Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Fire-Police Chief Was Axed

FPC botched police chief search and nice guy Mayor Barrett decided to get tough.

By - Apr 24th, 2018 11:52 am
MaryNell Regan. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

MaryNell Regan. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

Mayor Tom Barrett’s reputation as an administrator is that he is more a delegator than a micro-manager. That style blew up in his face when problems in the city Health Department erupted in late January.

Barrett learned belatedly about a host of problems, including that the department wasn’t sure if letters had gone out notifying families whose children tested positive for lead, and that department employees had been banned from talking about problems to the Common Council by former Health Department Commissioner Bevan Baker.

The situation was a politician’s worse nightmare: Barrett was blindsided by problems from a cabinet member he had trusted to handle the department, and the city looked terrible. In reaction Barrett talked to Baker about the situation and they jointly decided he should resign, the public was told.

Now we are seeing a similar situation with Fire and Police Commission Executive Director MaryNell Regan, who announced her resignation on Sunday. It had all the earmarks of a soft firing, as in Baker’s case. Regan wrote in her resignation letter that based on the mayor’s decision “to take the Fire and Police Commission in a different direction,” she would leave the job.

“The mayor has a cardinal rule, not to be surprised,” says a City Hall source. And Regan surprised Barrett a few too many times.

The most recent example was one that dumbfounded not just the mayor, but many Common Council members, who were left to explain how the FPC could decide on April 5, with no public notice and no public discussion, that interim police chief Alfonso Morales was now the permanent chief, who would serve until Jan 7, 2020, completing the unfinished term of retired chief Ed Flynn.

“They rather secretively made Morales police chief,” Ald. Terry Witkowski charges. Witkowski requested a city attorney opinion, which concluded that the meeting where Morales was promoted “failed all three tests a court would use in determining whether the notice was adequate” meaning the state open meeting law was violated.

The permanent appointment of Morales “certainly looks pretty rammed through, pretty arbitrary,” complained Ald. Bob Bauman at the April 9th meeting of the council’s Judiciary and Legislation Committee.

Ald. Milele Coggs, who is not a member of the committee, attended the meeting to emphasize the need for communication. “Council members didn’t know the vote (to appoint a permanent chief) was being taken,” she said. “If we as council members don’t know, then the public and the community don’t know.”

The council members were addressing Regan and FPC board chair Steven DeVougas, who appeared before the committee to give an update on the FPC decision making, and soon came under fire.

Bauman noted the public was under the impression there would be a two-stage process, with an interim chief selection followed by a national search for the permanent chief. Instead, “there was never a job announcement for the permanent position, there never any candidate names submitted for the permanent position, no search firms were hired for the permanent position, basically nothing was done beyond the interim chief in filling the permanent position,” he charged.

What particularly irked Witkowski was that after these objections were aired by council members, Regan’s response was that “we can agree to disagree.” Neither she nor DeVougas offered any assurance the FPC would be more careful in the future.

For Barrett, it meant his hand-picked FPC leader did not even bother to inform him ahead of time that a decision was being considered to appoint a permanent police chief — arguably the city’s most important leadership position.

Worse, the FPC’s abuse of the state open meetings law was noticed in Madison, where the Republican-controlled legislature had rejected — so far — a push by the police and fire unions to give them membership on the FPC and thus water down the commission’s power to oversee the police and fire departments. Barrett vociferously opposed the proposed law, calling it “an attack on the very, very successful Fire and Police Commission model.”

But after the sudden appointment of new Police Chief Morales, that model suddenly didn’t look so wonderful. I’m told that one Republican state senator’s chief of staff wrote a memo to a city lobbyist complaining the FPC chose a police chief without following state law.

In the wake of Bevan Baker’s resignation, surely every cabinet head serving under Barrett had gotten a message: don’t surprise the mayor with controversial decisions that could undermine him politically. The health department fiasco triggered a near revolt of council members, with many openly declaring they needed to take power away from the mayor. Now Barrett was faced with a rogue Fire and Police Commission that seemed willing to make decisions without even warning him about it.

Beyond that, there’s also the question of whether the best person was given the job. It’s not that Barrett objects to Morales; he supports him, I’m told. No city official seems to object to him.

But because there was only a search for an interim chief, Witkowski notes that not all candidates were considered. “Even within the department there were people who were only interested in the permanent job of police chief and not the interim position,” he notes. “So did we get the best and brightest candidates?”

That, combined with the lack of a national search, leaves a shadow over the search process for the chief. It raises the suspicion that the choice of Morales was wired from the beginning. “Probably Morales was the insider choice,” Bauman says, while adding that he supports the choice.

Witkowski believes the Fire and Police Commission was too worried about community activists and their demands regarding the police chief search. “If you look at all the hearings for the search, you would come to that conclusion,” he says. “There were no downtown hearings.”

Journal Sentinel reporter Mary Spicuzza referenced the past battles between Flynn and Regan in explaining the FPC leader’s departure. I doubt that had much to do with Barrett’s dissatisfaction, other than whether some of those battles, too, blindsided the mayor.

The reality is that Barrett’s style of delegating gives department heads considerable autonomy, but not complete independence. As for council members, most probably support autonomy for the FPC and the police chief, until they begin to disagree with enough of the decisions being made. Which is why a smart police chief, and smart FPC head makes sure to keep communicating with the elected political officials, who ultimately take the blame when things go wrong. (In Flynn’s last year he lost the support of the council because many members felt he was no longer communicating with them.)

In his handling of the police search, DeVougas told Urban Milwaukee he wanted to use the police chief search “as an opportunity to show the political independence of the Fire and Police Commission.”

Mission accomplished. Message received loud and clear. Which helped seal Regan’s doom.

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7 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Fire-Police Chief Was Axed”

  1. DAG999 says:

    I get such a kick out of this argument about the City Health Commissioner . The lead in the pipes is NOT anything new. In fact, the City of Milwaukee used to send out pamphlets to customers of the Milwaukee Water works in the late 1990s and early 2000’s telling them to run the water for “up to one minute” to clear residual lead out of the pipes before you drank or cooked with it. Why hasn’t the media dug this little factoid up? But now, claiming letters didn’t go out like it’s some sort of a “gotcha” moment is laughable. At the time, Mayor NORQUIST thought it was more important to sue paint companies for the lead in its product while neglecting its own problems with lead pipes and solder. Go back to 2000 or so and do the research.

  2. Bobby says:

    I wonder why the Mayor never just put different / more people on the FPC? There’s room for 9 and a few current people have expired terms. He could even have picked a couple with Police and Fire experience and never had Madison poking their nose in in the first place.

    Looks like the Executive Director is being used as a scapegoat for the votes/decisions of the Board (it’s obvious that the firing was not over this one meeting notice issue, that’s just getting pumped up to be a big deal to provide a convenient excuse). The votes of the board would have been different if different people were on it, and there has been years of opportunity to put different people on it.

  3. richard doxtator says:

    Bless you Murphy.

    Please keep writing.

    Thank you.

  4. Kevin says:

    Barrett is known for his delegation? He’s not a micro-manager? Are you new in town?

    The FPC is supposed to be independent to keep politics out of the Fire and Police Departments. This fiction however is laughable to anyone paying attention. Barrett like Norquist before him made it clear, if you want to be on the FPC, you’d better step and fetch to the mayor’s tune.

    Ed Flynn was Barrett’s guy so he couldn’t have been pleased that the FPC exerted their statutorial oversight of the department, ultimately pushing the longest serving chief since Harold Breier out the door.

    The issue of Ms. Regan dating a cop has never been addressed at least in the media as to whether or not it is prohibited. Obviously it could get awkward should the officer come before the FPC in a disciplinary matter, or do well/poorly in a promotional process. Mayor Barrett made it clear he didn’t mind his Chief of Police repeatedly committing Class 1 felonies (adultery is still against the law in Wisconsin) but we all suspect Ms. Regan’s personal life was a factor in her firing.

    And nobody should be surprised at any further changes in FPC membership given Barrett’s “new direction”. Oh, it won’t be overnight – Barrett isn’t that clumsy – but no doubt he’ll tighten his grip behind the scenes to avoid this sort of disobedience in the future.

  5. voterMKE says:

    The City Attorney’s Office signs off on Public Notices, I understand.

    The City Attorney’s memo regarding the Chief Morales appointment notice indicates three errors in the memo it signed off on.

    Shouldn’t the City Attorney’s office be held accountable for the errors it approved? And shouldn’t the reviewing attorney be asked to resign for the errors? Equity would suggest that the assistant city attorney resignation would be fair.

    Unless little about the “axing” is about being measured and fair.

  6. Geo says:

    This is all still payback for not rolling over for Chief Flynn. Barrett thinks Flynn is infallible.

    Check out the other recent quotes where the Mayor keeps on the idea that this has nothing to do with Regan herself but is more about “state influence” and who is best suited for defending the FPC. Such a transparent lie. Butler is the lobbyist already, so that’s already her job as it is AND as executive director of the FPC she’ll have far less time to focus on that issue because she’ll be so busy running the business of the FPC.

    Also note that the people complaining about the open meeting notice haven’t bothered to actually utilize the new notice they’d been given for the vote. If they were that concerned about not being noticed about the vote you’d think they would be submitting written or oral objections now that they are. But they’re not because they don’t actually care about the vote or notice, it was just a convienent thing at the right moment to act all upset about and fire someone they hate.

  7. Kevin says:

    The “state influence” boogieman the mayor is waving is proposed legislation requiring that there be one member of the board with actual law enforcement experience, and one with fire department experience.

    Under Norquist, the former Chief of the MFD served a term as chair. The FPC was even-handed but had no qualms disciplining or firing firefighters and police.

    Hmmm, now why would Barrett be opposed to that, unless that balance might interfere with his micromanaging the FPC.

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