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Proposed Milwaukee County Board mandates break state laws, counsel says

Memo explains illegality of training, salary rules

By Beth Kevit

The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors’ new reform resolution (PDF) violates two state laws, according to a memo (PDF) from the county’s corporation counsel.

The board voted, 15-3, on Thursday to approve its proposal to change the pay, terms and roles of supervisors and other county employees. Supervisors have said their reform package is superior to a pair of bills proposed in the Legislature that would accomplish many of the same goals.

The county’s reform package mandates supervisors and the county executive go through training on governance, budgeting and ethics, among other topics. If supervisors do not comply, according to the resolution, their salaries would be withheld.

But both the training provision and that which would force supervisors’ salaries to be withheld are illegal, according to a memo sent to Supervisor Theo Lipscomb Sr., chairman of the board’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, and attributed to Kimberly Walker, the county’s corporation counsel.

“We find no statutory basis,” according to the memo, “to create additional qualifications for holding elected county office.”

For the resolution to become law, the board would have to put the provisions into an ordinance.

That, Supervisor Deanna Alexander said, is where supervisors would be stymied. Alexander, vice-chairwoman of the IGR committee, objected to the resolution during discussion Thursday and voted against it.

“The ordinances will not match the resolution,” she said. “They can’t legally.”

Lipscomb said corporation counsel would be involved in writing the ordinance, and he said he is confident the county would not overstep its legal bounds.

“It will be reasonably handled,” he said.

According to the memo, the resolution violates state statutes in Chapter 109, which precludes an employer from withholding wages with few exceptions, and Chapter 103.455, which precludes certain deductions from paychecks.

Walker refused to comment on the memo or violations of state law.

Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic did not respond to multiple requests for comment by deadline Friday afternoon. During Thursday’s meeting, Dimitrijevic said she would work with corporation counsel to ensure the board stays within the law.

Brendan Conway, County Executive Chris Abele’s director of communications, said he trusts corporation counsel’s opinion.

“The County Board,” he said, “just passed a resolution that their own attorneys say is not legal, or parts of it are not legal.”

Supervisor John Weishan Jr., who along with Supervisor Steve Taylor cast the other votes against the resolution, cited training as one reason for his opposition.
He said the legal concern is secondary to his opposition to being mandated to sit through an orientation after 13 years on the board.

“I have other things to be doing than sitting there having someone tell me how a bill becomes a law,” he said. “I already know that.”

Weishan said he trusts corporation counsel’s opinion.

The opinion, though, will be moot when the state passes the bills calling for Milwaukee County reform, Supervisor Mark Borkowski said.

“Yeah, I’m concerned that it’s not legal,” he said, “but I guess I’m not overly concerned because it’s not what’s going to be our law.”

The county, he said, never was going to be able to pass a reform package that would force the state to back off. The state will pass its reform, he said, and trump the county’s resolution.

“I had zero confidence in it,” he said, “and if there’s a chance to have less than zero confidence, that’s where I’m at.”

Alexander said she is disappointed her colleagues did not listen to her objections before approving a resolution with illegal provisions.

“I think that they are very anxious to pass fast legislation,” she said, “and as a result, they’re overstepping the opportunity to pass wise legislation.”

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