Mayor Barrett’s Power in Decline?
Council taking more power, mayor taking a beating.
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.
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.
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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