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By Dave Umhoefer July 21, 2013

Twists, turns in tale of County Executive Chris Abele and residency rules

In the months-long war of words between local officials and Gov. Scott Walker over ending residency rules for government workers, one episode in the endgame escaped with little notice.

Ten days before Walker signed the 2013-’15 state budget, which included a provision prohibiting local governments from enforcing residency, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to oppose the change.

But Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele declined to back the effort, returning the resolution unsigned, and not until 10 days after Walker approved the budget on June 30.

County supervisors were surprised, saying that Abele had favored the lobbying effort, which dovetailed with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s fight to retain the rules.

This is a case for the Flip-O-Meter.

That’s what we use to determine if a public official has changed position on an issue. An important note: We’re not rating the political or policy merits of any switch. We’re looking at whether the candidate has been consistent.

Walker says residency rules, long opposed by unions, scare off some would-be job applicants. Barrett, who hopes to overturn the state’s action in court, says there’s no shortage of qualified applicants, and that public employees should contribute toward their publicly funded benefits by paying local property taxes.

Where has Abele stood?


March 2011:

In the special election to replace Walker as Milwaukee County Executive, Abele differed on residency rules with opponent Jeff Stone, a Republican state representative.

Asked about legislation being discussed in the Legislature to free Milwaukee teachers, police officers and firefighters from residency rules, Stone said he would vote to lift the rules.

Abele said the rules should stay.

He agreed with Barrett, who raised concerns at the time that Milwaukee could be harmed as Detroit was when public workers left following the lifting of residency.

Hiring from the broadest possible pool of potential employees is desirable, Abele told WISN-TV’s Mike Gousha, but "there’s a reason to be concerned" in the short run about the impact of workers leaving the city.

In the end, state lawmakers did not act on the residency issue.

June 2012:

Abele, at this point in office for more than a year, expressed "mixed feelings" about Milwaukee County’s own residency rules as he defended giving one of his top appointees a four-year waiver on moving into the county under the county’s residency rules.

County Board supervisors said they were blindsided by the waiver that Abele’s administration gave to economic development director Brian Taffora.

July 2012:

When the County Board moved to give itself authority to approve such waivers, Abele vetoed the measure.

He fleshed out his "mixed feelings" on the issue, saying that having the board more involved would make it harder to "hire and retain outstanding employees from across the state and country."

But Abele’s spokesman, Brendan Conway, told a reporter that Abele wasn’t trying to "overthrow" the county’s residency policy.

November 2012:

A month before Taffora resigned rather than face a renomination fight, Abele told WTMJ radio’s John Mercure he was "kind of agnostic" on residency requirements.

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Again, he expressed mixed feelings, decrying "artificial limits" that can harm recruiting, but also saying that Taffora still intended to move to the county and comply with the rule if he could sell his house in Ozaukee County.

February 2013:


Shortly after Walker put a broad provision in the budget blocking municipalities statewide from enforcing residency, Barrett began his pushback campaign.


Abele joined in, doing an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Feb. 21, 2013.


The mayor saw it as a "public indication he had supported our efforts," spokeswoman Jodie Tabak told PolitiFact Wisconsin.


The story did not detail Abele’s reasoning.


June 2013:


With Abele’s apparent blessing, a County Board committee on June 14, 2013 approved the resolution opposing the state move to prohibit local units of government, including Milwaukee County, from requiring residency requirements.

Milwaukee County, as well as all other local units of government, "should retain the right to determine residency restrictions as deemed most effective for each particular community," the resolution stated.

Abele "has no issues with this resolution," his deputy chief of staff, John Zapfel, told the committee before its vote.

Asked by County Supervisor David Cullen if that meant Abele would sign it, Zapfel said: "That is my understanding, correct."

Cullen told us Abele "had a chance to lend his voice to those who were asking Scott Walker to veto it. He chose not to. It was disappointing."

Abele returned the resolution unsigned on July 9, 2013, catching Barrett by surprise, the mayor’s spokeswoman, Jodie Tabak, told us.

The county executive’s message to the County Board did not discuss the merits of Walker’s move; rather, it said he was returning it unsigned because the state budget was complete and the prohibition was taking effect.

We asked Abele why he didn’t sign the resolution after his aide assured supervisors he would.

Abele said Zapfel may not have been given a clear idea of his position.

Abele told us he spoke out in support of retaining residency only in the context of public safety workers in Milwaukee. He said he was responding to the passionate stance taken by political ally Barrett and Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn.

We found no record of Abele parsing the issue that way during the five-month lobbying campaign by Barrett. Walker’s proposal was to eliminate the rules statewide, not just for Milwaukee.

Our rating

Abele’s statements and actions don’t constitute a full flip-flop, in our view. He clearly has some misgivings about residency rules for Milwaukee County government, so leaving the file unsigned is not a major reversal.

Still, his actions and words have been inconsistent, to the point where both his political friends and his frequent foes on the County Board were taken aback by his withdrawal from the fight as the legislative battle drew to a close in June.

Indeed, if Abele had the nuanced position he says he did, it was so closely held that even one of his top aides apparently was completely unaware of it.

The Flip-O-Meter defines a half Flip as a partial change of position or inconsistent statements. That’s what we rate this one.

Our Sources

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Battle lines drawn over Scott Walker’s move to end residency requirements," Feb. 21, 2013

620WTMJ Radio afternoon news, podcast, interview with County Executive Abele,  Nov. 9, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Abele vetoes measure on residency rule exceptions," July 24, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Supervisors irked about residency waiver for economic development chief," June 21, 2012

UpFront, WISN-TV, video of interview with Jeff Stone and Chris Abele, March 28, 2011

County Board Intergovernmental Relations Committee, video of action on resolution opposing state budget action on residency requirements, June 14, 2013 (1:43:00 mark)

Interview and Facebook message exchange with County Executive Chris Abele, July 16, 2013

Interview with Joseph Czarnezki, Milwaukee County Clerk, July 15, 2013

Interview with Jodie Tabak, spokeswoman for Mayor Tom Barrett, July 16, 2013

Interview with County Supervisor David Cullen, July 16, 2013

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Twists, turns in tale of County Executive Chris Abele and residency rules

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