Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Mayor Barrett’s Power in Decline?

Council taking more power, mayor taking a beating.

By - Feb 8th, 2018 12:57 pm
Mayor Tom Barrett. Photo by Michael Horne.

Mayor Tom Barrett. Photo by Michael Horne.

Almost overnight, Mayor Tom Barrett has lost power to the Common Council.

He seemed to be coasting through his fourth term, easily weathering an almost comical recall attempt last year after winning reelection with a thumping 70 percent of the vote in April 2016.

But in the last week everything went south. Quickly.

The council refused to approve his appointment of Paul Nannis as interim health commissioner. Worse, it was clear Nannis was rejected simply because he was “the mayor’s proxy,” as Nannis put it, meaning any choice of the mayor’s would have been rejected. But even worse, the council came up with its own choice, Patricia McManus, for interim commissioner and proceeded to approve her 13-1, with only Ald. Terry Witkowski objecting. Morever, some council members seem open to sticking with McManus for the rest of Barrett’s term, meaning any attempt by the mayor to appoint a permanent commissioner could be blocked.

This was an unprecedented, all-out rebellion against the mayor. Some question whether the council’s action of appointing its own interim choice is even legal.

“It’s amazing,” says Ald. Witkowski. “We are truly moving to a strong-council, weak-mayor system.”

Other council members wouldn’t go as far but most would probably agree with alderman and council president Ashanti Hamilton. “Barrett has some credibility restoration work to do with the council,” Hamilton says.

“The mayor really screwed this up,” says Ald. Nik Kovac, referring to Barrett’s handling of the health department.

Among other things, council members learned the city may have acted slowly in handling the problem of potential lead poisoning related to lead laterals, that the department wasn’t sure if letters had gone out notifying families whose children tested positive for lead, and that employees in the department had been banned from talking about problems to the council by former Health Department Commissioner Bevan Baker.

“I think the administration dropped the ball,” says Ald. Cavalier Johnson. “With an issue like lead in the water, I think there should have been additional scrutiny on this issue.”

Kovac notes that Barrett has never been a micro-manager of city departments, which he calls “both a blessing and a curse.”

“It’s actually a remarkably apolitical process for a big city mayor. Barrett basically runs an apolitical, meritocratic process,” Kovac notes. “But he’s not as engaged and decisive as he should be. I mean he couldn’t even admit to firing Baker.” Instead, Barrett said he and Baker had jointly decided the health department leader should resign.

Barrett then proposed Nannis as interim replacement, which seemed like a no-brainer, as Nannis had previously served as commissioner and could hit the ground running.  “Initially, I thought it was a logical choice,” Ald. Bob Bauman says.

Except that Nannis was a good friend of Barrett’s chief of staff Patrick Curley. And a longtime ally of Barrett’s. And had been a consultant who had earned $556,000 since 2008 doing work for Baker’s department, which suggested Nannis might be too close to Baker as well. Not to mention that Nannis didn’t disclose he had done this consulting when meeting with members of the council’s Public Safety and Health Committee. For council members seeking objective answers about problems in the health department, Nannis seemed all wrong, and the choice suggested Barrett was tone deaf on this issue.

“The mayor didn’t recognize soon enough how much trouble he was in,” Witkowski says.

Even before the health department issue, there were signs of Barrett losing leadership on key issues. It was the council that led the way in demanding that Police Chief Ed Flynn change his policy on police pursuits. And the council that demanded Flynn release the unfinished draft report analyzing the police department by the federal Department of Justice. And it was the council that, after getting a leaked copy of the report, pushed Flynn to make changes recommended by a report he felt had major flaws.

Hamilton flatly says council members wanted Flynn gone. “The police chief leaving early was obviously what the council wanted and was desiring.”

That’s the sound of a council taking more power from the mayor, who long supported Flynn, whatever misgivings he might have had in the last year.

“If the mayor keeps making mistakes we will correct them,” Kovac declares.

Bauman, often a critic of the mayor, takes a longer view, suggesting the council has always had the power to forge a veto-proof majority but rarely does. “The reality is the mayor and council agree on most issues and on their world view.”

But power can be addictive and the council has lately been grabbing more of it from the mayor. And unlike most big city mayors, including past leaders in Milwaukee, Barrett is not the sort to punish those who oppose him.

“It doesn’t go along with his personality and Pat Curley’s personality to have a battle,” Witkowski says.

Moreover, if Barrett is not planning to run for reelection — which many believe — he becomes less of a threat to the ambitions of others. Ald. Tony Zielinski has already announced he is running for mayor, and declared two-and-a-half years before the election. And Hamilton is assumed to have interest in running as well. That, too, could be pushing some council members to be more assertive, Witkowski believes.

Hamilton is clearly aware of the issue. “I’m trying to make sure the council’s way of operating is not clouded by anyone’s political ambitions for higher office,” he says.

All of which suggests Barrett could be facing more challenges to come.

Witkowski offers a frank prediction: “If he keeps going this way the mayor is going to become a lame duck. ”

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

9 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Mayor Barrett’s Power in Decline?”

  1. WashCoRepub says:

    Respectfully: That’s sort of an unfortunate subhead, considering what happened to the Mayor.

  2. Joe says:

    Why does a “Washington County Repub” care so much about what goes on in Milwaukee or think his opinion is relevant? This would be like me posting in a Kewaskum forum.

  3. Jeff says:

    Really, the deck is borderline offensive. A good copy editor would have caught that.

  4. Troll says:

    Well Joe let’s site examples why Waukesha would care. City of Milwaukee is against widening the freeway going 94 along Miller Park. This stance hurts SE Wisconsin we could lose Miller brewery because of this obstruction. Two, the city of Milwaukee incarcerates a lot of citizens because of a lack of honest work yet poo- Pooh’s business es like Foxconn downtown. Three, Milwaukee could soon be a sanctuary City. Which gives illegals more rights then it’s citizens. What happens in Milwaukee affects everyone.

  5. PMD says:

    Joe asked why Washington County should care and you mention Waukesha. Do you realize that Waukesha is not in Washington County? Your trolling is subpar.

  6. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Every problem that Barrett inherited is worse. Norquist was good man. We have worsening crime, top ten worst worse than Chicago per capita, heroin epidemic, MPS:”National Disgrace”, human trafficking, abandoned homes, bad roads, youth unemployment that Foxconn can help, yet the Left opposes, high food stamp use, worst poverty, corruption, need better buses but get trollely, need kids programs get billionaire Bucks Arena. High taxes, high regulation, Union run, top ten worst managed cities.
    Dems we all need to get together to find soemone that solves problems can make decisions. Draft Tommy?

  7. Karen G. says:

    For his sake, I hope Barrett doesn’t run again He is under-appreciated and hyper-criticized and after years of public service as a good man with integrity, he should get out and enjoy a new non-political phase of his life. He’s earned it.

  8. JAnderson says:

    The Council running this city is a prescription for disaster. It pushed out one of the most intelligent and finest police chiefs in the country. It rejected a highly experienced interim health commissioner in Nannis and appointed a borderline incompetent health commissioner in McMannus who has spent her whole career criticizing others while her own organization fails. That appointment creates a completely dysfunctional system of accountability.

    The entire city elected Barrett. No one on the Council has that distinction and can lay claim to having full city-wide support. Milwaukee has made great progress in recent years in becoming a progressive, modern, thriving city thanks to Barrett’s leadership.
    The Council shouldn’t be so arrogant as to think it’s members can better lead Milwaukee.

  9. Matt says:

    So now McManus seems to be an anti-vaxxer or simply not up to date on some simplistic medical opinion. So that golden age of a strong council is now destroyed by their own general ineptitude.


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