Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Council Launches Health Dept. Probe

In wake of Bevan Baker's ouster, council investigating Barrett administration decisions.

By - Jan 17th, 2018 01:14 pm
Bevan K. Baker.

Bevan K. Baker.

The Milwaukee Common Council has opened an investigation into the city’s Health Department and management of the city’s lead abatement efforts following the disclosure that the department possibly failed to notify 8,000 families of children testing positive for lead poisoning. The disclosure was made at a press conference last Friday afternoon, where a self-described “deeply disturbed” and “angry” Mayor Tom Barrett addressed the abrupt resignation of commissioner Bevan K. Baker.

The council’s Steering and Rules Committee, chaired by council president Ashanti Hamilton, will lead the investigation. The committee is holding a special meeting Wednesday afternoon and is expected to hold a discussion in closed session with representatives from the independent City Attorney’s office.

By formally opening an investigation the council now has subpoena power to compel individuals to appear before them.

Meanwhile, aldermen Tony Zielinski and Russell W. Stamper, II are pushing for a third-party audit of the entire Health Department. Zielinski said he has already had discussions with potential firms that could perform the audit and expects the council to move fast on the measure.

Zielinski, a candidate for mayor, said: “I think it’s important for us to identify what else could possibly be going on within that department.” The Bay View alderman said he would need more information to determine how long Barrett has been aware of issues in the Health Department, but added, “I do know that our efforts to get the Health Department to be more transparent were met with resistance, and I can only assume the Mayor’s office was fully aware of that and not supportive of our efforts to get to the bottom of what’s going on.”

The alderman accused the city of failing to act on November 2017 council resolution that directs the Health Department to provide substantially more notice regarding methods to avoid lead exposure.

The program at the center of the issue, the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, is responsible for handling the approximately 3,000 annual cases submitted to the city by health care providers that show elevated lead levels in Milwaukee children. But the city has no records to show it mailed notifications in approximately 8,000 such cases — to families of children with elevated lead levels — dating back to 2015.

During his press conference announcing the issue, Barrett noted that while the city has no record of sending the letters, the individuals that tested positive should have also received notice from the testing clinic. “The breakdown that got me upset was that I could not say with certainty to the people of Milwaukee that all of those individuals got that letter.” The city will now send the letters to every affected family.

Barrett said he learned of the issue Thursday, January 4th and moved quickly to gather more information. A whistleblower within the Health Department, Benjamin James, sent a message to all members of the Common Council and the Mayor on December 28th that raised issues regarding Health Department practices.

The city’s website notes that as of 2015, 11.5 percent of Milwaukee children tested were reported to have blood lead levels at the reporting threshold of five micrograms per deciliter. The city reports that since 2003, the number of children testing positive at the five micrograms per deciliter level has declined by 70 percent.

The city has spent millions in abating lead paint issues, a common cause of lead poisoning, and is now shifting focus to also address the estimated 70,000 privately-owned lead laterals that connect properties to city water system. The shift comes after 2014 changes to Flint, Michigan’s drinking water caused a public health crisis.

Recent city budgets have allocated money to replace lines serving child care facilities and instituting policies that require the replacement of lead laterals in the event of a lateral break. Proceeds from a recent water sale agreement with the City of Waukesha will be used to help pay for replacing laterals.

Tuesday afternoon, members of the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition held a press event outside of the mayor’s office and demanded Barrett’s resignation. “The removal of Commissioner Bevan Baker is not the end-all-be-all. It’s not even the peak of the iceberg. We have a massive coverup in this city over lead in our water,” said coalition leader Robert Miranda. The group has been critical of the city’s slow response to records requests and the city’s water testing methods.

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