Jennifer Gonda On the Hot Seat

New Water Works director opposed by some aldermen, and faces tough lead pipes issue.

By - May 4th, 2017 02:13 pm
Jennifer Gonda. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

Jennifer Gonda. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

When she was asked recently to take the reins of the Milwaukee Water Works, Jennifer Gonda said it was not a difficult decision.

“Commissioner (Ghassan) Korban asked me whether I was interested, and it didn’t take me more than a few minutes to decide that I was,” said Gonda, who officially succeeded Carrie Lewis as the utility’s superintendent last month.

But if the decision was easy, the job is not likely to be. As Gonda noted in an email exchange with Urban Milwaukee, the city water works is “at a crossroads and needed someone to guide it through a challenging time.”

That crossroads, of course, is the widely publicized struggle to replace more than 68,000 lead-based lateral lines that pipe the utility’s water into homes, businesses, schools and other facilities throughout the region.

“I’ve always liked solving problems and felt the combined challenges of major financial pressure, stringent regulation of our rates and water quality and the recent public policy debate around how to approach the replacement of lead service lines were aligned with my interests and skills,” Gonda says.

Clearly, she didn’t take the job for monetary reasons: Her salary will be the same as for her past position: $112,985.

Gonda has been on the city’s payroll since 2001. She initially worked out of the budget office, but transitioned to a cabinet position within Mayor Tom Barrett’s administration. Since 2004, she has been the chief lobbyist in the intergovernmental relations office, much of that involved with lobbying the state legislature.

In addition, Gonda had been working with neighboring municipalities and other governing agencies on a range of policy-related issues. That skill set, she said, is a natural transition to a leadership role within MWW.

In her previous role, for instance, Gonda notes she forged relationships with officials in the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Natural Resources and Public Service Commission. She said she has already reached out to the agencies in her new role.

“We are a highly regulated entity and have many customer agreements with our neighboring communities,” Gonda said. “My background in working with other levels of government makes that the easy part of the job to figure out.”

Not all of the city’s elected leaders, however, agree that Gonda had the right background for the job.

As word surfaced of Gonda’s appointment to the MWW, five aldermen went on record against it, co-signing a letter to Barrett expressing their opposition.

The letter from Aldermen Bob Bauman, Mark Borkowski, Bob Donovan, Michael Murphy and Terry Witkowski declared that Gonda’s professional history was not right for the job and represented “a grave overreach.”

The five aldermen said they would have preferred the appointee have specific expertise in water quality-related issues: “helping us resolve it will require someone with expertise in matters of water quality as well as a record of accomplishment sufficient to assure worried residents that this problem is being investigated and addressed,” they wrote.

There’s little doubt Gonda has less experience in this field than her predecessor. Lewis had worked with the city’s water department since 1995, serving as superintendent since 1997, and was appointed in October 2016 to serve as chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology from McGill University and Master of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Calgary

Gonda has a bachelors in public administration from Winona State University and a master’s of public affairs from UW-Madison. Her work with the city has all been related to the city budget and lobbying. However, she has pointed to the depth of expertise of the Water Works’ staff, suggesting that will help her in managing the system.

Most Common Council members supported her appointment, including those from central city districts that have far more older homes, those more likely to have lead lateral lines.

Alderman Jim Bohl, who chaired a recent Water Quality Task Force, said he believed Gonda was well suited for the role.

“I see the appointment of Ms. Gonda … as a bold move that will further enhance Milwaukee’s esteemed national reputation in water quality,” Bohl wrote in a statement after the appointment was announced.

As she eases into her first full month on the job, Gonda says she has laid out a list of priority items.

“I plan to begin by assessing the viability of our infrastructure to support our projected future water demand,” she says. “I’ll also be looking at how we can ensure our customers’ continued confidence in the quality of our product.”

Beyond the lead pipe issue, Gonda said she is concerned about the quality of Lake Michigan water, which after all is the source for the city’s water. “I’m concerned about the health and sustainability (of the lake) and what that means for the quality of the water we can provide to our residents,” she says.

Gonda said community outreach will also be an important part of her work, both in terms of getting the word out about the lead-based infrastructure and other unrelated matters impacting the utility.

“I want our community and its leaders to positively embrace this tremendous asset, not just groan when they receive their bill,” she said. If she can end all that groaning, she may be well worth her pay.

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