Milwaukee County was abuzz Thursday with the news that Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele had fired Parks Director Sue Black. When Abele first decided to keep Black on as the director of the park system, and then gave her a substantial raise to keep her from moving on to a job in Chicago, everyone thought that she was in that position for as long as Abele was county executive.
Bruce Murphy, writing for Urban Milwaukee, described the firing as a “stunning development” and gave the following description of the course of events Thursday afternoon:
County Supervisor Jason Haas says he entered the county courthouse at the same time as Black at around 12:45 p.m Thursday afternoon, and they chatted a bit. “We were at the front desk of the the county board chambers. That was the last time I saw her.”
About 15 minutes later, Haas says, Abele sent an email to board members saying Sue Black no longer works with the county. Haas was stunned. Black told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she was there to attend her regular weekly meeting with Abele and he told her “we are going in a another direction. We are letting you go.”
Black said she was locked out of her office in Wauwatosa while she was at the courthouse meeting with Abele. Her county cellphone was soon cut off. Sources say police were called to escort her from the office. Attempts to reach Black at her job at the parks office were unsuccessful. “She’s not here. She’s no longer employed here,” the person answering the phone said, adding that he had no other phone number for her.
County Board Supervisors Gerry Broderick, Steve Taylor and Mark Borkowski as well as Chairwoman Marina Dimitirijevic, were in an uproar demanding to know the reasonwhy Abele fired Black. The Park People issued a statement thanking Black for her years of service and also wondered why she was fired.
Some members of the public were so outraged by what they perceived as a travesty, they have started an online petition demanding that Abele rehire Black.
The reason for the puzzlement and outrage over the firing of Sue Black is based on the perception that she was an effective parks director. They cite the “prestigious” 2009 National Gold Medal for Excellence from the National Recreation and Park Association. Many have credited Black for doing the most that she could do with an ever dwindling budget. Others, like the Park People, have lauded Black for her fostering private/public partnerships with companies such as Miller and Harley-Davidson.
While Milwaukee County Courthouse insiders have to told Milwaukee County First that there were many reasons behind Black’s firing, there appears to be a smoking gun which might have been the last straw.
Channel 58 in Milwaukee is reporting that there is some suspect aspects of the lease for Crystal Ridge in Franklin which could end up costing Milwaukee County taxpayers millions of dollars. The wording of the contract is such that the operator of the ridge basically gets to call all the shots and the county is on the hook for the bill. It has been described as pure corporate welfare, whereas the private agency stands to reap all the benefit, but the taxpayers are liable for any loss.
It should be noted that the news service is reporting that it is not clear if Black or the supervisors were unaware of the ramifications or merely ignored it. The fact is that at least one supervisor, John Weishan, was openly questioning of this clause as well as others, and was opposed to the contract because of them.
But that is not the only reason why Black deserved to be terminated.
The reasons that people thought so highly of Black and her job performance was nothing more than a veneer to cover up the truth. Likewise, some of the reasons people have praised her are the same reasons they should be applauding her firing.
The Gold Medal award, which was so highly touted by Scott Walker during his gubernatorial campaign, is a thin layer of veneer trying to hide the shambles that the parks district has become.
While it is sadly true that the subsequent administrations over the past three decades have continuously cut the amount of funding and staffing for the parks department, Black did not help matters. Instead of using her dwindling resources to maintain the parks, she paid no less than ten people in her administration executive grade salaries. As a result of her misplaced focus of funds on her cronies, the parks have accumulated nearly $300,000,000 in deferred maintenance and neglected repairs, causing many eyesores of our once great park system. Things had gotten so bad that some park bathrooms had to be closed because they were unsafe. The shortage of staff had caused such a back lag in trash pick up that it made the news twice.
Furthering the problem is that Black would often focus an inordinate amount of staff and funding to certain parks, such as the lake front and the suburban parks in the more affluent areas while giving short shrift to inner city parks.
Black’s active pursuit of private/public partnerships was also a path fraught with peril. MCF had warned of the dangers three years ago, citing the course of events in New York City’s experience with this ill-conceived agenda:
When New York began relying on public-private parks partnerships following the fiscal crisis of the seventies, the idea was that private philanthropic groups would pick up the slack. And they did. Groups like the Central Park Conservancy, the Prospect Park Alliance, and the Bryant Park Corporation rose to respond to that crisis. But the city’s newest parks, paid for and operated largely by nonpublic dollars, are girded tightly by their private patrons.
The High Line was invented as a park by Friends of the High Line, which raised $44 million in donations and helped select the design. Celebrity endorsements (Edward Norton, Diane Von Furstenberg), caps on visitor attendance, adjacent real-estate development, and a dense police presence compared to other parks have all contributed to the appearance of something less than fully public. Elsewhere, the Parks Department has met with a local interest group called Coalition for a Better Washington Square Park, which offered to hire its own security and maintenance forces for the newly renovated green. Parks turned them down but did “discuss the designs of the next phase of renovation.” And in order to build the $350 million Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation, a public agency, is using the private developers of luxury condos like One Brooklyn Bridge Park to pay for the maintenance of its public front yard (never mind what’ll happen if the condos don’t sell).
Expect more of the same. “What’s happening on a basic level is that the city does not feel that parks are its responsibility anymore,” says Geoffrey Croft, president of NYC Park Advocates. “But every community deserves to have healthy parks, not just ones that have wealthy benefactors.”
In summary, the firing of Sue Black was something long overdue and well-deserved, especially in light of the scandalous Crystal Ridge deal. In fact, there was sufficient reason for Abele not to have kept her in his administration in the first place.
The fact that he had kept her on board in the first place does raise another question which deserves further study and a watchful eye. It must be kept in mind that Abele is a member of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, which has an agenda of systematically dismantling Milwaukee County government. Part of this agenda includes spinning off the parks system to be controlled by its own authority.
As Abele took the bold, if highly controversial, step of protecting the taxpayers by firing the very popular Black for this irresponsible contract and other reasons, we hope that he will take equally bold steps to ensure that the parks system stays intact and remains the property of the public.