Wednesday, July 8, 2015

O’Donnell Park power play generates legislative fireworks

When the story below was first published in my Milwaukee Magazine column it was intended to be what it will still sound like: a plea for reason in an unreasonable time, for transparency in an increasingly secretive government, and for the democratic process in a state that seemed to be veering toward tyranny.

I haven’t changed the story, but in the past 24 hours the story has acquired a new ending. Therefore I’ve added an epilogue. I’m also adding the following quote as a dedication:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”  ~ Thomas Jefferson

From where I stood on the plaza at O’Donnell Park, the explosions lighting up the sky over the Milwaukee Art Museum were spectacular. When people learn of the stunningly blatant power play that would undermine the democratic process, I believe that the incensed voters of Wisconsin—and Milwaukee in particular—will light up their legislators’ inboxes and phone lines like roman candles.

But it may not play out that way. If it doesn’t, it will be because the people were deliberately kept in the dark as yet another stealthy, anti-democratic amendment was slipped into the governor’s proposed budget bill.

On Friday, as people flocked to Milwaukee’s lakefront legislators approved, without public knowledge or input, an amendment to the budget bill (pages 23 and 24) that would endow the Milwaukee County executive with near absolute power to—among other things—sell public lands and eliminate checks and balances provided by the County Board. It says:

“Repeal the current law provision stating that the county board may only approve or reject the contract as negotiated by the county executive.”

Relating specifically, and only, to O’Donnell Park, the amendment says:

“Modify the current law provision regarding the duties and powers of the county executive in counties with a population of 750,000 or more to authorize the county board to continue to exercise authority related to the acquisition of property with regard to land that is zoned as a park on or after the effective date of the biennial budget act, other than land zoned as a park in the City of Milwaukee that is located within the area west of Lincoln Memorial Drive, south of East Mason Street, east of North Van Buren Street, and north of East Clybourn Avenue.”

It was a coincidence that I spent that same evening at O’Donnell Park. It was no coincidence that the wording of the amendment, once the characteristically opaque legalistic jargon is deciphered, is clearly tailored to allow the Milwaukee County executive to sell O’Donnell Park. It is tailored also to circumvent the will of the County Board, which voted down the controversial sale last December.

If it succeeds, as is likely without public outcry, it also circumvents the will of the people. The evidence was plain to me as I wandered through the sea of cheerful and convivial revelers that spilled across every level of O’Donnell Park.

When I arrived around 6:00 p.m., the park was already filling up. Families and organizations had staked out prime viewing locations. Picnicking groups were encamped all along the parapet facing the museum and the lake. The entire south section of the park, in front of Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, had been literally fenced off for a private party sponsored by U.S. Bank, the primary sponsor of the night’s fireworks.

Casual inquiries revealed how few among the multitude knew that there had been an attempt to sell the park, let alone how breathtakingly close it came to succeeding (the vote opposing the sale was nine opposed, eight in favor). When it was being debated, one of the arguments made in favor of the proposal to sell the park to Northwestern Mutual was how few people used it.

Gesturing widely, a young Hispanic man named Wilbur Monti, who works at the BloodCenter of Wisconsin, told me to “look at all the families. This is more like a park than a business or a garage,” adding, “We need this park. We need more parks.”

I watched vendor Nancy Finch blow bubbles at the park while working at a cart she’s run for 36 years. O’Donnell is one of her regular stations. I asked how business was going. She replied, “It’ll pick up as soon as it gets dark.”

Sure enough, excitement grew as the light dimmed. Glowing eyeglasses and necklaces were donned, light sabers were wielded, many of which were newly purchased from Finch’s cart. The stream of people entering the park became a flood. By the time the first rockets rose above the spreading wings of the Calatrava and burst into cascading flame, the plaza was completely packed. No one was thinking about the fate of the park.

Should the budget bill pass with the current provision regarding the powers of the county executive intact, even the iconic wings of the Calatrava may not be able to protect O’Donnell Park. Following the December vote not to sell to Northwestern Mutual, the Milwaukee Art Museum has been in negotiations with the County Board.

It certainly seems that County Executive Chris Abele would like the sale of O’Donnell to proceed as previously planned. The provision in the budget appears to be designed to let him have his way. The powers that the provision would grant go far beyond one issue, however.

James Goulee, executive director of The Park People of Milwaukee, is pulling no punches. As he said in a statement on Tuesday:

“This past weekend the people of America celebrated our victory over British tyranny. With Independence came the ability to form a representative government—of the people, by the people and for the people. To ensure we wouldn’t again be exposed to tyrannical rule, our forefathers enshrined a system of government with checks and balances to, in fact, represent all the people…Unfortunately, we are now being exposed to a new tyrannical threat.

“Hidden away in the Wisconsin State budget is scheme that would endow Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele with the ability to sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of County assets without review or voting by our elected County Board.

“Public input, as well as checks and balances, are vital at every level of government. The most-distressing concern of The Park People—if this stealth provision is tacked on with the budget—is that we, the people, will lose the right we now have, to oppose the sale of park land and other contractual decisions concerning county governance.”

County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic put it succinctly: "Unilateral control — that is way too much power for one person and I don't care who they are."

As the fireworks reached its deafening climax, I reflected on Independence Day and unilateral power. I couldn’t reconcile the two.


A measure of democracy seems to have been salvaged today. As has been reported, the Senate declined to grant Abele sole authority over the future of O'Donnell Park.” That’s good news and I’m grateful not only for everyone who may have helped light up their legislators but also the many concerned people who worked to get the word out so quickly.

The future of O’Donnell Park is far from certain, however. I offer my photographs of the park and the many people who enjoy it as testimony to its value. To see more of them, go to my flickr album.

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