Abele seeks new powers from state lawmakers amid disputes over parking meters, appointee pay

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele is asking state lawmakers to give him broad powers and settle recent disputes over paid parking meters and appointee pay, a move one of his top critics calls "shameful."

Four lawmakers -- two Democrats from Milwaukee and two Republicans -- have introduced the bill Abele is pushing for in the waning days of the legislative session. Abele said the legislation represents the wishes of the 11 county executives across Wisconsin, though some of them told FOX6 News they aren't supporting the bill.

Abele said the measure would make Milwaukee County government more efficient, defending himself for going to the Legislature to seek new powers.

"If people are looking for some Dr. No secret plot that eventually results in a giant fortress emerging from Lake Michigan, they're going to be disappointed," Abele said, characterizing the bill as "pretty wonky."

The wide-ranging legislation would give Abele the ability to regulate "parking areas," meaning he could install parking meters at parks or the lakefront that he says are necessary to plug a budget hole. Amid protests, some on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors are seeking to block the meters but have not said how the county would make up an estimated $800,000 in lost revenue.

Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors

Under another provision, Abele would get the sole authority over the compensation, fringe benefits, hiring, creation of positions and pay ranges of county workers.

The move comes less than a year after the county board slashes the salaries of Abele's top appointees. In the wake of the decision, at least three appointees left the county.  Two of them -- former budget director Steve Kreklow and former director of total rewards Matthew Hancheck -- wrote that the board's actions played a role, according to resignation letters obtained by FOX6.

County Board Chairman Theo Lipscomb blasted Abele's proposal as "completely undemocratic."

Theo Lipscomb

He said he was concerned about a provision that the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau says would allow a county executive's action to prevail whenever there's a conflict between the executive and the board.

"You never saw a press conference or a press release about it, and it tells you that even he's ashamed of this, and he should be," Lipscomb said.

Abele said the bill came out of meetings with the 11 county executives across Wisconsin. He said he led the group's efforts.

"We made sure that we took out anything that anyone was uncomfortable with, because I didn't want that," Abele said.

However, two of the three county executives contacted for this story said they were not supporting the bill.

Fond du Lac County Executive Allen Buechel said he was not committed and called the legislation "a work in process." Buechel agreed that state law should be updated to better outline which powers are reserved for the board and which belong to the county executive.

Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave was "not taking a stand on this bill," said M.T. Boyle, Delagrave's chief of staff.

Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow will support the bill during the committee process, said Nicole Armendariz, a spokeswoman. Farrow was mostly interested in the bill because it would allow counties to do two-year budgets -- like the state -- instead of the current one-year budget requirement, she said.

Dane County has registered against the bill, according to online ethics records. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi's spokeswoman didn't return phone and email messages seeking comment.

"This is why it's being fast-tracked. This is why he's been hiding it. He's not proud of this, and it does not have support," Lipscomb said.

Abele said he would "absolutely" be OK with the bill if he was a member of the Milwaukee County Board.

"Put it this way -- if it passes, I hope no one's disappointed that the world doesn't fall apart," he said.

The bill has bipartisan authors in both the Assembly and Senate. Sens. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, have introduced the Senate version, while Reps. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, and Jason Fields, D-Milwaukee, have done so in the Assembly.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel, chairman of the Senate's government operations committee, plans to hold a public hearing on the bill this year, said Ethan Hollenberger, a spokesman for Stroebel.

State Rep. Rob Hutton, chairman of the Assembly's government accountability and oversight committee, has not decided whether to hold a hearing, Hutton's office said.