Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Baker To Testify Before Common Council

110 pages of text messages show ex-Health Department head knew about lead problems.

By - Sep 14th, 2018 09:46 am
Tom Barrett and Bevan Baker

Tom Barrett and Bevan Baker

Testimony of a former commissioner before the Milwaukee Common Council wouldn’t typically be must-viewing, but the former head of the Milwaukee Health Department is about to change that.

After months of rumors and discussion of subpoenas, Council President Ashanti Hamilton announced Thursday that the former Commissioner of Health Bevan K. Baker has agreed to testify publicly.

Baker will appear before a special meeting of the council’s Steering and Rules Committee, said Hamiton. The meeting is likely to attract the full council and every media outlet in town.

The news comes just days after a bombshell series of text messages were released following an open records request by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The text messages between Baker and Director of Nursing Tiffany Barta reveal the two had concerns in late September 2017 that the public and other city officials could learn that a lead-poisoned child was sent home from the hospital to a home that was not abated. They also indicate that problems with the lead program were known inside the department for at least much of 2017.

When will the meeting occur? Hamilton didn’t say, and moved quickly into closed session after making the announcement. It’s already been eight months since Mayor Tom Barrett announced Baker’s resignation.

The council president said the committee was going into closed session Thursday to discuss potential liability concerns in the matter.

Along with the release of the text messages also came the results of the personnel investigations in the department. Lisa Lien, the Home Environmental Health Manager, chose to resign rather than be fired. Environmental Health Field Supervisor Richard Gaeta was fired on August 31st, and is appealing his termination. Two additional employees, whose names were not released, were disciplined, but the report indicates they are in management.

An outside law firm involved in the management investigation found “an environment full of bullying and unprofessionalism which affected the effective functioning of the Health Department.”

Lead Problems Well Known Within Department

A September 27th text message from Barta to Baker raises serious issues with the lead program, and indicates the problems were well-known before this. The message notes problems with Lisa Lien’s performance, but also references Disease Control and Environmental Health Services Director Angela Hagy, Health Operations Administrator Sandra Rotar, Personnel Officer Tanz Robertson, Public Health Nurse Coordinator Margot Manassa, Emergency Prepared Coordinator Lindsey Page and Director of Public Health Planning and Policy Sarah Zarate. The message:

Good evening Commissioner. My apologies for this intrusion, but I need to provide to you an update. Angie came in my office pleading for my assistance with the lead program. I’ve also called Sandy this evening to further discuss. Bottom line… another chelates child was sent home to an uncleared home. WTH!

I am assisting with the lead program to save our departments face! My request is that Lisa must be held accountable, I’m not fixing it for her to muck it up again. Angie is asking for me to write the lead nursing policies, work and train the staff, and be available for guidance/questions. Her plan is to move the lead nurses downtown to be supervised by Lindsey, and for me to provide nursing guidance, training, and direction for them. It is my understanding that there are no polices in lead, except the ones that I used 5 years ago, but Lisa made changes that were never written, so I don’t know of any and create others. Due to this abrupt request and urgency (safety concerns for children). my policy list will need to reflect this change, because the new priority will need to be changed from department standards of practice to all lead standards of practice, and general logistics/operations policies.

I have a meeting set up with Sarah Zarate, and I will convey this change as the new priority (Sandy R.) has agreed. I’m meeting with Tanz tomorrow to discuss training for Margot (the black nurse that we wrote up), however this is a larger problem. Lisa was the previous incumbent for the director of nursing position, and you know what that looked like before I took it on. She is doing the same thing in the lead program. I’m pissed and I’m only doing this for you, because if this gets out, that the lead program is this messed up! We will be held to the grind stone! I work very hard; weekends, nights ( you can relate), no compensation,etc. I could say no, but I don’t want you to have to answer to the crap they will serve you across the street. I’m sure that Sandy will update you soon. If you have any questions, please let me know! I will address it

Again, my apologies for this intrusion.

Baker responded: “Tiffany, Thanks for letting me know. I am here to help. It’s clear that you need my involvement. Let’s talk about this tomorrow. I appreciate your efforts to date. Pace yourself. Together we will clean up and clear out this mess.”

Lien was suspended in December for 10 days by Baker, and suspended again following Baker’s resignation. She ultimately resigned and said in a lengthy statement that she was made out to be a “scapegoat.”

Another message from Barta singles out Paul Biedrycki, who Hagy replaced in June 2017 following his retirement, as at “fault” for issues with department.

In the month’s worth of messages, Barta offers Baker guidance on presenting the department in a positive light, praises the commissioner and notes as early as June 2017 she was preparing a plan to turn around the program.

The 110 pages of text messages provide insight into personnel issues between members of the department. In numerous message threads, Barta expresses frustrations with Rotar and Rotar’s concern over Baker’s “whereabouts” and actions. Multiple sources close to the Health Department have said that Baker was frequently away from the office.

In the wake of Baker’s resignation, Rotar and Hagy were two members of the Health Department that routinely appeared before the Common Council to help explain issues with the department and lead program. Rotar has since left the city.

Mayor Barrett’s office issued a statement when the messages were released Tueday: “Today’s release of texts confirms what the mayor has been saying for months. Once he learned of the issues of the Health Department, he acted immediately, made the information public, and began the work to address the problems.”

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Categories: City Hall, Politics

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