Republican-proposed civil service changes: a “solution” in need of a problem

Image courtesy One Wisconsin Now
Image courtesy One Wisconsin Now

In yet another case of Wisconsin’s Republicans proposing a “solution” to a problem that doesn’t exist, Republican State Sen. Roger Roth and State Rep. Jim Steineke (pictured, left) have proposed drastic changes to Wisconsin’s civil service laws, which were implemented 110 years ago as a way of removing political partisanship and cronyism from state government.

Republicans have cited an inability to keep hiring on pace with job openings as a reason for the drastic changes to Wisconsin’s civil service laws while conveniently ignoring the severely detrimental impact Act 10 has had on the state’s ability to retain and recruit the “best and brightest” to work in state government. After all, Gov. Walker and Republicans in the Legislature have worked hard since 2010 to portray public employees as enemies to Wisconsin’s taxpayers, so it’s not surprising that the state has had difficulty filling open positions.

Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee has an excellent writeup about the proposed changes to Wisconsin’s civil service laws. Here’s a snippet.

The first step toward killing civil service was included in last summer’s biennial budget, which replaced the Office of State Employment Relations with a new Division of Personnel within DOA, the’s state’s most political department. The head of both that division and the Division of Merit Recruitment and Selection, which administers the civil service exam, are now appointed by the DOA secretary, rather than selected through a competitive civil service exam. They have effectively become political appointees.

Next comes the proposed reform bill, championed by Republican state Sen. Roger Roth and GOP Majority Leader Jim Steineke, which they’ve called “a plan to update Wisconsin’s civil service law.” It’s modeled on the Tennessee law.

The two legislators have offered little or no evidence that current state departments fail to hire the best people for the job or that state departments now provide poor service, which is the essential goal of civil service. Rather they have talked about modernizing the system to be more efficient like the private sector.

They have suggested civil service entrance exams for hiring employees are “flawed,” without explaining how. But the exams were always created by the Division of Merit Recruitment and Selection (now disbanded) in conjunction with departments doing the hiring. Why can’t the tests simply be rewritten, supporters of the system have asked.

Roth and Steineke have suggested applicants are able to “easily manipulate” exams, again without any explanation. But as Troy Bauch, staff representative for AFSCME Council 32 (which represents state employees) puts it, “If there is any problem, why wouldn’t they identify it and remedy it?”

They have suggested the civil service exam will be replaced by a “blindly scored resume process.” But how can someone review a resume without seeing if the applicant has held positions connected to Republican causes or organizations or individuals? “It will be a completely subjective review,” Bauch says. “It’s going to come down to cronyism, nepotism, favoritism, friendships.” If there is nothing to stop the party in power from hiring their friends, that’s what they will do, as American history has proven.

In the old system, Bauch explains, the top-scoring candidates testing for a job at, say, the Columbia correctional system would then be interviewed by an interim panel set up by the prison’s leaders. “It really does bring the best and brightest applicants into the system.”

Under the new system, all applicants for positions in any departments (and state government is huge) would all go through DOA. “The sheer number of applicants coming into one funnel will be huge,” Bauch says. And the politicians at DOA, rather than the experts at various state departments, who know their department’s needs, will make the decisions.

What’s most disconcerting about the proposal put forth by Republicans in the Legislature is the provision that would do away with civil service testing and replace that system with resume reviews. The current system of civil service exams grades each applicant based on their knowledge of the particular job they are applying for, while a resume review won’t provide any of the same information.

Then again, it’s clear that Republican attempts to go to resume reviews instead of civil service exams is just another attempt to fill state jobs with unqualified individuals who happen to be connected to the Republican Party or elected officials – just like Brian Deschane.

Why a fancy new entertainment district around the Milwaukee Bucks’ taxpayer-funded stadium may fail

Earlier this week I highlighted comedian John Oliver’s takedown of the racket that is publicly financed sports stadiums, and yesterday Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee outlined why a fancy entertainment district around the new Bucks arena may end up failing.

The bad news is that all of this development is likely to be cookie-cutter creations based on what generates profits in other cities. If these nine square blocks got developed more slowly and serendipitously as happened on Water Street, there would be 72 different businesses operating and competing with each other rather than one corporate master who has a lock on all the land, and there would be constant change, with different businesses rising and falling, remodeling and tinkering.

The irony of all this is that the city (and county and state) will provide a huge subsidy to the Bucks to create a tinny echo of the most generic parts of other downtowns. Meanwhile little or no subsidy is going to all the hard working, imaginative, ever-changing entrepreneurs of Bay View, Brady Street, Milwaukee Street, the Third Ward, Jefferson Street, Walker’s Point, Center Street and Old World Third Street, all of whom are transforming Milwaukee into an ever-cooler city.

And if any of these entrepreneurs fail, there will be no rescue from the city, but rather a rush by some other business person to fill the gap. Yet, if the huge plan by the Bucks fails or if the arena needs expansion, as inevitably occurs, the team’s billionaire owners will be back to the city, county and state asking for more money, to assure that the same show goes on and on and on.

Bruce Murphy: Will County Pass Another Pension Giveaway?

I’m going to post this without comment for you all to read, digest, and discuss, because it seems like something worth discussing.

Few county officials were more adroit at milking the taxpayers than Tom Zablocki. Zablocki served as county clerk for 20 years, from 1968 to 1988. During his last term, two investigations by the old Milwaukee Journal, in 1986 and 1988, found he worked between 4 and 5 hours a day. Much of his time was spent working on his stamp-collecting hobby. He was also accused of spending time on the job conducting private real estate and legal business.

The voters, not surprisingly, didn’t look kindly on this and he lost his bid for reelection. But the wily Zablocki, who still had friends in the courthouse, later found another way to milk the taxpayers.

In the early 1990s, Milwaukee County officials approved a “buy-back” plan that allowed workers to go back in time and pay for pension contributions they hadn’t made in order to beef up their pensions. Many employees converted seasonal or part-time county stints in college and even high school into additional pension credits by paying pension contributions they had declined to make as young workers.

Zablocki apparently hadn’t made contributions to his pension. But in 2000, he managed to get hired to work for the county as a “program coordinator.” At the time the late F. Thomas Ament was County Executive and the courthouse was rife with cronyism: giving Zablocki another chance meant he could build a much better pension. (Zablocki and Ament both started in county government the same year and served together for 20 years.)

Zablocki used the buyback program to pay for pension contributions during his 20 years as county clerk, and worked as the program coordinator until June 2004 and then retired a wealthy man at age 64. He had only worked 24 years for the county, and hadn’t worked very hard, but was awarded a lump-sum “backdrop” payment of $375,322 in addition to an annual pension payment of $29,309. By now he’s collected at least $640,000 from the taxpayers.

But as it turned out, Zablocki, the consummate courthouse insider, made a mistake. County pension officials determined in 2007 that Zablocki’s buyback of his years as an elected official missed a deadline set in a county ordinance, and his payment was therefore too large under IRS rules. This was one of the revelations that came out in a mini-pension scandal unearthed by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter David Umhoefer, who revealed the existence of the buy-back program.

Some 200 or so buybacks were found to be in violation because employees wrongly bought back pension time using money transferred from their deferred compensation savings account; because the buyback payment exceeded 25 percent of the employee’s annual salary; or because the buyback was made too late.

In reaction, county board members quickly took action. They passed a unanimous resolution in 2007 “encouraging the Milwaukee County Pension Board “to cease any prospective payment of a pension benefit related to a buy in or buy back that has been determined to be in violation of Milwaukee County Ordinance or Federal law and… vigorously pursue recovery of any payments made” to these employees.

Nine of those county supervisors are still serving: Mark Borkowski, Gerry Broderick, Marina Dimitrijevic, Willie Johnson, Jr., Patricia Jursik, Michael Mayo, James (Luigi) Schmitt, John Weishan and Peggy Romo West.

But none of them, apparently ever did anything to assure that the resolution was enforced. “I know I didn’t,” supervisor Borkowski admitted to me last April. “I don’t believe any of my colleagues did.” Nor did the administration of then-County Executive Scott Walker do anything about the problem.

Umhoefer’s story won a Pulitzer Prize. Yet the Journal Sentinel never followed up on the story to make sure the illegal buybacks ended. This is the paper that was asleep when the massive pension scam of 2000-2001 was passed (and reported by yours truly), and now the paper had fallen asleep on its own prize-winning story.

So things stood until last year when the administration of County Executive Chris Abele discovered the situation and was immediately alarmed. Abele’s staff sent letters to some 200 county retirees warning that their monthly pension payments will be reviewed and could be lowered. Abele initially wanted to go after the retirees to collect some $26 million in overpayments and interest that these people illegally collected. But he has since offered a compromise, suggesting the county forego collecting the past overpayment and only take action to see that future overpayments — with an estimated value of $10 million — are not paid.

But board members are outraged that he would dare suggest this. Board chair Dimitrijevic told the Journal Sentinel that Abele’s plan, even with its alterations, is “immoral” She went on to say, “It seems unfair that an employer who made mistakes, now comes back and harms the security of older adults who served the public.”

Needless to say, that’s a direct contradiction to the resolution Dimitrijevic supported in 2007. As for the morality here, what about all the county employees who couldn’t benefit from this legally questionable buy-back option — the height of county cronyism — and therefore have lower pension payments? Is this fair to them?

Murphy’s Law: Did Gov. Walker Have a Secret Email System?

As reported by Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee, a source has indicated an internet/email system was in place in Gov. Walker’s gubernatorial offices to allow his staff to do “off the books” campaign work on government time. Such a system would be remarkably similar (if not identical) to a system in place in Walker’s County Executive office. It’s worth noting that Gov. Walker has not given a straight answer on whether he knew or didn’t know about the system in place in his County Executive office – leaving many to speculate that his unwillingness to issue a flat denial means he did in fact know of the system.

Bruce Murphy’s report that such a system was in place in Gov. Walker’s gubernatorial offices is absolutely unsurprising, because there have been rumors (although unprovable) that such a system was in place and being used by Gov. Walker’s staff.

We now know his county executive office had staff members campaigning on government time and a private email system they used to keep these activities secret, protected from any public records requests. Walker has refused to say whether he knew of or personally used the secret email system, but in some of the emails he appears to be aware of it. So why would he and his staff have changed how they operated once he became governor?

I spoke to a source who was a close observer of the governor’s staff in the state Capitol and who attended numerous meetings with staff. The source describes a system that seemed designed, as the county executive’s office was, to enable staff to do work on government time and evade public records request of any such campaigning, by using personal laptops and gmail accounts.

The source saw “probably half a dozen staff members” who had personal laptops at their desk, including Walker’s personal scheduler Dorothy Moore and his trusted lieutenant Keith Gilkes, both of whom had worked for him at the county. This included gubernatorial staff on the second floor of the East Wing and some in the so-called “Policy Pit” on the first floor below this, where policy analysts for the governor worked.

“When you work for the state you get a state-issued desktop computer. Why would you be working on a laptop?”

The source also says a number of Walker’s staff had private email accounts — all using gmail addresses — by which they communicated with each other. The staff was told, the source says, to always use the gmail address of staff to discuss anything political.

That would be fine if the discussions were off the state clock, but on a weekly basis, the source says, the staff had campaign meetings — not just meetings about campaign scheduling, which would be legal, but about campaign strategy.

What’s absolutely farcical is that while Gov. Walker has issued public statements suggesting he has been more diligent than some past governors about observing the line between campaign work and government work, it would appear his gubernatorial staff have been hard at work blurring that line in such a way as to avoid public oversight.

Murphy’s Law: David Clarke the False Conservative

This is worth a read…

If you’re a numbers-crunching fiscal conservative like Abele, one obvious place to look for cuts is the Sheriff’s Department. In the decade prior to Abele’s election, the sheriff’s  budget had risen 61 percent, far faster than any other county department. It was something of a sacred cow under former county exec Scott Walker, rising steadily while the parks budget stayed flat at 0 percent and county transit declined by 8 percent.

The ironic thing is that Clarke claims to be a conservative and he’s at odds with a fiscal conservative. Clarke’s final 2012 budget spent $4.3 million in overtime, increasing total expenditures to $77.7 million. Yet Clarke essentially declares that as a constitutional officer, he can spend whatever he wants. He’s doesn’t just reject (without explanation) Abele’s detailed run-down of how the department might be more efficiently run, but threatens that Abele will “have to sue me in court” to force Clarke to accept any budget cut. His making this claim, moreover, about a budget that barely cuts overall funding for the sheriff.

Call me a wonk, but I think the fact that Clarke claims the right to spend whatever he wants of the taxpayers money is of considerably more importance than whether he thinks Abele is a little man or has penis envy. This is not Reality TV, but a policy issue with large ramifications for taxpayers. Maybe it’s time the media reported it that way.


Bruce Murphy: The High Cost of the County Board

On Monday I shared my thoughts about the size of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors in an entry that provoked a lively discussion about the merits and drawbacks of downsizing the County Board from the current number of supervisors (18) to some smaller number.

At the time, I noted such a move would result in cost savings, savings that could then be redirected into shoring up Milwaukee County’s innumerable deferred maintenance projects, neglected parks, and shrinking transit system, and yesterday Bruce Murphy from Urban Milwaukee wrote about the big budget of Milwaukee County’s Board of Supervisors, especially in comparison to other county boards that have many more members (emphasis added).

Back in 1989 I did a feature story on Milwaukee county government. I was stunned by what I encountered. Though its 25 county supervisors drew a full-time salary, nearly half worked part-time. There simply wasn’t enough work for so many board members, so they spent much of their time on micro-managing county departments or petty squabbles with each other.

Milwaukee made a token effort to reduce the size of the board, but its 18 members are still far in excess of the average county board nationally, which has about six members. In 2006, I analyzed data from the National Association of Counties which showed that fully 10 percent of all board members in America were located in just one state: Wisconsin. No state had more total board members. Even huge states like New York and California had fewer county supervisors than Wisconsin.

But no county in this state comes close to Milwaukee in taxpayer dollars devoted to the county board. The annual budget for Racine’s county board, counting its 21 supervisors and all staff who serve the board, is $417,000. The annual budget for Dane County, with its 37 county board members and 4.75 full-time staffers, is $873,000. The annual bill for Milwaukee’s 18 supervisors and 56 staff members who serve the board: $6.5 million.

Bruce Murphy offers a possible explanation for Sue Black’s termination

Last week I wrote about Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s decision to fire County Parks Director Sue Black, and at the time it seemed more than a little curious that no concrete reason was given for Black’s termination. It’s notable that Black’s termination came only months after she was reappointed to her position by Abele and reconfirmed by the County Board.

In the comment section of my entry, there was speculation as to possible reasons for Black’s termination, but Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee may have the real reason behind Black’s termination.

So why then was Black fired? Because she is not a team player. Whether at the state or the county, Black would do end runs around the boss to get what she wanted to preserve her beloved parks. That passion has helped bring her — and the parks — many supporters, but it has also made her bosses look bad.

“She was unbelievably dedicated to the parks,” says one state insider. “Super ideas. Tremendous personality.”

But the parks were overseen by the state Department of Natural Resources, which in turn was overseen by a board and the governor. “And once a decision is made, you gotta stick with it. You gotta be part of the team,” the source says.

Black, two state insiders say, would instead go over her bosses’ heads to Gov. Tommy Thompson, who was a friend, and ask for changes in the parks budget that DNR had fashioned. She also cultivated Republican and Democratic legislators and parks support groups, building a power base that she would lobby for changes in the proposed parks budget.

When Scott Hassett took over as DNR director in 2003, he reportedly checked with other department heads at DNR and found widespread resentment of Black for the way she would undercut budget decisions to get more money for the parks — which meant less money for other departments. Black was removed from her position and offered a job handling special projects. The decision earned Hassett a dressing down from legislators, but the Doyle administration didn’t budge on its decision.

Scott Walker, then the Milwaukee County Executive, quickly hired Black to run the county parks. He was probably among the legislators she had cultivated as state parks director, and she was a Thompson protege, and she’d been removed from her prior post by a Democratic appointee after all.

But from the beginning, she made it clear she had a very independent style, as a November 2006 profile of her by Milwaukee Magazine made clear. When asked at the county board confirmation hearings how she would handle a request by Walker to cut the parks budget, she replied, “Mr. Walker knows I’m an advocate for the parks, and I will do what’s best for them.”

Insiders say Black would lobby county board members to overturn cuts in the parks funding in Walker’s budgets. She told the magazine her department was being undermined by budget cuts. She threatened to quit at times to dramatize her opposition to cuts. At one point, Walker’s then chief of staff Tom Nardelli ordered her not to reply to a proposal to provide a dedicated funding source for the parks.

It’s a safe bet Walker didn’t appreciate her efforts to undercut his proposed budgets, but he would have known the blowback that occurred when she was relieved of her state position. Black has always been popular with county board members, business leaders and the 68 different friends groups that support various county parks. Former supervisor Lynne De Bruin, then chair of the parks committee, once called Black a “phenomenally good department head.”

So Walker simply didn’t give Black a raise. For seven straight years there was no merit pay increase for her. After his 2008 reelection, Walker rewarded several department heads with big hikes in pay: Airport Director Barry Bateman got an 11 percent bump, to $136,298; Department of Aging Director Stephanie Sue Stein got 4 percent, to $117,795; and corporation counsel William Domina got 8.3 percent, to $136,298. Black got nothing. It was common knowledge among county insiders that Black was not happy with how she was treated by Walker.

To bolster Murphy’s report, Steve Schultze and Larry Sandler of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are reporting Black was fired because she failed to fully share key information with Abele and the County Board. The report also noted claims that Black at times pushed ahead with plans before her bosses were fully apprised of them and that Black had been the subject of complaints regarding her ability to reverse proposed cuts to her department by rounding up support from county supervisors.

Sue Black fired from position as Milwaukee County Parks Director?

As reported by Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee, Sue Black has apparently been fired from her position as Milwaukee County Parks Director.

Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black has left her job and all signs suggest she was asked to leave. Executive Chris Abele has announced a national search for a new Parks Director to replace Black. Supervisor Gerry Broderick told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he heard Black was fired.

Sources say Black was escorted from her office and that police were there. 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.

As Murphy noted, Black was highly regarded and had a reputation for doing a lot with a parks budget that was constantly being cut. Black won national honors for her work as Milwaukee County Parks Director, and she was also cited as one of Milwaukee’s 10 most effective leaders in a cover story on leadership in the January issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Given that Black’s departure is a personnel matter, we may never know the reason why she left her position as Milwaukee County Parks Director, but it seems pretty clear that her successor will have big shoes to fill.

Political payback is a dish best served cold

Earlier today Bruce Murphy of the “Murphy’s Law” blog over at Urban Milwaukee wrote about the continuing controversy surrounding the delayed confirmation by the County Board of Supervisors of Patrick Farley to a new four-year term as director of the county’s Department of Administrative Services.

What’s most curious about Farley’s delayed appointment is that it came after County Supervisor Jason Haas, a close ally of County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic (pictured, left), abpruptly flip-flopped his vote in favor of confirming Farley and instead voted against confirming Farley. There’s been a lot of speculation as to why Sup. Haas flip-flopped his vote, with some saying he did so at the behest of Board Chair Dimitrijevic, but according to Bruce Murphy Haas emphatically denied that was the case, stating “That’s ridiculous.”

It’s widely thought Farley’s appointment has been delayed by the County Board as “punishment” for Farley’s role in a sting operation that resulted in felony felony criminal charges having been filed against former Supervisor Johnny Thomas, who had been an ally of Dimitrijevic’s, with Dimitrijevic having endorsed Thomas’ failed bid for City of Milwaukee Comptroller.

Dimitrijevic and her allies on the County Board have denied Farley’s delayed appointment is due to his role in the sting operation against Thomas, instead focusing on three areas in which they say Farley has been deficient during his tenure as director of Milwaukee County’s Department of Administrative Services.

First, she noted, Farley’s Department of Administrative Services hasn’t given updates on the Transportation Services budget. But Conway says this is the Department of Transportation’s responsibility.

Second, Dimitrijevic noted, the county board has been waiting for a facilities plan since early in 2011. But Conway says the board didn’t pass any money for such a plan until November, 2011, that the money wasn’t available until January, and Farley has worked as needed on the issue since then.

Third, she noted, Farley needed to provide a progress report on efforts to hire a Sustainability Director for the county. But Conway says the position was just posted in May and anyway, this is the responsibility of the county’s HR Department.

Personally, I’m not buying the argument that Patrick Farley’s delayed confirmation is anything other than a power play by a bloc of the County Board (led by Dimitrijevic) that serves to not only punish Patrick Farley but also to push back against County Executive Chris Abele.

Why I Love The Republican Party!

Because you just can not make these stories up!

1. As many of you know, BloggingBlue went dark yesterday to protest SOPA. Well it turns out that one of the authors of this insane bill, Rep. Lamar Smith (R- Texas), was caught violating his own bill.

Isn’t it funny when a Republican calls for a law against something only for them to get caught doing what the new law punishes? The latest Republican to commit this kind of hypocrisy is Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who happens to be the author of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Jamie Lee Curtis Taete of did some digging to find out if Lamar Smith has been honest when it comes to copyrights. It turns out, he may be guilty of violating one. According to Taete, Smith violated a copyright by using a photograph on his website without crediting the photographer.

2. A Rick Santorum staffer says "It is against God's Will for Women to be president":

Rival presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s Iowa coalitions director, Jamie Johnson, sent out an email saying that children’s lives would be harmed if the nation had a female president. […]

“The question then comes, ‘Is it God’s highest desire, that is, his biblically expressed will, … to have a woman rule the institutions of the family, the church, and the state?’ ” Johnson’s email said.

3. In Virginia, Republican Bob Marshall had this to say:

“The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children,” said Marshall, a Republican.

“In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There’s a special punishment Christians would suggest.”

4. The four times married Rush Limbaugh defends the three time married Newt Gingrich and says Newt is the victim!

LIMBAUGH: I got a great note from a friend of mine. “So Newt wanted an open marriage. BFD. At least he asked his wife for permission instead of cheating on her. That’s a mark of character, in my book. Newt’s a victim. We all are. Ours is the horniest generation.” […] That’s from a good friend of mine, “Newt’s slogan ought to, ‘Hell, yes, I wanted it.’”

(ED Note: Newt was already cheating with Calista when he wanted the open marriage.)

5. Finally, closer to home: Wiggy is amazed that they are prosecuting Brian Pierick since he asked if the underage boy he was trolling for was 18. He is also amazed that Bruce Murphy(amongst a myriad of others) disagrees with him:

Conservative blogger James Wigderson takes issue with the complaint of child enticement, saying it “appears that Pierick had no way of knowing the boy was 17, not 18 or 19 as the boy claimed.” I read it differently, as the boy’s text messages make it clear he was worried about his mother and had to sneak out of his house, among other clues. It’s clear, by the way, that Pierick shared all the details of the back and forth texts with Russell.(Murphy’s words)

It’s also clear that Pierick discovered that the boy did live with his parents and was still in high school. However, Pierick did ask the boy repeatedly if he was over 18, making it clear to the boy that they were not interested in someone younger than 18. The district attorney’s office practically conceded that point when the complaint stated that ignorance of the boy’s actual age was not an excuse.(Wiggys desperate attempt at an excuse)

Wiggy does not stop there he lives by the old saying “when in a hole keep digging” So he does:

I’m certainly not condoning the behavior but I still find it hard to believe that the district attorney is prosecuting this case

Dr. Phil always says, “BUT” means, let me tell you what I really mean. So let me tell you what Wiggy really means. Wiggy is actually “condoning the behavior” , hell they did ask if he was 18 and he said almost 19. Thats good enough if, like Newt’s example above, your horny. Besides these guys are very close to Governor Walker so they can do no wrong! By the way have you heard someone threw a beer on Robin Vos’ head?

How much water are you carrying for the local party when you start defending that? is there a big bonus in it for him? Does that ever wash off?