approved by the centrists or the Walker loyalists. Policy debates were for show and the only way that a majority of the board came together was when centrists, leftys and minority supervisors held together at budget time to oppose the more punitive parts of Walker’s budgets.

Walker had successfully divided and conquered the County Board.

But now it’s a different time and a different board. Neither branch has benefited from effective non-partisan predecessors and colleagues showing them the way to get things done without ripping each others throats out.

Dimitrijevic instituted a policy where Abele’s department heads are not allowed access to the County Board Supervisors offices without the aid of an approved escort. She then took it a step further by tossing aside a century of tradition and eliminating the formerly-lifetime-rights for past Supervisors to have hallway and floor privileges. She may not have realized it, but her actions are the equivalent of a “not welcome” sign. This is a severe departure from the past.

In the past, consensus building and hard working Supervisors not only worked with the County Executive on policy issues, but they also tapped as a healthy pool of picks for department heads. Abele has no such understanding of County history and Dimitrijevic has continued to culture an adversarial relationship with the Exec.

None of this is necessary. Abele and Dimitrijevic are leagues closer on political philosophy than either of their predecessors ever were. To make matters even more strange, if you set them both in a room together and peppered them with hundreds of questions on what should happen in County government in the future, they would likely agree on almost everything.

But the key there would be in getting both of them in the room together.


Osama bin Laden Donates to Obama website a scam

A conservative activistOsama bin Laden is driving a lot of traffic to his column, “OBAMA ACCEPTS ‘OSAMA BIN LADEN’ DONATIONS” but there is just one problem — the author admits to using fraud to make those donations.

In politics it’s pretty much legal to say just about whatever you want. It is the responsibility of the person who is being accused of such things to disprove the claim. Folks like Klein hide behind the constitutional right of free speech but what Klein said goes a little beyond free speech — it appears to veer into electioneering and fraud. You see, Klein points out that the staff from their website, WND, made the two donations “using a Pakistani Internet Protocol and proxy server, a disposable credit card and a fake address”.

I’m not a legal scholar, but that sounds like intentional and willful fraud done with malicious intent and in this case, to cause harm to a political campaign and smear the name of President Barack Obama.

Klein, or the staff from his website, used the name “Osama bin Laden” to make two small donations. When websites generate large portions of their income from ads, they have motivation to make their columns as salacious or compelling as possible in order to drive up traffic. If traffic on a website is high, a small portion of those visiting the website will click on the ads. The more clicks they get, the more money they make. WND is filled with those types of ads.

Here’s an example of a PPC (pay per click) ad:

The more people who click on it, the more money that will go to support the website that published the column.

Now here at Watchdog Milwaukee, we make no claims that we are free of bias. Everyone has their bias. It is part of how we are hard-coded as human beings. But as a citizen journalist, I am at least honest in my columns. That is not something that all bloggers can say and it appears that Klein has taken such a great liberty

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