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Changes Could Include High Turnover on Milwaukee County Board

There's already a proposal to hold meetings at night, following voters' decision Tuesday to, in effect, create a part time County Board.

The referendum would cut supervisors’ salaries in half to $24,000 per year and eliminate their health and pension benefits. The changes will take effect with the 2016 elections.

The results of Tuesday’s referendum did not surprise Rob Henken. He’s president of the government watchdog group Public Policy Forum. It released a report on the Board’s activities in 2010. Henken says the study exposed alarming trends which resonated with voters.

“County governments in other parts of the state did not appear to function with the same degree of acrimony and contentiousness and personal animosity, as we have seen in Milwaukee County for many, many years. It dates back prior to the current county executive and even the former county executive who’s now the governor,” Henken says.

Henken predicts the board will change in several ways. For one, when the salary of supervisors is lower with no benefits, he says those running for the office will likely have other jobs.

Dorothy Dean served as supervisor in the 1970s, while the job was still part-time. She says many supervisors were either tavern owners or attorneys, and it led to lopsided handling of issues.

“Because there were so many attorneys on the board, things that pertained to the courts always got preferential treatment, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. You need to have people who are more objective,” Dean says.

Dean foresees a slew of current board members deciding not to seek re-election in 2016. Supervisor Mark Borkowski has already announced his retirement, after this term. He calls the job a pressure cooker, yet thinks many people would chomp at the bit to replace him and other board members.

“I think there will be plenty of candidates, because I think there’s a will to want to serve and to get into public life, but the quality of candidates remains to be seen. If you don’t have health insurance, then you must have a spouse or somebody that has health insurance or you must have a job that has health insurance, and then you’re looking at your time commitment,” Borkowski says.

Borkowski says he would find it hard to serve constituents, as well as hold down another job. What could make things easier is, if the board holds its meetings at night, according to Supervisor Deanna Alexander. She supported Tuesday’s referendum and has already recommended the board convert to an evening schedule. Alexander hopes the board will hold some night meetings by the end of the year.

“There are a lot of people out there who would be more involved in their government and pay more attention and provide more personal testimony on how the choices we make affect them, their families and their businesses, if they could actually attend our meetings. Right now, during the day most people are at work when we hold meetings that allow public comments,” Alexander says.

Unlike some of her colleagues, Alexander says she plans to seek a second term in 2016. She thinks there are plenty of people who could make a part-time supervisory position work, even in the state’s largest county.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.