The legislative process isn’t what it used to be. Imagine a legislative committee that passes bills they haven’t seen -- where moving items through the legislature by a vote is considered a learning process. There is no need to investigate, to compare alternatives, to identify policy problems, or to propose solutions. Heck, there’s no need to know what or who for which one has entered a contract. Some cynics out there will say this already happens in government, but did you know this just happened last week on the Milwaukee County Board? Yes, they passed a bill in order to see what’s in it.
Last week, the Parks, Energy, and Environment Committee passed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) -- sponsored by Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic and Supervisor Theo Lipscomb -- that they didn’t investigate or even see. When asked by a committee member for copy of the MoU, Lipscomb answered, “I only have one copy of it. It’s in my own file. I do have an example of Cleveland [MoU].”
If only this were Cleveland; and if only Lipscomb had the copy on file.
A recent open records request shows an email exchange between County Executive spokesperson Brendan Conway and Supervisor Lipscomb. Conway asked Lipscomb to forward him a copy of the MoU. And Lipscomb’s answer? “I’ll certainly do that as soon as I have a finalized version.”
In a phone interview, I asked Lipscomb if the MoU had existed at the time Supervisors voted it through the Parks Committee. He suggested that the resolution had laid out an adequate foundation until a specific MoU for Milwaukee was made available. Our open records request shows that the MoU was issued to supervisors three days after they had passed it through the committee.
Lipscomb says he considers the vote to pass an item through committee more like a dating process, not marriage. “We’re either going to learn something from our participation or we’re not. If we’re not, then I’d expect we would withdraw.”
However, the purpose of legislative committees is to gather and evaluate information. When committees approve items for the body, the legislature sees it as an informed recommendation. If supervisors are voting on items they haven’t seen or don’t exist, it burdens the board with investigative duties for which they're not equipped.
In the world of politics, many critical issues essentially boil down to two questions: what is the source of funding and who’s getting paid?
A pertinent question raised in the Parks, Energy, and Environment Committee was how the ECC had planned to raise funds to retrofit potentially 400 buildings in Milwaukee County. Supervisor Joe Sanfelippo grilled local labor leaders representing the ECC -- Sheila Cochran and Pam Fendt -- about a key policy initiative advocated by their national website using an excise tax on electric utility bills to raise funds for green building retrofits. (Footnote comment: the ECC has since scrubed their national website that advocated an excise tax as a key funding mechanism) Fendt had distanced herself from the idea saying, “That’s not anything that the Milwaukee Emerald City Collaborative is looking at now.”
Sanfelippo wasn't about to back off. “I’m going to be blunt here . . . I think we’re being sold a ruse bill of goods because if you take a look at the [ECC] website, there is probably less than 2% dedicated to energy conservation and strategies you would normally consider as green initiative,” Sanfelippo said. “When you read the title of this resolution, on the surface it looks like we’re seeing energy conservation ideas; but the Emerald Cities website is pretty much 100% devoted to organizing labor.”
Supervisor Sanfelippo was referring to the ECC board of directors that reads off as the who’s who of labor. The chairman of their board is Gerry Hudson, the vice-president of SEIU. Other board members include leaders and liaisons to the AFL-CIO, UAP, LIUNA, and IBEW.
The Milwaukee branch of the ECC sent Sheila Cochran (Milwaukee Area Labor Council) and Pam Fendt (Laborers’ International Union of North America) to put the best face on their organization, making the case for mutual participation.
If the ECC wants to present itself as a green labor organization aiming to redistribute “social surplus” for social justice, they certainly have that right. But supervisors owe it to their constituency to know what they’re getting into -- to function properly by making informed decisions. The last thing the county needs is another scandal.