Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Kowalik Reshaping Health Department

Commissioner reorganizing troubled, 254-person agency, first such effort in 10 years.

By - Apr 11th, 2019 01:30 pm
Jeanette Kowalik. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Jeanette Kowalik. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The city’s new health commissioner, Jeanette Kowalik, is pushing the department’s first major reorganization in more than a decade.

Kowalik, who presented a draft of the plan to the Common Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee last week, said the focus is on creating a department where services are delivered effectively and efficiently.

She wants to make sure it’s an inclusive process where employees are the stakeholders in the planning and outcome. “We went through a number of reorganizations when I was on board,” said Kowalik. “It was never an inclusive process.” The commissioner previously worked at the department from 2002 through 2008. She’s held her new commissioner job since September.

“When a department has been struggling, the culture struggles,” said Kowalik referencing the failure of the department’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program and the revelation of gag orders and coverups under former commissioner Bevan K. Baker. “We are looking for ways to help the staff that have gone through a lot of trauma.”

Part of rebuilding the culture will be identifying promotional and professional development pathways for employees. “Really dealing with the well being and health of the employees is a priority,” said the commissioner.

“A kinder, gentler Health Department,” suggested Ald. Robert Donovan. “Yes,” responded Kowalik.

In a survey of the 254-person department, she said one comment kept coming up: “too many managers, not enough workers.” Yet, Kowalik and deputy Jennifer Freiheit found a manager within the department to whom 27 individuals directly reported, a number the commissioner characterized as far too high.

Kowalik noted that the department, which would be reshaped into four branches, would report to deputy commissioners. Freiheit will serve as the special deputy commissioner, a legally-designated position that recently has been vacant. The deputy is the only city official that has the authority to quarantine individuals and order other emergency actions if the city has a public health crisis and the commissioner is unavailable.

Alderman Jose G. Perez asked how the changes would increase accountability. The commissioner said the Board of Health, which would oversee the department similar to the Fire and Police Commission oversight of the police and fire departments, would help as well as getting feedback from those served. “How are we evaluating how we do our work? That has been lacking and it shows,” said Kowalik.

The reorganization, which would change pay scales for some positions, isn’t without negative consequences for some individuals. “There are two or three positions that are caught in the crosshairs,” said Freiheit. She said other positions within the department are available to those negatively affected by the changes.

“It’s amazing that we didn’t have more issues, more problems,” said Ald. Mark Borkowski. He characterized the lead program failures as a cover-up by Baker and others.

“I know that I tried to talk you out of this appointment because I thought this was a hornet’s nest,” said Borkowski. “But I also said that if you pull this off you can write your own ticket. I just want to let you know you’re on your way.”

But despite the praise from Donovan and Borkowski, one of Kowalik’s biggest backers on the council isn’t entirely pleased. “I do not like that we were brought in at the latter end,” said Alderwoman Chantia Lewis. “I am still on the fence about this structure.”

Lewis said she is excited about some aspects of the proposal, including oversight from the Board of Health. The alderwoman sponsored the creation of the state-mandated board and hopes to serve on it. “We absolutely have to have some mechanisms in place so we never see what happened two years ago,” said Lewis.

Kowalik hopes to secure approval to advance the reorganization in May from the full Common Council.

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Related Legislation: File 181927

Categories: Health, Politics

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