Council Appoints McManus Interim Health Leader
She'll be interim commissioner. Says city's failure to send letters about lead was "deliberate."
The Milwaukee Common Council has found a new interim commissioner for the troubled Health Department. Tuesday afternoon the council confirmed president Ashanti Hamilton‘s appointment of Patricia McManus.
McManus serves as the President and CEO of the Black Health Coalition. She has worked with the organization since 1988 and will take a leave of absence while she’s head of the Health Department.
McManus has a PhD in Urban Studies with an emphasis on health and human services from UW-Milwaukee. She has a bachelors and masters degree in nursing from UW-Milwaukee. “I think without question that McManus has the experience and expertise to serve in the position,” said Alderman Khalif Rainey.
The move to hire McManus comes as an abrupt change from the pending appointment of former commissioner Paul Nannis to the interim role. Mayor Tom Barrett didn’t give the council the chance to reject Paul Nannis, withdrawing his appointment Monday afternoon before it was scheduled to be voted on Tuesday.
Barrett announced the interim appointment of Nannis on January 12th at the same press conference that he announced the resignation of commissioner Bevan K. Baker and serious shortcomings with the city’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.
Hamilton says he discussed the nomination with Barrett, and didn’t explore finding his own candidate until the Public Safety and Health Committee rejected Nannis on a 3-to-1 vote. The council is able to appoint the commissioner under state statue s. 62.11(5), which grants them the power to act in the general interest of the public health, safety, and welfare because there is no commissioner.
“I thought it was imperative upon us to move at the speed of justice,” said Hamilton.
Ald. Michael Murphy moved to send the measure to a committee to ensure a proper, public process. His measure failed, only finding support from council members Nik Kovac, Mark Borkowski and Terry Witkowski.
The council resolved into a committee of the whole to allow McManus to speak and answer questions.
McManus was grilled by Barrett-ally Witkowski. He asked a series of questions about her personality and management experience leading large organizations, given that the Health Dept. has an annual budget of approximately $21 million.
“I understand you have been asked not to sit on committees because of your manner of dealing with other people,” asked Witkowski. McManus responded that she was unaware of any such situations where that has taken place.
McManus told Witkowski that while the Black Health Coalition annual budget is only around $300,000 today, she is proud of the work the group has done on infant mortality given their limited resources. The coalition previously had a federal grant to work on approximately 500 cases a year.
She noted that during her time at Milwaukee County — she was a special project coordinator for the county Department of Health and Social Services — she managed a $10 million budget and approximately 225 people, 150 of which were nurses.
The questions from Witkowski didn’t sit well with Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II who interrupted Witkowski in an attempt to get him to stop.
Hamilton slammed his gavel, stating “this is what I’m telling you, she is handling these questions like a champ, so let him ask because he’s proving our point.”
Witkowski dropped his line of questioning while asking Stamper for respect.
Referencing the difficulty Barrett might face in getting a permanent commissioner confirmed, Murphy asked: “are you prepared to be able to stay in this position for the remainder of the mayor’s term?” McManus responded: “I can’t say yes that I definitely would do it, but I would consider it.” Murphy, who said he has known McManus for 30 years, said he respected her honesty.
McManus said she would not take an oath of loyalty to the mayor, but did look forward to meeting with him and members of the department to help guide her decisions on how to operate the department. She stressed she also wouldn’t take an oath of loyalty to the council.
Answering a question from Kovac about her views of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program before its troubles began in 2015, McManus said “I am hesitant to claim success on a piece when the whole part is so bad. That report, to be honest, was scathing.” The city reports that since 2003, the number of children testing positive for lead poisoning at the five micrograms per deciliter level has declined by 70 percent. McManus said that zero kids testing positive should be the goal.
She drew praise from Bauman for being a long-time supporter of the need for regional mass transit as part of a broad, systems-based plan to address public health.
Bauman questioned her stance on the city’s lead lateral replacement program. McManus said she thinks the city’s program that replaces the homeowner’s portion of the lead service line in the event of a break should be extended to all homeowners at their request, even if the line hasn’t broken. The program caps the cost to property owners at $1,600 and allows payments to be made over a course of 10 years without interest. The city absorbs the rest of the cost, which costs thousands of dollars.
After nearly two hours of debate, the council approved McManus on a 13-1-1 vote. Witkowski objected and Murphy abstained.
The McManus appointment comes at a critical time. The council learned last week that the city is unable to hire, fire or discipline employees in the Health Dept. without a commissioner. McManus will also serve in the role of Public Health Officer, which grants her the power to order quarantines in the event of a public health crisis. The city does not have a deputy who assumes that role, a shortcoming that was revealed in the wake of Baker’s resignation.
Deliberate Failures at Health Department?
McManus was highly critical of the Health Department in a press conference following her confirmation. She said that while she believes it is possible that issues might arise with letters not going out for one year, the fact that it happened for a period of three years means that it was a “deliberate” decision. That’s a damning accusation, and McManus seemed to realize this, adding, “I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this.”
She said that substantially more would need to be added to the department’s 50-page report for her to recommend implementing any the report’s 12 pages of recommendation.
McManus and Fake News
McManus’ salary with the Black Health Coalition became an issue when she accused the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of publishing “fake news.” She told the council she has earned a salary between $90,000 and $140,000 in her role with the organization, but federal 990 reports for the organization from 2014, 2015 and 2016 list her salary at $170,000, $158,1000 and $83,300. She earned a minimum of $6,900 in annual benefits during that period.
Auditing the Department
Earlier in the meeting, the council approved issuing a request for proposals to audit the operations of the entire Health Dept.
The council will use the responses to guide their decision on whether to pay an outside contractor, likely via the city’s contingency fund, to conduct the audit or to refer the matter to the independently-elected City Comptroller for an internal investigation.
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