Was Barrett Asleep on Health Department?
Problems may go back a decade and mayor deserves much blame, some alderman say.
Ald. Michael Murphy has served the city for 29 years, going back to 1989, and he can’t recall the Milwaukee Heath Department ever hitting such a low point.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking to see how badly it’s been mismanaged. There’s a real risk the department will lose their (federal) accreditation.”
In recent months we’ve learned the department is a disaster case, a dysfunctional agency with horrible morale problems, problematic staff and a dreadful performance record. Notably, the department did no abatement of homes with lead poisoning for at least two years (2016 and 2017), but Murphy says other department programs, like those handling sexually transmitted diseases and breast cancer screenings, have also suffered.
Was Mayor Tom Barrett asleep as the health department fell apart? “Of course I wish I had learned about this sooner,” the mayor says. “But understand it was my digging and peeling back the layers that revealed the problems.”
But Murphy says the “buck stops with” the mayor, who deserves “a great deal of blame” for the department’s decline. He points to 2009 and 2012 letters to the Health Department from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development pointing out “significant errors” and a lack of documentation to show how many homes with lead paint problems had been abated.
“Of course the department wrote back to say they corrected the problem, but obviously they didn’t,” Murphy says. Those were the same problems that led to Baker’s resignation and have been documented in an internal review of the department. Which suggests the department’s inadequate performance might go back many years.
“Many problems reach all the way back to the previous administration and have remained until this year,” says Ald. Chantia Lewis, a member of the Public Safety and Health Commission. If true, that would suggest the problems go back 15 years or more.
Which raises the obvious question why the mayor didn’t act sooner. “I know I was not the only council member who expressed concerns to the mayor about the Health Department,” Murphy says.
But one alderman who declined to be named says the Common Council deserves blame as well. “Everyone knew there were problems with Bevan. We know what a hands-on commissioner is like and we knew he wasn’t one. We all should have done more.”
The source adds there were suspicions among some council members that Baker wasn’t putting in enough hours as commissioner.
But Baker had to be reappointed every four years and typically got overwhelming support from the council. The sole alderman to vote no (two different times) was longtime Public Safety and Health Committee member, Ald. Terry Witkowski.
“You couldn’t get a straight answer from the Health Department,” Witkowski says. “I asked for information on infant mortality and was told this is confidential information. I didn’t see any progress being made by the department.”
Barrett notes the disclosures that have come out since Baker resigned showing there was a “gag order” by managers in the health department preventing their employees from sharing any negative information with the council and mayor. “There was a deliberate attempt to make sure I was not receiving the information I needed to know,” Barrett says.
But Witkowski says there were signs this was going on. Health Department employees appearing before the committee, he notes, would decline to answer questions. “The response would be ‘you have to ask the commissioner about that’” — leading Witkowski to assume they were under orders not to talk.
Witkowski has long been a supporter of Barrett, but concedes, “maybe he could have done more.”
Clearly many members of the Common Council felt Barrett was to blame, which led them to reject the mayor’s appointment of Paul Nannis as interim Health Department Commissioner. This issue and others led to a kind of insurrection by the council taking power from the mayor, as Urban Milwaukee reported.
But the council, in rejecting Nannis, used an unusual procedure to instead pick its own choice for interim commissioner, Patricia McManus, who council members soon soured on. “We took a bad situation and made it worse,” says the anonymous alderman.
“I think we’re going to find out in the next few weeks that McManus wasn’t a very good interim director,” Murphy says.
Whatever Witkowski’s concerns, it appears no one in the Barrett Administration or Common Council suspected how bad the middle managers were below Baker. Incredibly, there were employees who were prohibiting lead paint abatement in homes identified as poisoning children because they wanted to punish the absentee owners. “The whole philosophy was just so backward,” says Murphy.
“It became an extremely dysfunctional department,” he adds, where “talented people were not going to stick around and put up with it. They’ve lost a lot of talented people.”
Ald. Tony Zielinski, who has already announced his run for mayor in 2020, says this will be a big issue in the race. “This is a major public health crisis that never should have happened in the first place and still is not being handled properly,” he charges. “Barrett shoulders complete responsibility. His approach is usually too little and too late.”
Zielinski says other council members agree with him that Barrett has done a rotten job on this issue. But it remains to be seen how many of his colleagues back Zielinski’s bid for mayor; he is not very popular with them.
And Barrett’s failures may have been compounded by weak leadership on the Public Safety and Health Committee, which is chaired by Ald. Bob Donovan, whose penchant for demagoguery is reinforced by committee member, Ald. Mark Borkowski. Both were appointed by council president, Ald. Ashanti Hamilton, who did not respond to Urban Milwaukee’s request for comment.
In a city with as much poverty as Milwaukee, Murphy notes, the health department is critical to addressing problems related to poverty. If the department does a poor job, it tends to be the city’s low-income and minority residents who suffer the most. Clearly the city has a critical problem that needs to be fixed and it will require leadership from Barrett and Hamilton — and a proactive Public Safety and Health Committee — to make progress.
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