Sue Black, New State Parks Director, Is Governor Ducey's Scott Walker Connection

If Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker gets himself elected president next year, he might remember that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey hired one of his friends.

It's possible that the connection between Scott Walker and Sue Black — the new State Parks Department  executive director — is a key reason Ducey appointed Black to the job in February.

But another reason is that Black may simply be the best person for the job.

Ducey has put several of his own picks into leadership positions since taking office in January, and Black is one of them. She replaced Bryan Martyn, whose appointment in 2012 was the subject of a critical article by Craig Harris of the Arizona Republic. Harris noted he was among the least qualified of 201 candidates for the job who were considered during a three-month search. Martyn is a strong support of the Florence Copper Project — and so is former Governor Jan Brewer, who hired him, leading to speculation that Martyn's hire was purely political.

Black didn't beat out anyone for her job, which was never posted as being vacant. Black tells New Times she "assumes" Scott Walker or his "people" contacted the governor's office about her, but declined to give more details.

While Martyn's appointment had to be confirmed by the parks board, Black's didn't. A 2012 "personnel reform" law made it easier for Arizona's governor to install — or fire — the heads of several state departments. The liberal Blog for Arizona called the reform law "another ALEC-inspired power grab by the governor." Brewer, at the time, said the law would "increase State productivity, eliminate bureaucratic red tape and, ultimately, save our taxpayers money."

(Candidates still have to be confirmed by the State Senate, as Black was.)

Martyn had been doing a decent job when he was canned by Ducey, it seems. One fan, Dave Eske of Chandler, wrote a letter to the Republic in February headlined, "Why did Ducey ditch the state parks guy?" He noted that Martyn is a "decorated war veteran" (he's an Apache helicopter pilot), that park revenues for 2015 "are on track to surpass record revenues of 2014," and that state parks had record attendance in 2014.

Yet Martyn did have several stains on his record. As mentioned, his qualifications were lacking — he hadn't run a large parks department for 10 years, as the old system required of parks directors. While director, he made the poor decision to hire his three sons, relying on the advice of a state administrator who later resigned. Martyn himself received two weeks unpaid suspension for running afoul of the state's nepotism law, but was allowed to stay in his job. Martyn was also convicted of disorderly conduct after his appointment for shoving a man who opposed his stance on the Florence mine. (The actual incident took place before he was director.)

Reached for comment, Martyn tells New Times, "I'm proud of the success that we enjoyed during my time as director with record revenues and record attendance. I hope the new director will enjoy a record of success."

Black's carrying some baggage into the office, but no scandals like Martyn's. She has a solid record of success in managing parks.

She worked for five years in the 1990s as operations chief for the agency she now helms. She then left Arizona for Wisconsin, spending six years as the director of that state's park system, and eight years as head of the Milwaukee County Parks Department.

Black is known for winning awards and coming up with creative solutions. But her leadership prowess combined with her love of parks is also her weakness. She was fired by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele in 2012 because of alleged communication problems.

Black told the Wisconsin press that she felt betrayed by the action, saying, "I find it unbelievable to have been unceremoniously bounced from a calling I cherish."

Asked again if Walker had anything to do with her getting the job, she said, "I would assume yes."

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Abele declined to go into detail about his decision, but told reporters at the time, "You can probably infer I think we can improve performance."

Black was well-known and popular in Wisconsin, the subject of countless news articles. Speculation in the media was rampant about the reasons for her termination. The consensus, well-detailed by veteran columnist Bruce Murphy, seems to be that Black ticks off her bosses by running around them to get what park systems need.

Black became acquainted with Scott Walker while he was in the Wisconsin Legislature, and he hired her to run the Milwaukee parks system when he became county executive.

But their relationship was never exactly warm, according to Murphy: "...From the beginning, she made it clear she had a very independent style, as a November 2006 profile of her by Milwaukee Magazine made clear. When asked at the county board confirmation hearings how she would handle a request by Walker to cut the parks budget, she replied, 'Mr. Walker knows I’m an advocate for the parks, and I will do what’s best for them.'"

Other media reports state that Walker had Black pen a resignation letter, then kept it on file in case he wanted to get rid of her quickly. It's unclear whether Walker did that for any other department heads, but keeping such letters with the intent of conveniently firing subordinates is not all that uncommon for some public officials.

In any case, Walker and Black remained friendly, it seems. While governor of Wisconsin in 2013, he tweeted, "Congrats to my friend Sue Black in her new role as owner of the #MilwaukeeWave. #MISL"

Walker was referring to her purchase of the Milwaukee Wave soccer team. It's unclear what she paid for team, if anything. She made about $140,000 a year at her Milwaukee parks job. She borrowed $100,000 to fund the team's operations, then got sued when she allegedly failed to meet repayment terms. The lawsuit was settled, but Black divested all ownership in the team and left her job helping manage it.

Black applied to be chief of the Dallas parks system in 2013, but was turned down. She told a newspaper that she was working on a few possible ventures that would keep her in Milwaukee, her "home."

As late as December, Black was reportedly considering running against Abele — the man who fired her in 2012 — for the Milwaukee County Executive post. His term expires in 2016.

But instead, she took the Arizona job. Her appointment by Ducey garnered far more press in Wisconsin than it did in Arizona. She explains in a February 3 article in the Milwaukee Business Journal how she may have gotten the job:

Black said she got in the running for the Arizona job after attending a National Parks and Recreation Association national conference in North Carolina last fall.

"I told people I love public service and I wanted to get back into it, and word kind of spread," Black said, adding that some people thought she meant running for Milwaukee County executive.

"Word kind of spread?" The explanation begs for more detail.

Ducey's office declined to give details on how Black ended up in her new position. After Black's appointment was confirmed in February, though, Ducey praised her as a "well-regarded as a visionary in her field for her entrepreneurial, creative and collaborative spirit."

Black seems reticent to talk about anything other than what great job she intends to do for Arizona state parks.

A few days after Black didn't return a voicemail we left for her, we sent her an email on Monday with a list of questions. Her response answered none of them. She wrote:

"I am very honored that Governor Ducey has selected me for this leadership position with Arizona State Parks. Having served as Chief of Park Operations here in Arizona previously, it has been like returning home to once again be a part of this proud State Parks team. I am looking forward to accomplishing a number of goals, all of which will serve the best interests of our special park resources, our visitors, our park employees, and our partners. We are not content to maintain the status quo at State Parks, but to move the Agency forward by implementing innovative new ideas, forming creative private-public partnerships, and by building a strong forward-thinking leadership team. I believe our team, through our collective resourceful thinking, will discover a way to propel Arizona State Parks into the national spotlight as a leader among the country’s elite state parks systems."
We pressed our questions, and she invited us to meet her at the Arizona Governor's Conference on Tourism last week. But when we arrived, sitting with her in the foyer of the resort's grand ballroom, Black said she didn't have much time to talk and accused New Times of being "confrontational."

She didn't like the question of how she got her job, clearly.

What gave her the idea to apply for Martyn's job? we asked.

"I don't remember how it clicked," she said.

We asked again.

"I saw state parks was open in Arizona," she said.

But the position wasn't exactly "open," with Martyn in it. So why did she apply?

She saw that Arizona had a new governor and figured she'd submit paperwork, she said. Black said she has nothing against Martyn, and even called him in 2012 to congratulate him on his appointment.

Still unsatisfied, we asked if could she explain further.

Black then said that Kelly Moffitt, who used to work for her at the agency in the '90s and had been recently made the agency's chief of operations, called to tell her about his new job. That's when she "found out" Ducey might be looking to hire new people for various posts. 

After being elected, Ducey created a website inviting people to apply for various state department leadership positions, but didn't mention any specific openings.

Only problem with that story: Moffitt was promoted to operations chief in August, long before the election. The agency put out a news release about his promotion that was picked up by the Associated Press and re-published in news outlets across the state.

Asked what Scott Walker might have done on her behalf, she said she "didn't know who talked" to Ducey about her.

Asked again if Walker had anything to do with her getting the job, she said, "I would assume yes."

Okay, then.

She added that his "people" might have called Ducey's people.

Since she was acting so cagey, we moved to a different question — about her hiring someone from Wisconsin.

After some back-and-forth on that one, she then admitted that she'd hired Shawn Schmidt, her former top aide in Wisconsin, to be her personal assistant.

Schmidt has extensive experience in Milwaukee government and is a former chief of staff for the Chicago Parks District. After she promoted Moffitt to deputy director in April, Schmidt was promoted to operations chief.

Unlike with Moffitt, no press release touted his big promotion. 

Her other deputy director, Jay Ream, is preparing to retire soon. So are other key people in the agency, including two regional managers, she said, adding that she sees the upcoming personnel changes as another opportunity.

"I'm going to build a dream team," she said. "I'm proud of the fact of how this is all transitioning."

Political intrigue aside, Black's devotion to parks is clear. She recently re-opened Picacho Peak's summit trail for year-round hiking, (which we appreciate). She intends to boost overall visitation at the parks. She wants to raise revenue by "looking for partners." She intends to "assess every property" with an eye toward what local communities want from state parks. One of her major goals is to win the National Recreation and Park Association's annual Gold Medal award for Arizona.

Apparently, she's wanted to run a park system since she was 16. If anyone can make parks work better during this time of severe budget shortfalls, it might be Black — with her reputation of putting parks before the political concerns of her bosses. 

She's lucky to have a slight head-start. Although this year's budget is austere, with millions cut from universities, social programs and elsewhere, the parks department's appropriated funding for operations in 2016 is $500,000 more than this year's, according to the governor's office.

The parks are getting about twice as much State Lake Improvement Fund money next year, too — about $11 million — before that figure drops back to its typical $7 million a year. The parks have an estimated $80 million in capital improvement needs.

Besides showcasing some of the best landscapes and recreation opportunities that Arizona has to offer, the parks generate about $250 million each year for the state in economic activity. Yet the park system is treated like an ATM by lawmakers. The 30-park system runs on about $40 million a year, with most of its revenue coming from gate fees and gift shops. It hasn't received money from the state's general fund since 2009, and its self-generated revenue is often swept by the Legislature to fund other programs.

Black is poised to make a difference, but what kind? Will new privatization schemes be proposed for the parks? Black's friend, the potential presidential candidate, has proposed raising park fees and eliminating state funding for Wisconsin parks.

With parks being so under-funded over the years, a plan to restore the system to economic health might make Black and Ducey look even better — to conservatives, anyway.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.