Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

That old Black magic


And the biggest firing since President Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur is still generating buzz. Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s firing of Parks Director Sue Black inspired another column by Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy. He dispels some of the myths surrounding Black’s firing and comes close to the actual issue.

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.”

Okay, that’s part of it. However, a source close to the situation has told me that Bruce is a little too dismissive of the idea that the Crystal Ridge situation had anything to do with Black’s firing. Crystal Ridge was unfortunately indicative of the type of behavior Murphy described. How much it was the actual catalyst for the decision remains to be discovered.

Murphy also suggests that the firing of Black might be the prelude to more cuts in the Parks Department budget:

At this moment, Abele is probably planning a budget that attempts to wring more efficiencies out of the parks, and he had every reason to expect Broderick and other board members, the Park People and other private support groups, to oppose him and back Black, with her privately urging them on.

Insiders describe Abele as a budget guy who is very influenced by the view of his budget cruncher and Director of Administration Patrick Farley. I’ve also heard that Black suspects Farley was involved in her firing.

All of which suggests the firing was about conflict between a department head who was willing to be a renegade to protect her beloved parks, and a boss who was sick of an employee who undermined his decisions.

Today, Abele announced that Black would be replaced on an interim basis by Jim Keegan, a top aide of Black’s who worked in the parks department for eight years. Odds are the board — and Black’s many supporters — will oppose this nomination. And if Keegan ever does get approved, it’s a safe bet he will enthusiastically endorse any budget cuts Abele proposes for the parks.

While it’s possible Abele is looking for more “efficiencies,” it’s unlikely that Abele is planning on making an cuts to the parks budget. Abele himself told WUWM that he is not planning on cutting the parks budget and that he is going to tackle the problems of deferred maintenance. Abele’s announcement that Black’s firing is not a prelude to cuts in the parks is consistent with his statement when the firing was announced and with what I’m hearing from behind the scenes.

(It also looks like Abele will be proposing another budget without a tax increase.)

Much of the speculation surrounding Black’s firing will probably be answered if the lawsuit by Black against the County goes forward. That’s a big if, given the nature of her appointed position.

From a political point of view, Abele’s big mistake in this matter appears to be believing that this firing could be handled like a typical firing of a department head that would cause at most a collective shrug from the community. However, Black was a very public County department head and as Fox 6 confessed, “She was an enthusiastic face of a department and worked very well with the media.”

Meanwhile, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,  Black says she feels “betrayed.”  

“The betrayal has been heartbreaking,” Black said. “Some level of justice is being pursued.”

“Some level of justice,” presumably means the lawsuit. I’m sure that Black is having some remorse right now over not taking the Chicago job and that’s contributing to the sense of “betrayal.” But she has to realize that she was not a mere civil servant. Black was a political appointee, and that’s not a position for lifetime employment. No matter how well she was doing her job, there was always the very real possibility she could be let go.

Now that a lawsuit is being threatened, it will be harder for the public to get a full explanation in the short term of Black’s firing. The irony is that the reasons behind the firing of a political appointee are usually kept quiet in order to spare the reputations of all parties involved. If Black goes forward with her lawsuit, how much damage will be done to her reputation in court?

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