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.