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Should They Do Away With The Milwaukee County Executive Position?

Posted by Chris Liebenthal on July 15, 2009

Anyone that has been paying the least attention to Milwaukee County politics, or has been at least reading this humble blog, knows that the last County Executive as well as the current one, had been worse than disasters to the well-being of Milwaukee County and its citizens.

Tom Ament, for the majority of his career, was a big fish in a little pond at the courthouse, but in the public eye, he was usually noticed as much as your average potted plant. Then he and his crew came up with the pension scandal that got everyone’s attention. It rightfully cost him his job, but unfortunately took a lot of good people down with him.

The pension scandal was bad in a multitude of ways. The most obvious was the financial burden it put on the county. But many people think that another consequence from the scandal was just as bad, if not even worse. Ament’s scandal opened the door for Scott Walker to come in with the support of the misnamed Citizens for Responsible Government.

Since Walker won the recall election in 2002, he had been planning his perpetual run for governor, using Milwaukee County as nothing more than a stepping stone for his higher aspirations. Walker has regularly waged a war against the county’s most vulnerable populations, the poor, the elderly, the disabled adults and the inner city in the hopes of gaining leverage for his campaign run.

During the course of his tenure, Walker has manipulated the system to ruin the transit system, the parks system, economic support programs and social support systems like mental health services.

Recently, he has gone to the point of abusing the powers of his office and stepping outside of his authority to do things like sabotage the county’s chances to get federal stimulus money, raise taxes and/or create new taxes (even on toddlers), and sabotage and stall contract negotiations with the unions. He has done all of this just to look tough and to keep up his false portrayal as being a fiscal conservative.

During all of this, the Ament scandal and Walker’s ineptitude, the County Board has continuously taken the brunt of the voter’s anger. Several Supervisors lost their jobs due to the scandal, even though their worst sin was believing the stuff coming from the county executive’s office. Now, every time one of Walker’s grand schemes falls apart, as they ultimately do, they are the ones that get the angry phone calls. (Part of that might be because the County Board and their staff aren’t rude to their callers, like the County Executive’s staffers are.)

All of this takes a toll on people, which is why I found it shocking, but not surprising, that some supervisors are asking for the state to allow the county executive’s position be abolished and replaced by a county administrator. In an upcoming session of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee is this item:

A resolution by Supervisors Holloway, Mayo, Broderick and Johnson, seeking legislation to amend Wisconsin Statutes to remove the requirement to elect a county executive in counties with a population of 500,000 or more and allow the appointment of a county administrator.

I can fully appreciate and empathize with their frustrations. They have to go in every day, day in and day out, and try to repair the damages cause by Ament and Walker. And the thanks that they receive is the local paper or the local radio squawkers railing against them and blaming them for what they are not responsible for. It’s never fun to have to go and clean up other people’s messes, but then to get abraded for someone else’s misdeeds isn’t fair.

But I don’t believe that this is the proper course to take. Ament is gone from politics, no matter what he might think. Walker won’t be in that office forever either.

Our system of government is based on checks and balances. While a smaller community might be able to get away without having that system, even the smallest towns still have a mayor to balance out the common council. And no one would ever imagine having a state without a governor to counter the state legislature. Or the federal government without the President to balance out the Congress. Just as the judicial branch is key, so is the executive branch.

Removing the voters’ right to name their own executive in favor for an administrator that would be beholden to the County Board is not the solution.

One would think that after the struggle the County Board went through the last few years to just get the sales tax referendum on the ballot, that they would have a strong appreciation for the citizens to be able to exercise their right to have their voices heard. I think that it would be a grave mistake to take away that right now.

If they do not like what Walker is doing, and a growing number of people don’t, then take actions to ensure that Walker, or whoever might hold that seat someday in the future, isn’t able to just step over the lines and exceed their authority. Clearly define the role and powers of the county executive. And include steps that would allow the Board to take action if the County Executive were to practice such malfeasance again, such as an impeachment hearing.

Just don’t take away our rights to vote for the person we want in that office. The County Executive should work with the County Board, but he or she should be answerable to the people as well.


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