Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has not had smooth sailing for the past year.
He started to hit rough waters last year when he made the bold decision to impose severe budget cuts to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office. At the time, Abele was able to justify his decision to do so, citing facts on the level of performance of the department. When Sheriff David Clarke had the predictable temper tantrum, Abele stayed above the fray and did not feed into it, making himself look all the better.
But then things starting getting rougher and Abele did not handle things as well.
When the state was in the fight for the future by trying to recall Scott Walker, Abele sat on the sidelines, despite all of the damage Walker did and continues to do to Milwaukee County. When his good friend Tom Barrett became the nominee to try to oust Walker, Abele didn’t lift a finger to help his friend and his county, except to issue an eleventh hour tweet in support of Barrett.
In July, Abele completely alienated working families. He wrote an editorial about the ongoing labor struggles at Palermo’s, siding with his friends who own the company and stating that the workers should give up their rights.
A few days later, he made this grandiose announcement for a proposal to raze the Intermodal Center at the lakefront in order to allow private land developers build a towering eyesore on the site, instead of something that would serve the community. To make matters worse, it appears that his proposal might be illegal. On top of that, Abele also did a run around on the County Board so that he could try to sway public opinion before the board even had a chance to look at the plans.
Things have escalated in the past two weeks and not for the better.
On Thursday, August 19, Abele fired his popular parks director Sue Black. While he was well within in his rights to do so, and it is a move that will benefit Milwaukee County in the long run, he handled the situation very poorly. It has been ten days since the firing, and he has yet to offer an official reason for finally taking this action. This has only served to rile the public who thought Black was doing a good job.
Even before the firing of Black has had time to cool off, it has come to light that Abele is trying to do a pocket veto on the extremely popular ‘Move to Amend’ resolution, thereby denying the voters to have a chance to have their voices heard all the way to Washington, D.C. Furthermore, it turns out that, like the firing of Black, he hasn’t offered a sound rationale for his refusal to sign the resolution into law. Making the situation even more egregious, he tried to extort the supporters of the movement to pay to have him sign it.
And now the Johnny Thomas case has exploded on him.
For those not familiar with the story, Johnny Thomas is a former county supervisor who gave up his seat to run to be the comptroller for the City of Milwaukee. At the end of last year, Abele’s right hand man and Director of Administration, Patrick Farley, participated in a sting operation aimed at busting Thomas for taking bribes.
After Thomas was arrested, Abele went out of his way to make repeated mention of how proud he was of Farley for his role in the investigation. He made special mention of it at his State of the County address and his inaugural speech. When the board refused to automatically rubber stamp Farley’s nomination to stay in his slot, Abele went all out to drive up support for Farley.
But the case against Thomas was weak to begin with, as prominent attorney Mike Maistelman pointed out:
Thomas’ attorney, Michael Maistelman, said his client was innocent but would be dropping out of the comptroller’s race by suspending his campaign.
“The D.A. has unfortunately taken unrelated events and forced an unreasonably negative and false story on top of the facts,” Maistelman said in a statement. “As the process unfolds and all the facts come out, John will be vindicated and cleared of all charges.”
This past Friday, it took the jury just over an hour to acquit Thomas of all charges. One juror clearly limns the latest problem for Abele and his administration:
Juror Rebekah Turner said the jury quickly came to agreement that Thomas was set up and was innocent of the charges.
“I felt very strongly he was definitely not guilty,” Turner said. If Thomas decides to run for office again, “I’d vote for him,” she said.
The fallout between Abele’s administration and the county board started shortly after the arrest when Supervisor Patricia Jursik openly expressed distrust of Abele and Farley. That rift has only grown since with Supervisor Willie Johnson, Jr. expressing a similar distrust. Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic also expressed similar thoughts with this press release:
“The people of the jury have spoken with their swift deliberation and decision. I wish Johnny Thomas and his family well.
I look forward to working cooperatively and truthfully with the Administration, as we move beyond this trial, which has strained relations between the Executive and Legislative branches.
The citizens of Milwaukee County look to the people at the Milwaukee County Courthouse to administer justice. As Chairwoman, I support transparency and integrity in all Milwaukee County government operations.”
The strain of trust for Abele is showing other places as well.
Eugene Kane, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wonders if this was a deliberate effort to sabotage Thomas’ campaign for city comptroller.
Kaiser points out that Farley’s own admissions that he lied to Thomas and tried to manipulate him removes any credibility he might have had. Per Kaiser, no one will be able to have dealings with Farley and not wonder if he’s trying to set them up for a fall. She said that Farley must resign from his office, for the good of the county.
As you can see, Abele does have a major problem which starts with a capital PR – as in public relations. And most of his problem has been self-induced by his own ham-handed way of dealing with things.
Abele is used to having a lot of money and having people falling all over themselves to follow any directive he might issue. But that doesn’t work in government, especially after the years of corruption and disregard of the Walker years.
While many people are disappointed and angry with Abele right now, it doesn’t have to stay that way. He will have to work hard to regain the trust of the board and of the people of Milwaukee County, but it can be done, if he follows through with a few basic steps.
The first is to be more open and transparent in his dealings.
When he fired Sue Black, he should have handled the same way he did Clarke’s budget cuts. State his reason why and stay above the fray. Instead, he has yet to be forthcoming about it.
Likewise, even now, he should be more transparent with his budget process. He needs to have more than two public hearings and announce them with more warning than the day of the hearings. That behavior would indicate that he either doesn’t care what the people think, doesn’t want the people to know what he’s doing, or both.
Secondly, and in tandem with the first point, he needs to open up better lines of communication. He needs to be up front with both the board and the citizens. When he does end runs on people, he shouldn’t expect them to be receptive to or trusting of him anymore. Clearer and more open communications will go a long way to transparency and to rebuilding the trust of those he has to work with and the voters he has to answer to.
In order to aid him with the first two points, Abele must also start listening to the people better. He has hobbled himself with the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a group of very wealthy elitists who feel they know better than the people on how to run the government and that what the people want is of little relevance. Unless he has been living under a rock for the past two year, Abele should be well aware by current events of how unpopular it is to cater to the rich and ignore the citizens.
A good place for him to start with this goal would be to sign the ‘Move to Amend’ resolution in time for it to be on the ballot in November.
Lastly, we agree with Kaiser that Farley can no longer do his job effectively. The board will never be able to trust him again. The people will be second guessing everything he does or says. While we are not necessarily in agreement that Farley needs to resign from the county completely, it is unclear how he can stay in his current position and expect to accomplish much, much less in a timely fashion while people check and recheck everything he says.
Perhaps Farley could serve Abele in some capacity as an advisor of sorts, but unless there is currently a spot open, it is difficult to see the board agreeing with the creation of a special position for him.
We recognize that some of these changes will be easier than others, but if Abele is concerned about his image and his effectiveness, he must start showing signs of good faith immediately by making the effort.