Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Embattled Company Leader Absent at Hearing

Head of company with gun, KKK issues, a no-show. Angry council members promise action.

By - Dec 18th, 2017 01:34 pm
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American Sewer Services employees. Left photo by Brian Oliver. Right photo by Sam Singleton-Freeman.

American Sewer Services employees. Left photo by Brian Oliver. Right photo by Sam Singleton-Freeman.

Dennis Biondich, the head of embattled city contractor American Sewer Services, was a no show at a Common Council hearing today regarding the actions of his employees. The contractor has come under fire after a worker was pictured brandishing a firearm on November 30th and another was caught displaying white supremacy stickers on a cooler on December 8th.

Biondich’s failure to appear won’t stop the Common Council from moving forward in addressing contracting issues according to council president Ashanti Hamilton. The council is expected to vote on measures regarding contracting standards at their Tuesday meeting.

A special meeting of the council’s Steering and Rules Committee was held this morning for the explicit purpose of getting feedback from Biondich regarding the issues. The hearing was originally scheduled for December 14th, but pushed to the 18th at the request of Biondich according to a council press release. Hamilton noted that in a meeting on Saturday with Biondich he was told a “robust conversation” could be held on the 18th.

But instead of the owner appearing, American Sewer sent project manager Dan Mclendon to read a statement. Mclendon said he has been with a company for only one year and couldn’t explain why he was picked for the role. The owner and company superintendent both outrank him, neither of whom were present. Mclendon did not answer questions regarding American Sewer’s policies or actions. In response to a question from Alderman Robert Bauman about where he lives, Mclendon would only say “in Wisconsin.”

Mclendon said Biondich couldn’t appear because of health issues. After the meeting Hamilton said he knew Biondich had a pending medical procedure.

Council members Milele A. Coggs, Russell W. Stamper, IIRobert Donovan, Bauman and Hamilton expressed displeasure with Biondich’s failure to appear. “This is not okay and this has to change,” Hamilton said. “And everyone in this room,” he added, is “in some ways responsible for making that change.”

Biondich’s statement, as read by Mclendon, said Biondich terminated the employee displaying the white supremacy stickers. Biondich’s statement also said he is updating company policy regarding the issues and in 30 years of work with the city has never had a similar issue. And he condemned the racist messages received by Coggs and others, stating “there is no place in civil society for such attacks.” The message Coggs received has been reported by Urban Milwaukee; in addition, both Hamilton and Stamper have said they received racist messages in response to the controversy.

The statement also noted, “it’s unfortunate that we are all here to discuss the actions of a few employees.” It was a curious phrase, given that Biondich wasn’t there to discuss these actions, and instead said via the statement that he would meet with council members one-on-one, presumably when reporters aren’t present.

Department of Public Works Commissioner Ghassan Korban, who said he recommended that Biondich show up today, urged council members to take him up on his offer. “I truly believe he wants to turn this thing around,” Korban said, adding that he has had numerous conversations with the American Sewer owner in recent weeks. “I’ve had several encouraging conversations with him” he noted.

The hearing was the second on the matter, following a heated hearing where the council’s Public Works Committee debated the policies and implications of three American Sewer employees openly carrying firearms on a city job site. At that hearing only Korban and a representative of the City Attorney’s office appeared.

After the nearly two hour hearing today, Mclendon and other individuals affiliated with American Sewer quickly left the room without answering questions.

Council Weighs In

After frustration was vented towards American Sewer, things got heated between the council. After a series of questions by Bauman to which Mclendon replied that he had no knowledge of job site practices by the company’s employees, Bauman suggested the committee adjourn and simply wait for Biondich to appear.

Committee chair Hamilton took the floor from Bauman, and in a forceful speech said “something positive is going to come out of this meeting. We’re not going to wait until we get a subpoena to force the owner to appear before this committee to do something.” Hamilton said the statement given “actually answers a lot of the questions a lot of you are asking.”

All of the committee members were given a chance to weigh in on the matter, with the exception of Ald. Khalif Rainey who left the meeting shortly after the the American Sewer statement. Also making a statement was Milwaukee Area Labor Council (MALC) president Pamela Fendt, a member of Laborers Local 113 and longtime union advocate, who denounced the behavior of the American Sewer employees and paired that with advocacy for more city programs to train and hire city residents.

Ald. Tony Zielinski, in response to Fendt, said “Quite frankly what we have in place right now is not sufficient” to assure that enough “people of color” are being hired. Zielinski, a candidate for mayor, said he expects the council to put forth a number of proposals to address the hiring of city residents for the work.

Donovan praised the contractor for swiftly firing the individuals and urged his colleagues to accept Korban’s advice and meet with Biondich one-on-one.

After admonishing the actions of the individuals responsible for the incidents, Ald. Jim Bohl told the committee, “I don’t want to focus solely on that company, this is something we have to talk about in our community and in a broader way.” He said the city must improve internally, in addition to pushing contractors to do better. He ended his remarks by noting the council is going to have a hard time moving forward until Biondich appears before them.

Ald. Mark Borkowski characterized the actions of the individuals as “dumb” and said: “The range of emotions through the course of the last couple of weeks I know for myself and how this thing all evolved is kind of incredible, amazing and I guess Mr. President… this is a watershed moment. We’re not going to need subpoenas and people coming before our committees. If the example that has been laid out before us in the last 10 days doesn’t lay out what is tolerated and not tolerated you run the risk of never working in this city again.”

Stamper, who told the audience that according to a Department of Public Works report American Sewer Services has received nearly $50 million in city contracts since 2013, expressed his displeasure with Biondich’s failure to appear.

Coggs said in her nearly ten years in office no issue has drawn as much attention from her constituents as this issue. She thanked her constituents for elevating the issue.

Next Steps

The alderwoman will introduce legislation for immediate adoption at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting to attempt to address the issues she characterized as “basic human things.”

Hamilton said a special committee would be formed to address the issues going forward, and said Stamper would chair the committee. The committee members have already been confirmed, Hamilton said, and will include members of the community and representatives from the city. Hamilton said their first meeting will be in January.

According to Hamilton they will address issues involving city contracting standards and requirements and the ability of the city to bar specific individuals from working on city protects for violating standards.

The Steering and Rules Committee ultimately held the measure regarding American Sewer Services. Hamilton told the audience “there still needs to be a public conversation about this,” even if Biondich meets with members individually.

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