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Editorial: Reform proposal just fool’s gold

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic unveils her proposal for Milwaukee County government reform Thursday at the Washington Park Senior Center in Milwaukee. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

The first question from the audience at the Milwaukee County Board’s Thursday listening session should have been: “Do you take us for fools?”

Facing that one question, County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic would have been forced to confront the staggering duplicity in her strategy to fight a state Assembly bill calling for Milwaukee County government reform. She would have had to explain her sudden about-face Thursday when she proposed a watered-down version of the same bill.

That question would have exposed the actors on the meeting stage for what they really are: politicians performing a desperate play to save their hides.

The threat comes from state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, a former board member. He has proposed a bill of sweeping reform for Milwaukee County government.

The bill would reduce supervisors’ terms from four to two years, remove pension and health care benefits not required by law and clarify the roles of the board and the county executive. It also would, through a county referendum, ask voters whether 17 of the 18 supervisors’ pay should be capped at the county’s average per capita income of about $24,000 and the chairperson’s capped at 150 percent of a supervisor’s pay.

Supervisors now make $50,679.20 per year, and Dimitrijevic makes $71,412.22.

The bill offered Dimitrijevic an opportunity to save what she has acknowledged is a county government in need of reform. Instead, she chose to save face.

Her clumsy opposition to the bill proved that, even if Sanfelippo’s proposal is dead wrong, there is a leadership void at the head of the County Board’s table.

Dimitrijevic insisted reform must come from Milwaukee County residents, not a group of lawmakers in Madison. She proposed “OUR Milwaukee County” listening sessions to find out exactly what the constituents want.

And, like entries in a log of wasted time, the county’s two-month procession of reform-related press releases recorded the board’s dysfunction and inefficiency.

The Feb. 8 press release enthusiastically announced “a series of town hall meetings in all 18 Supervisory districts throughout the months of February and March …”

Dimitrijevic’s board never came close to fulfilling that promise, nor did she even get her own district’s session on the calendar. Thursday’s meeting, 18 days after the self-imposed deadline, marked the halfway point in district sessions.

On April 10, Dimitrijevic appeared before an Assembly committee to oppose the bill. She offered no alternative but stressed the importance of local reform through the listening sessions.

Eight days later, having conducted only one more listening session in the interim, she announced her counterproposal, which would, among other things, cut salaries by the more palatable to board members 20 percent. Comments attributed to Dimitrijevic in Thursday’s press release trumpeted her achievement: “This comprehensive package is the kind of bold reform our constituents asked for during the ‘OUR Milwaukee County’ sessions and various town hall meetings across the County.”

Boy, that sure is bold.

Bold because Dimitrijevic assumes no one will notice she made her proposal with less than half of the “OUR Milwaukee County” sessions complete. Bold because she so obviously believes she can fool people into thinking she would have made the proposal even without the pending state bill.

That first question Thursday would have been a fair one. But it would have been doomed to elicit a response riddled with Dimitrijevic’s empty rhetoric about the importance of constituents’ opinions.

But really, the truth is as short as it is politically damning. The most honest answer to that first question is: “Yes.”

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