A curious thing happened at the end Thursday’s hour-long joint appearance at Eckstein Hall of State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, who wants to reduce the role of the Milwaukee County Board, and County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic, who is fighting Sanfelippo’s proposals:
A lot of people stayed on to talk. Dimitrijevic talked with whoever came up to her. Sanfelippo did the same. County Executive Chris Abele, who was in the audience, had almost a dozen people gathered around him at some points. Other people lingered and mingled through much of the Appellate Courtroom.
Usually, the room clears pretty quickly at the end of events of this kind. But for some reason – an interest in talking about the issue? the availability of the main figures? the chance to catch up with people? – this was a group that didn’t seem to want to leave. There were probably almost 50 people, out of an audience of more than 200, still in the room 15 minutes after the session ended.
Maybe this was a little bit different way of demonstrating how the public policy programs that Marquette University Law School has been hosting for the last half dozen years are meeting their goals of furthering serious, informed conversation on major issues. The notion of being a crossroads for such a discussion starts with the presenters at these sessions, but it often extends to the informal conversations before a program, during breaks, or afterwards. The main business was the hour-long session, focused on the controversial proposal to re-shape how the top levels of Milwaukee County government operate. The program was part of the “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” series at the Law School, but the format was different. In what was basically a debate, Dimitrijevic and Sanfelippo stood at lecterns, with three journalists, including Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, facing them and posing questions. The program was co-sponsored by the Law School and the Milwaukee Press Club.
The state legislation proposed by Sanfelippo, a former member of the County Board, would transfer considerable power from the board to the county executive. The goal would be to have County Board members set policy, set the budget, and oversee county operations on a general level, leaving the operation of county government mostly to the executive, Sanfelippo said. He said that was the intent when the Legislature in 1960 created the position of Milwaukee County executive, and he said that is the way things operated for the next 15 or 20 years, before supervisors began taking more power on themselves. That led to the County Board positions becoming full time and to staff of the board growing from just a handful to the current 38, he said. His proposal calls for a countywide referendum on whether the salaries of supervisors should be pegged to an index that would reduce them to about half their current level.
“In no way, shape, or form is that a full time job,” Sanfelippo said of being a County Board supervisor. The services of county government have been reduced since the structure now in place was created.
Dimitrijevic said the job is “full time, around the clock,” with supervisors expected to be readily available to help constituents. The functions that remain with county government require extensive attention, she said.
Dimitrijevic especially disagreed that the decision on how to structure the board should be made by the Legislature. The decision on how county government should be led and what the role of the board is should be made in Milwaukee, either by the supervisors themselves or by voters who pick the board members every four years. She said that while Sanfelippo wants to go back to 1959, she wants to move county government into the future. She said public sentiment expressed at recent hearings around the county was strongly against Sanfelippo’s proposal. She said, “Who’s asking” for change?
“We don’t need a bill in Madison to tell us what our local government should be like,” she said. “I think this is something that can be handled locally.” She also objected to the decision, at least to this point, by legislative leaders not to have a public hearing on the issue in Milwaukee County.
Sanfelippo said the board had had many chances to change the way it and the county as a whole are run and had not made meaningful steps. He pointed to the long-vacant former freeway land that passes near the Bradley Center downtown as an example of how ineffective and cumbersome county operations are. He said board members were telling the public, “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, trust us this time,” when they weren’t intending to make serious change.
Dimitrijevic said, “This is a new day for the county board,” with many newer, younger members, and changes will be made. “We’re trying to get on the right track,” she said.
There was no meeting of the minds between the two. But there was a lively, well-spoken exchange of their views, without rancor or personal jibes. Think of that alone as a positive step toward informing the public about the merits of the issue. If you want to join in that step, you can watch the video of the session by clicking here.
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