By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 15, 2014 at 10:57 AM Photography: Molly Snyder

Though we've chatted with Chris Abele before, last week he sat down with us for the first Milwaukee Talks since he became county executive in 2011.

In a question and answer session that lasted exactly an hour, Abele discussed his wins and frustrations as county executive. He talked transit, Downtown development and his relationships with the county board, the sheriff, the mayor of Milwaukee and the governor.

I also asked him about the "The Calling," of course.

Enjoy this latest Milwaukee Talks with Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. Let’s talk a bit about the status of the operator of MCTS. I know that that’s been blocked at the moment. Where do things stand?

Chris Abele: The quick background is, and I’m sure most of your readers know, Milwaukee County operates a transit system, and bus service, for probably the last 12, 13, 14 years, every year, bus service has declined. Either routes have been cut or been made less frequent. Fares have been raised.

One of the interesting things about this part of the County is we don’t directly manage it. We actually contract out with this nonprofit. MCTS is a separate group. It got pulled in-house in ‘76 into the County, and it’s been the same group ever since. I had been concerned about the relative efficiency of management, some contracts that were mismanaged, and this was written about, there was one in particular that caused an extra $8 million. That’s frustrating to see when we had this tight budget. I’m doing everything I can to restore services.

I asked when the last time the County had actually done a competitive bid, and I mean really aggressively sought out proposals. While it has been put up for bid before, at least the last couple of times, nobody else had submitted a proposal.

OMC: So sort of a done deal.

CA: Yeah. You wonder how seriously people wanted to see competitive bids. In any event, we put it out, and we had five companies submit proposals, including the current MCTS.

The reason I was excited about the one that was selected primarily was a number of things, but it would have meant, in a five-year contract, $15 million a year more in service. To put that in perspective, without a dime more in tax dollars, we would wipe out probably the last 12 years of cuts in service and go all the way back up to … more routes, lower fare. I mean you could do a lot of different things, but we would have that much more service without having to pay more and for five years and a contract that protects the County a lot more, like the current one does. When the current Board, the supervisors essentially threw out the process, obviously I was frustrated, but I still want to get better service, so the sooner we can get out an RFP, which is my strong preference, again, the better.

The issue now is the County Board is in a number of different places. There are some people on the Board, including the chairwoman, who want to do another RFP as soon as possible. Supervisor (Michael) Mayo had an editorial in the Journal saying, "Let’s do another RFP as soon as possible." Then you have other supervisors who want to take it in-house so the County would run Transit. Then there is a couple of supervisors who are interested in this hybrid idea where we do some and then we’d outsource the other. It’s not entirely clear to me.

But like all legislative bodies, the problem here is nobody has authority as an individual. They only have authority as a body. I need some kind of clarity from the group, "Hey, pick a lane." Honestly, I’ll tell you, I worry about in-housing because I just … It’s safe to say I don’t think I could provide 15 million a year more in service doing that.

OMC: Is that going backwards, in a sense? Isn’t there a reason that County decided not to do it in-house? Is there expertise within the County to run a transit system?

CA: Yeah, that would be my sense. If you look around, and we’ve asked with the Federal Transit Administration and others if they know of any municipality that has gone in that direction, brought it back in-house. There may be some, but we couldn’t find examples. Generally, more people are doing what we are trying to do, which is put it out for bid and just see if we can get good value.

To me, it’s not about privatization or not. It’s about efficiency. My goal is to get the best value for the people who put me in office whatever the service is the best way I can. In the case of, say, Family Care, when I got to Milwaukee County three years ago ... we managed Family Care for Milwaukee. Now, we manage it for eight counties. We administer it, and presumably, it’s because we do a good job at it.

My feeling is just however we can get the most effective value and service for your dollar, that’s the way to do it, not privatize for its own sake. But in this case, the opportunity to do more is compelling, and importantly, Transit has such a big impact on economic development, 151,000 riders every day, about 43,000 for MATC, 19,000 for UWM, about 40,000, that’s just every day going to work. If we could add more service and lower, to provide more access and more frequent routes, get people maybe some access to jobs in Waukesha and went back and forth, and there used to be more of that, I would love to do it.

OMC: Was part of the discussion in the last RFP better connections to neighboring counties?

CA: Yeah.

OMC: Because that’s been an issue.

CA: Absolutely, yeah, it is. If you privatize, the County still has the final say on what routes are and what the fares are, so it’s not like some company can come in and just jack up fares. The County Board would still have sign-off on that, as they should. It’s just that there’s a lot of companies that are very good at doing this that do this for hundreds of cities around the country, around the world, and they have a lot of efficiencies, and they’re good at it.

OMC: That presumably is where that $15 million comes from (and) that MCTS presumably says they can’t do.

CA: It’s in administration, yeah, and the way we wrote the contract, we weren’t simply trying to say to potential bidders, "Save us money so then we can bring it back to the house as it were." We said, "Whatever you can save we want to plow back into more service."

That’s why I was excited about the contract. But obviously, for the time being, I would like some clarity from the supervisors about one track because right now, I have to, as the executive, I have to prepare for all possibilities. Just doing that is costing a lot of money, and it’s a lot of people’s time. The sooner we get a final answer here, I think, the sooner we’ll be able to be able to start providing more service. I think the RFP is the clear way to go, but we’ll see what happens.

OMC: What did MCTS’ bid look like? Did they basically say, "We would just keep doing the same thing?" Because they’re in a tricky situation -- if they say they can do better, then why aren’t they?

CA: Yeah, right. That was my thought from a distance, too. I suppose, just to be clear, because it’s been speculated otherwise, when we contract things out, elected officials should be as far as possible from the process of selecting vendors, which is why we had a panel that evaluated all the submissions and proposals. I didn’t know who was on the panel, and I shouldn’t know. I didn’t know who was bidding. I had never heard of MV before this, but that’s the point. That’s how it should be. Whether it’s MV that wins next time or whatever company, the goal is just better service. But I think, just to clarify, I have no particular set goal in mind other than as much bus service as I can get for you for the dollar.

OMC: What’s your position on the streetcar?

CA: What I hope is that the streetcar gets built in a way that leverages what our bus service is. I’ve seen some interesting ideas about, depending on how the development of and the timing of The Couture, maybe moving a spur down that way, which I think would be great because you’re talking about where thousands of people are going to be working in, so there’s going to be more traffic down there and certainly better access to the lakefront.

I also know that the money that the City’s got to use, because we had some of this too at County, it’s federal money and it’s limited it. It is not the case that we can use it for anything we want, say, potholes or crime or other things that have been tossed around. I mean everybody wants to lower crime, everybody wants to address potholes, but there’s limits on how you can use it.

I’ve never quite understood the white hot antipathy some people seem to feel towards the streetcar. It’s federal transportation money. There is a good argument in most cities of any scale around the country that have something like this, some kind of light rail, seemed to like it.

OMC: Has the City talked to the County or to MCTS in any way to bring you all to the table on how the streetcar ties into a bigger vision ... how it links to (MCTS routes)?

CA: Sure, yeah. I know that the City obviously has an interest in coordinating that service with us. We work with the City on a lot of things, including this, and I should say for the record too that when I’ve spent time in Madison advocating for our legislature to restore funding for Transit, the Mayor has been there to help. The City doesn’t run Transit, we do, but he knows, "Hey, but this impacts all of us."

I think you’re absolutely right. I think we, as a group of elected leaders of publicly funded institutions around here, are a lot more effective when we work together than if we look for ways to argue about things. My feeling about the streetcar, I think it’s one of these things, I think it’s something that could be fantastic.

I have a feeling that … I’ve seen a lot of light rail installations in other cities, and you’ve probably read some of this stuff too, where even places that have initially opposed it, usually by the third or fourth year anyway, there’s at least as many people who like it, and by the fifth or sixth year, the only question you’re getting is, "Who gets the next stop and when can we expand it?" Houston, I think, is a good model of that.

OMC: Have you found working with Mayor Barrett to be beneficial to the city?

CA: That’s a really good question. I actually think that’s one of the most important issues that touches probably every public policy question you’re going to ask me about. Partisanship in this country now is about as high as it’s been in our certainly generation. We’ve gone up and down in ways in the history of this country, but we are … There is a reason Congress has a, what, 9 percent approval rating. It’s because of both sides, I mean nobody sees anything other than arguing, finger-pointing who’s the enemy, who’s the bad guy, who we should be angry at, as opposed to look, let’s start with we’re all citizens of a great country, and for all our flaws, the ideals of the country are incredible.

I’ve worked hard, maybe not always successfully, but I’ve worked hard to have as good a relationship as I can with anybody of any party. I’ve got a great relationship with the governor. A lot of his staff, a lot of Republicans in the legislature I’ve got a great relationship, and I’ve long been a supporter of Mayor Barrett. I didn’t sign the recall. I did lend the mayor my campaign office when he was running against the governor. I like to talk about what I’m for, not what I’m against. I just feel like we’re able to get a lot more done when we’re looking for solutions, not enemies.

We’ve had some success. I mean, this Behavioral Health Division Bill, which has passed in the state legislature, was 122 to 1. With one exception, every single Republican and every single Democrat agreed and wasn’t thinking about politics or who wins or loses or who gets credit. They were just thinking about we need to do better for the people we’re serving. We’ve been lucky enough to have a few of those. Yeah, I have an easy time working with the Mayor. He’s got a lot of talented people in his office. I’ve had an easy time working with the Governor.

It’s OK to work with people … You don’t have to agree with people on everything to work with them. More importantly, I don’t have a compelling need to hate people who disagree with me, which seems to make a lot of media, unfortunately.

OMC: What’s been interesting, too, is the fact that you’ve worked well with both sides has also been unpopular with other sides. (Sen.) Luther Olsen in Madison, for example, is having trouble with Republicans because he’s actually willing to work together, to get along. Has that been an issue for you?

CA: I’m pretty open with people about how I feel about issues. I’d say fiscally, I’m pretty conservative, and by that, I don’t mean blow up government. What I mean is government is lean, efficient, and as much of your money is going towards services as possible and as little towards debt. To that end, in the last three years, we’ve lowered our debt. We’ve dramatically lowered the deficit.

Three years after I got elected, Milwaukee County has a higher credit rating than the City of Milwaukee. I’ll bet four years ago, if you had asked, with the way people were thinking about the County, if that was going to happen, people would say, "You’re crazy."

But socially, I mean I’m pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, pro-same-day registration, and I’ve been an active supporter on all of those things, but none of it, more importantly, is about party. It’s just that’s how I feel.

OMC: I wanted to get your dream vision, with the reality that we know from transportation in the County, what would it look like if you could have anything you wanted?

CA: This is my dream vision for most services we provide, but ideally, as much access, as cheap, and as frequent for as many people in the community as we can so that anybody who needs transportation to work can get it, to education can get it.

I said before we have 151,000 riders a day, and a huge chunk of those are getting to school and getting to jobs. That’s the area where I would love to focus on an increase. I’d love to connect more areas of need in terms of transportation to jobs to jobs that … to employers that need those workers. There’s real opportunity for improvement.

Ideally, if instead of 151,000 rides a day we are closer to 200, ideally, if on top of that you had, and this is independent of the County but I care about it, I know Uber and Lyft are starting here. I was just in San Francisco, and Uber and Lyft started there just a year and a half ago, and they have, I heard, 6,000 drivers. Anybody who’s tried to get a cab here in Milwaukee knows we could use more options, so that’s something I’d be excited about. But yeah, home run, low fares, clean buses, a system that’s safe, trusted, and a lot of access.

OMC: Do you think that access comes from just more bus routes, more frequent buses?

CA: That’d be part of it.

OMC: How does that look on the ground?

CA: What it looks is that our routes are determined not by throwing darts at the wall but by data around need. We run more worker-employer routes around shift changes, which is where the highest need is. We run the, I mentioned, the UWM 19,000 riders, MATC 43,000, around whatever the right class times. But my charge to management of Transit would be I want your services aligned to the need as closely as possible and changeable and dynamic. Over the course of the day, routes can change based on what the need is. I think clearly, there is an opportunity to improve what we’ve got.

OMC: How close would the $15 million in restored routes, if that were to happen, how much closer does that get us? What’s the breadth of those routes?

CA: It’s huge. I think people would be surprised. When I say for the last 15 years the level of service has been trending down on transit, so routes have been cut, fares have been going up year after year, the biggest drop was a couple of years ago when the state cut our funding, their funding for transit about seven million a year. That was the biggest drop.

The idea that without a single dime more in tax dollars we could add 15 million a year, that is the single biggest increase in the history of the transit system in service, but that almost understates it because it’s not by a little bit. You could undo the cuts of the last 10 years, and it’s 20,000 maybe more rides a day. I think people would see that.

OMC: And it’s the idea that putting that money back in would boost ridership enough to make it viable to continue after the five years … because you said it was in the first five years, right?

CA: Yeah, the first five years, and it’s viable for a couple of reasons. First, the savings that MV or really any of the companies provide basically come from efficiencies in administration. It’s in management. It’s all in management. But when you have that much more service, you have more fare revenue.

Most of the statistics around ridership have to do with people. You lose ridership with, not surprisingly, with fewer routes and also the percentage of on-time routes. If people, if they’re waiting for that 8, they want it there at 8. If two or three times in a row they have to wait an extra minute, you’re going to lose ridership. On-time percentage performance is one of the metrics that we would count in the new contract.

There’s a lot to like about what is possible by going to somebody that does this in hundreds of cities. They all have really great technology. Most of the large companies, even when you do this in 100 cities, you have one I.T. department that nonstop is working on great I.T. not just for their own analytics but for apps for any kind of smartphone you can think of. It’s not a big expensive project for each one system because you’ve got one system that’s pushing it out to all of them.

Then your buying power for commodities, it’s a very commodities-intensive business. Fuel is huge, the amount of fuel we buy. When you can buy with a company that is doing very large-scale buying, you have a lot more leverage that your back office, in terms of legally, your back office in terms of human resource, there are just so many management efficiencies.

Most importantly, the contract we have right now, if MCTS deficits, they’re not responsible for filling in the hole. We are. That’s the way this contract was written, and that’s incredibly unusual and bad unusual. The contract, the new contract with MV, and this is what we would do with any provider, is they are set. There’s benchmarks that we agree on, and if they miss it, they’re on the hook, not us, and that’s the way it should be, protecting the taxpayer.

That’s actually also another theme on things I’ve worked on. There’s a lot of contracts the County is in that, I’ll just say, aren’t as protective of the taxpayer as they should be and these are really long-term, in some cases, overly generous contracts. We’re cleaning that out.

That’s why we centralized procurement, centralized contracts. If you would ask people four years ago, looking at the projections of the public policy format for the County, I think in ’06, they thought Milwaukee County now is going to have a deficit of over $100 million, and then even in ’10 or ’11, they thought this year there was going to be a deficit of $86 million. We had deficit of 14, and I’d say regularly, that’s not OK. I mean I want to do a lot better, but it’s $71 million better than just a few years ago. We’re restoring services.

I’ve got departments like Child Support that, a year after I hired Jim Sullivan, they set all-time records in the history of the department for people they’re serving, and then the next year, they beat those records and won Department of the Year, with less staff. I’ve got a lot of stories like that. Our credit rating is higher than the City of Milwaukee. There is nobody who thought that was going to happen years ago, but that’s because I’m looking for things like finding better value at transit, in the contracts we’re in, seeing if we’re as protected as we should be.

The fun part is I know more about the County certainly now than I did three years ago. I’m getting used to the strange world of the impact that politics has on decision-making, and I’ve worked really hard to try to not get too pulled into either side. Like I said, I’ve got great relationship with the governor, his staff, and a lot of Republicans, and I got a great relationship with the mayor and a lot of Dems and write checks mostly to Dems but also the Republicans but try to stay out of what I’m against based on politics and just what makes sense, what’s pragmatic.

You’ve seen the studies on millennials now, too. I mean probably your audience, I imagine, is mostly … I mean I don’t know what your demographics are, but millennials, more than any other demographic, when they’re asked, "Republican or Democrat?" say, "None of the above." I mean more than any will say "moderate" or "independent." There’s a lot fewer strong likes on either side.

But think about the Congress they’ve grown up looking at. I mean I understand it. They’re not wrong. They want outcomes. They want to see whether the result’s not good enough to tell me I belong to your team. "Don’t tell me I belong to your team. Show me what you got."

Hopefully, that will have some positive ramifications for the party system.

OMC: Is The Couture a sign that the County is going to be considerably more active in Downtown development?

CA: Sure, yeah, I think so. When I got there, there wasn’t really a meaningful Economic Development Department at County. While we’ve gone through some fits and starts, we have an effective now department that works regularly with the City, with the state, with M7, with MAC. There’s a number of projects we’ve worked together on that have had some real results down at the lakefront certainly, but even a common bid system for the Park East.

One of the things that has been a problem in development of Park East is that for a lot of potential development area there, you need a set of approvals from the City and then a set of approvals from the County. Not everybody is clear on what’s what. There was this sense also from developers that, "Well, we feel like somebody would say this is good enough, and then the goal post would recede. The carpet would get pulled out from under us."

The idea is to have a common proposal, and we did this with the City. There’s a five-person panel with some folks from the City and folks from the County that can approve for any developer, "Hey, you get the approval from this group and you’re good, City and County." It’s a little more efficient. We’re going to market it together. We’re working together on marketing, some marketing material. But just in general, the communication is a lot better than it used to be.

OMC: The mayor has said that, and presumably, he is talking about your predecessor, that when the City wants to bring in some development, they're not looking to make money off the sale of the land itself. Part of the problem with the Palomar project in the Park East, he said, was that the County had been looking to actually make a good chunk of change off that land, which he thought undermined that development. Has that philosophy changed?

CA: Yeah, it has. Even the first year I was there, we spent … When we were working together on that Kohl’s proposal, not only were we talking on the County side about giving away the land for a deal of that size. I mean to be clear, not just for anybody, but for a deal of that size, we talked about space at the airport, a thousand free bus passes. I just thought how creative can be … What are the things that we can do that have value that might make a Downtown location more enticing?

That comes out of a different thing we’ve changed, which is this mentality of getting the yes one way or another. Not compromising personal safety or environmental protection or anything like that, but looking for ways to help make a good solution work, and that itself is a bit of a change.

In terms of Downtown development, I was at the press conference for the Bucks. I was sitting there thinking about the idea that a stadium that these guys want to get shovels on the ground with one way or another within a year.

The fact that you’ve got a half-billion dollar NML building, this $140 million Couture, between the projects just that I know of of scale downtown, you’re talking well over a billion dollars’ worth of development, thousands and thousands of jobs. That alone is enough … That’s going to change the unemployment numbers in a good way. I think it’s a hell of a message too to be sending, too. I’d like to see more towers on the skyline, stuff that gets me excited.

OMC: Since the Kohl’s thing went away, has there been a lot of interest in the Park East property, or has the County been sitting on it a bit with the idea of a new arena in mind?

CA: We’ve actually, we’ve had some accepted offers. There has been some development. There hasn’t been anything that scale. We’ve talked about potentially the stadium, but who knows what form that’s going to end up taking? There is also that with the County a lot of development on the county grounds in Tosa. I mean that area is hugely of interest to a lot of developers. There is so much investment going on.

Then elsewhere in the County -- Franklin, Oak Creek -- I think there’s a lot of exciting potential. Obviously, my job is represent the whole county, but I live here in the city. I was very excited to see NML put their stake in the ground with that headquarter building here. But it’s something we can get a lot better at. I’m hoping that when you see shells in the ground for NML and The Couture and at some point a stadium and new Irgens building, that’s going to be momentum we build on and market as much as we can.

OMC: How about on the County Grounds?

CA: Sure. The big developments out there are UWM and their research partnerships, Barry’s (Mandel Group’s project at the Eschweiler buildings). The issues there are, first, you’ve got that Regional Medical Complex, so a bunch of very successful institutions that have grown a lot are still growing and are a little bit somewhat limited in where they can go. Obviously, they have an interest in expanding their footprint. The decisions around you is what goes where are going to be key, obviously. There’s no shortage of interests. But I’d rather have the problem of having to decide which projects are actually going to get built and create jobs than have the problem of how do we get somebody to be interested.

OMC: I wanted to talk a little bit about parks too, about the expansion of beer gardens, which is in our wheelhouse. There’s a new beer garden coming this year.

CA: And potentially a rolling, a mobile beer garden. The idea was there is a partnership, it would be a partnership with Sprecher where they would build essentially a traveling beer garden. You’d have the taps and they could set up wherever. The idea would be moving around over the course of a summer, market where we’re going to be, be there for a couple of weeks, see how things go, and that will inform some of our thinking about where we do more permanent stuff later.

OMC: So there will be three beer gardens now. Are looking at adding more?

CA: Absolutely. Just for the record, I think they’re great. The way these deals are structured, you have an outside investor who is putting in capital investment to, generally speaking, improve a building or facility that is still owned by the County. They’re picking up capital investment that otherwise we’d have to. They’re providing a service and an amenity that wasn’t otherwise there. They’re sharing revenue with the County, which allows us to put it into more programming or catch up on deferred maintenance. I mean it’s a win-win-win.

OMC: That money that comes in from those goes back to, stays in the parks, is that correct?

CA: Yeah, yeah, and anything we can do to generate and grow or earn revenue is something I’m excited to do just because there’s more to put back into parks.

One of the things they’re concerned about, and we’ve talked about this for a long time, is all the deferred maintenance. We own a ton of buildings, the County does, some of which are crucial and important, some of which we don’t use, some of which are very underused or don’t need to use. We’ve gotten much more proactive about assessing all of our building and our space usage and thought, "OK, where do we need to be and where do we not need to be?"

There was a time when Milwaukee County had 11,000 employees. Now we’re going to be probably under 4,000, so we need less of a footprint. Thinking about space planning has gotten a lot more effective and advanced since we built a lot of the buildings we’re in. I mean City Campus, we’ve been there, the County has been there for a while on 27th (Street), but it’s not a place where I think we want to be long term, and there is a lot of potential better uses for that area.

We’ve talked for a long time about the fact that you’ve got Children’s Court out by in Wauwatosa, and you got the rest of the court system downtown. You have the Medical Examiner’s Office downtown, but all the hospitals are out in Tosa. The opportunity to maybe rethink where we locate things is big.

One of the things I’m really excited about though isn’t just that fiscally, we’re in so much better shape than we were a few years ago and that we’ve done it without … at least I haven’t had a tax increase in any budget I’ve proposed, and that’s not because I’m anti-tax per se, but I’m just anti-inefficiency. If I’m going to ask you or anyone else for more revenue, I want to be able to show that you’re going to get more value clearly for it.

On the more value part, the House of Correction years ago, there was no alternative programming. People, inmates came in, and they were walking out by bullhorns at 6:30 or 7 in the morning, and there wasn’t a … Basically, that’s not how you help recidivism. We took it over, and now, in less than a year, hundreds of people have gotten their GEDs, and they’ve gotten job training and interview training. We have volunteer partnerships with the Hunger Task Force. We have work crews for the parks, work crews for highway which saves labor, gives them experience, lowers the cost, and all of this lowers recidivism.

When somebody leaves incarceration having a GED they didn’t have before, having job training and having interview training, the likelihood that they’re going to be coming back is less than it is if they didn’t have anything.

When I said Child Support Services, we’re serving more parents, single parents who are bringing up kids, that’s who we’re serving. We’re collecting not tax dollars. We’re collecting child support that’s owed by somebody who left. But every time we add another person to that list, somebody who’s getting a check, a single parent, we increase the likelihood that those kids are going to stay with the family, that they’re going to stay in school, that they’re going to graduate. All of that adds up.

At the Behavioral Health Division, for all the bad news, and God knows there is a ton to work on, in the last three years, we’ve declined dramatically the number of emergency room visits, which is worst outcome most expensive. We finally got a law changed at the state. For three years, everybody’s known what we need to do at the Mental Health Complex, but it’s been blocked. This is going to allow change that everybody’s wanted for 30 years, and it has happened.

OMC: How has that not moved forward in the past? What’s been blocking it?

CA: I think primarily people who work at the current system, some of them do, are concerned about how … well, it’s changed. I guess an observation I and many before me have made is Milwaukee County is the last place. We are the last place in the country that does the big state-run institutionalized care, where you’ve got people essentially warehoused for decades. We’re past the time where that’s a humane thing.

OMC: That’s an early 20th century model in a lot of ways.

CA: It is. I tell my Democratic friends, "Every blue state in the country already does what I’m trying to do. Dane County does what I’m trying to do, and they’re really good at it. They get better outcomes," and my Republican friends, "So does every red state." This is one of these things that’s probably you just had 122 to 1 vote in the state legislature. Everybody agrees on this. It’s high time, high time. But the fact is I feel good about that’s one of the things we’ve been able to make a change on. I think we’re going to be able to make more of a change with this law.

My long-term goal, as I said in the State of the County, I didn’t run to make an incremental change and a marginal improvement. I ran because I love where I live. One of my biggest peeves is when people complain about something and they don’t at least try to make a difference. My goal is I want to revolutionize what government can be. I want the leanest, most adaptive, nimble, empowering government anywhere. I don’t expect it to be easy. I expect it to be hard. But I expect that if you don’t have those goals, you’ll never hit them.

Here’s the thing. Three years ago, if you were to ask people if we were to have department after department setting all-time records, winning awards, have a credit rating that’s better than the City, the County, a deficit that people thought was going to be 100 million is 15, people, I’m guessing, might have been surprised. To them, I say, "Well, I’ve got a better staff than I’ve ever had. I know more about the County. I have a great relationship with the Mayor and the Governor. Give me another three and stay tuned."

OMC: Speaking of relationships, how would you describe your relationship with the County Board?

CA: There will never be a group that I won’t always try to have the best relationship I can have. There is a lot of good people on the County Board. They want the best for the County. They’re well-intended. I think there’s also the role has been ill-defined, and that’s not the fault of anybody who is there now. There didn’t use to be an elected County Executive in County. It was only 1959 when it was created.

Part of the problem is when they passed that law, they shifted management and executive and administrative authority to the executive, but they didn’t clean up a lot of existing laws, so there is a lot of areas where it’s not as clear as it should be about who is in which role. When I pushed actively for Act 14, the change, one of the observations I made is, hey, when we have 11,000 employees, we are a much bigger county. We had a part-time Board, and they had a staff of one and then three.

Over time, the Board voted to give themselves more benefits, not the public, not the state legislature. The Board made the decision to give themselves more staff, from three to five to seven to 12 to 15 to 19 to 22 to 27 all the way up to 38 full-time staff, which is unheard of. To say it’s the biggest in all 72 counties is an understatement. I mean Dane County has 37 supervisors and they have four staff. Thirty-eight full-time staff is just unheard of. I’m involved with the National Counties Association. People are stunned when I tell them that.
Again, it makes it tricky sometimes to get things done quickly. But my pushing for Act 14 was simply to say, hey, when the County had 11,000 people, a part-time Board and two staff, it also didn’t have giant debt. It didn’t have these accumulating deficits. Things were run reasonably well. It’s not like you can’t run a county with a part-time Board, whatever. Even after Act 14, they still have a bigger staff by far than in any County of all 72, and they still have a big budget.

It’s not because I’m anti-any one Board member. I’m just pro-functional system. But I don’t fault people for being upset at me. Anybody who is doing a job and getting paid one thing for it and then finds out that they’re going to get paid less for it, I’m sympathetic to that. I’d be frustrated anyway as well. But the Board and all of us who are in elected office, our role is to serve you, and I think … The relationship room for improvement, I suppose, is what I put on the report card, but I will keep working on it.

OMC: Has Act 14 changed their role? Are they basically just making less to do the same or is their role that actually changed by that?

CA: I think it also clarifies some things. There was a number of positions and functions that the Board had taken over that this relieves them of. I mean the Office of Community Development, Business Partnerships, the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise used to be under the Board. Audit used to be under the Board. The Comptroller used to be under the Board, all of which, by the way, is very unusual. You won’t find that … Legislatures are supposed to be just that, policy. They are not supposed to be management, so you don’t find departments under the board. Act 14, right after that, they’re moved back (to executive’s purview). There is less reporting (to the board). There are fewer appointments I make that (the board) needs to confirm. The best answer to the question, "Can a part-time board do everything it needs to get done?" (is) we don’t need to speculate. When we were a much bigger County, a part-time board did with less staff and pretty well, so it definitely can be done.

OMC: Would the room for improvement also describe your relationship with the sheriff?

CA: I’d love to have a great relationship with the sheriff. We have some different approaches, I think, to collaboration and working with other people. He’s got great folks in his department. When he ran the House of Correction, when he initially took it over, he got overtime, which was rampant, under control, and he should get credit for that.

I’ll always do what I can, but I guess I say most times I speak publicly, "Hold me accountable. You should hold me accountable." If I say I’m going to do something and I don’t, I expect to be held accountable. I will always work hard. One of the things you should hold me accountable for is having the best relationship I can with anybody. I mean you don’t want any of your elected official to spend energy getting into fights and arguments. You want us to look for solutions. That’s the job. I’ll keep doing that, and I expect to be held accountable for it, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect everybody else to be held accountable.

I can do as much as I want to try and have a good relationship with people, but it’s got to go both ways. No amount of trying is going to get you all the way there. That is something, I think, that you should hold people accountable for.

OMC: What’s been your biggest win so far?

CA: I’m pretty excited about the changes we’ve made at the Behavioral Health Division. That’s where we’re impacting lives. I mean since we took over, there are people who have been in institutions for decades who are now in community-provided settings, so they’re closer to their family. They have frankly not just better treatment but life with a bit more dignity, and they are happy about it. That makes me happy.

The stuff that I get excited about are when our staff, when my department heads are winning awards and departments that just nobody thought were going to win awards, and they’re serving more people, and we’re making a difference, I get excited about it.

When I go to a cabinet meeting and when I first got elected, the very first cabinet meeting I had, it felt a little bit like a wake. People were just … Morale wasn’t great, and people felt a little beaten up. There wasn’t any sense of … Well, there was a sense that we work for the County and people have given up on the County and people don’t know what the County does.

I guess I’ll just say I see so much more pride in the work we do, what we’ve gotten done so far, so much more excitement about what can be done, and there is more of a can-do spirit. We collaborate departments much more than we used to. There were a thousand employees who hadn’t had job evaluations. Everybody gets job evaluations now. Every department has measures that we check month to month, year to year so we track how we do.

Every department knows, and they hear from me all the time, "I want to know who the top five of your counterparts nationally." If it’s Child Support, "Who are the top five? How are they getting done what they get done, and how soon can we be that? Tell me what you need to get there, and I’ll help you get there." It’s exciting to see.

We have a nice stack of things we’ve pulled off that nobody thought we could pull off. It’s the thing where momentum builds a little bit. I also, I feel proud that I’ve been able, at least on a few issues in the state that you saw that Journal story recently about how we’re one of the most partisan states in the country now, that at least a few examples, like this BHD Bill where, for what it’s worth, in the midst of all that, we’ve had almost entirely unanimous bipartisan support for bills. I’ve worked hard to build those relationships and to try, in our hyper-partisan role, be friendly with everybody. I feel good about that.

OMC: What’s on the flip side? What’s been your biggest challenge or maybe frustration?

CA: I suppose I would like to have gotten more done sooner, but that’s always a frustration for me. I get very excited about ideas and what can get done. Again, I’d like to have a better relationship with the Sheriff. I’m trying to think of other things that are frustrating. There are certainly things I’d do differently.

This is my first time in political office, and if the upside for me and advantage for me coming in was having had a lot of experience managing a lot of different types of organizations and a lot of different kinds of budgets and systems, getting used to less the political part, though that’s one issue, but more the way the strange subset of decisions we make gets played out in the public and often like a big soap opera and there is so much … Sometimes it feels maybe wrongly, I don’t know, but there is almost more focus and interest on certain personal conflict and less on what’s the policy and what’s the outcome and what are the different ideas, what the merits of an idea.

As I say, I’m the most unapologetically proud Milwaukeean you’re ever going to meet. I love this place. Nobody can tell me what we can’t do. My friends, when I travel, have long since stopped saying, "Hey, instead of traveling to London all the time, you should move here," or wherever. Now they know. They’ll just say, "Yeah, yeah, we know. We should move to Milwaukee."

OMC: My last question for you, you touched a little bit on, but I’m curious to know if your being County Executive has changed your life in ways you didn’t expect. Have there been surprises, things that you didn’t foresee?

CA: I travel less than I used to for my foundation work. Just with various organizations I’ve worked with, I was all over the place a lot. I suppose the public nature of it is interesting. I’ve got three young girls who, for the time being, with the oldest being five, just about five, they’re unaware of, but yeah, that’s something, I guess, to get used to. But I am not really complaining about it. I guess for the most part, I’m looking for something I don’t like, but I’m having fun with what I do.

OMC: Has it changed your ability to be involved in things like you were before, on boards and philanthropy and things like that?

CA: Yeah. I’m a lot less … I used to be in a lot more nonprofit boards than I am now. I’ve stayed on a few. I think it keeps me connected to some causes that I care about. Particularly, I’m on the Schools That Can Milwaukee board. I think education is something that we can all agree we need to do a better job as a society on. I’m on the Boys & Girls Club of America Board. Milwaukee Film, I just went back on that board, just a great, great organization.

OMC: Were there some things you had to leave behind because of potential conflicts?

CA: Yeah. It’s interesting, I’ve tried to be really careful about, I mean even when I’m making grants to organizations, I have some connection to the County just making sure that, I don’t know, I’m not violating any … Even the appearance of impropriety, I want to avoid. I was on the Art Museum board. I got off of that. They get support, obviously, from the County. The Marcus Center, I used to chair for years, now I’m off that. They get support from the County. Just trying to avoid any appearance of conflict.

OMC: I’m going to sidetrack you for a second. What’s your take on the expansion at the Art Museum? (Note: This discussion took place before Milwaukee Art Museum announced a redesign.)

CA: It’s interesting.

OMC: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on not just the idea but the actual …

CA: The design? I love architecture, and it’s interesting, I was talking to somebody about this the other day. Remember the first design that Mike Cudahy had for Discovery World? It was that architect that he knows, (Jim) McClintock. There was concern about in public at the time. I’ve worked with Mike on a number of things, and I said, "You should have a design contest and maybe get more interest." Then I amended my suggestion and said, "I’ll pay for it. We’ll do a grant for it," and then he did. Jim Shields did what we have right now.

I’ve been a supporter of the Art Museum for a long time. I’ve probably supported a dozen exhibitions. I’ve helped support the new building, and I helped out, what I spent most of my time there, I chaired the Education Committee, and that was the thing I was excited about, getting into more schools.

Design matters to me, and obviously, the Calatrava is an incredible building. The Saarinen is an incredible building. Whatever we do, it’s going to be there for a while. I was curious about the process because when I saw that, there was that recent story about the new building, it was just, at least since the last time I had seen something was different, and I was curious about the process. We’ll see. It sounds like there’s going to be a bit more of a discussion.

OMC: It seems that way because I don’t think the response to the actual design itself had been maybe what they had been expecting.

CA: No. Well, I’ll put it this way. I remember the opening event for the Calatrava, and it was a cold rainy night. When the lights came up, and we just had the dot com crash, so people were not in a great mood, and there’s a lot of people there who had written a lot of checks, and things got so much more expensive, and it’s cold and it’s raining. Then the lights came up on that building, and the wing started slowly opening, and they were playing that … I can’t remember what piece it was. I just remember, I think I was with Betty. I know it was a bunch with Betty Quadracci, and just because we on the Art Museum Board had both made some noise about the budget going bananas, and just thinking, "Yeah, this is pretty special. This is pretty incredible."

Ten years later, sexiest building on the planet, and so in a way, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to say that we owe something to that. We’ve got something special, and it is a landmark. This is a designation, and nobody argues, I mean the Art Museum does have a need for space, no doubt, and all the functional reasons are absolutely valid. But ideally, I don’t think anybody would argue … Well, I’ll put it this way. The easiest way to fund raise to build something big is when you can show a building that you don’t have to tell people is inspiring that they think.

Most people, when they see the Calatrava, you don’t have to say anything. I’ve watched people just standing, walking around the building just looking at all the angles, and it’s just spectacular.

OMC: It’s a tough act to follow.

CA: It is a tough act to follow.

OMC: They’re not in an enviable position to have to come up with something that …

CA: But it’s an important institution, obviously, and certainly I care about that I’m sure I’ll probably end up, as always, doing something.

OMC: All right, there’s one last question that I had not planned on, but while we were talking about the Art Museum, I wanted to ask you what you think of The Calling because it seems to be a never-ending controversy, and that’s …

CA: Oh, the di Suvero? I actually like it, though, and here’s what my opinion, and in terms of placement, that seems to be the big question.

OMC: That seems to be the issue, yes.

CA: My understanding, and what was explained to me, has always been that essentially, it’s meant to represent the sunrise. That’s why you’re looking east over the lake. Rather than compete with the also spectacular Calatrava in the wings, it seemed to me you could make the argument that they both deserve their own unimpeded backdrop of … and I think The Calling, the same sculpture, when you used to look through it, you’d see the lake. I think it had more of an impact that way.

If I had my druthers, I’d probably put it in a similarly high-traffic location but where you could appreciate it with the lake behind it.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.