Former Health Director Blames Barrett
Bevan Baker breaks his silence, slams Mayor and other city departments.
Former Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan K. Baker, who resigned in January 2018, has broken his silence to blame Mayor Tom Barrett and other department heads for dropping the ball on lead poisoning prevention.
“After nearly two years of investigation, it is clear that a search for the truth has not happened,” said Baker in a written statement provided to Urban Milwaukee.
Barrett, in a January 2018 press conference, said Baker resigned after the Mayor’s office learned that the city had no record of notifying over 8,000 families of elevated blood lead levels in children tested by private clinics. Baker was first appointed commissioner in 2004.
Barrett and his administration have maintained their stance that most lead poisoning occurs as a result of paint-based sources, but in Baker’s statement, the former commissioner takes aim solely at water-based lead poisoning.
The former commissioner singled out a January 2016 meeting with Barrett, then-Department of Public Works Commissioner Ghassan Korban and then-Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis regarding the impact of lead service line removal. He said he alerted state health officials to concerns about city practices and sought permission to do lead-in-water testing in homes without the owner’s consent and was rejected by the independent City Attorney after months of delay.
“As a chief executive with knowledge of the internal workings of the Mayor’s office, I say with confidence that the Department of Public Works and Water Works were responsible for mismanaging the lead program,” said Baker.
Referencing his role on the Water Quality Task Force chaired by then-alderman Jim Bohl, Baker blames Barrett for not being more aggressive. “The Mayor’s office has done nothing to accelerate the removal and rehabilitation of lead service lines in Milwaukee, as urged by the Task Force.”
City officials in November confirmed that a criminal investigation of the failures of the city’s lead poisoning prevention programs by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and Milwaukee County District Attorney is ongoing. Baker’s role in the probe and whether he is a subject of the investigation has not been disclosed.
Baker did not address the inquiry in his written statement, but the statement was provided to Urban Milwaukee by his attorney William F. Sulton of Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs.
Baker’s statement drew a response from Alderman Tony Zielinski, a candidate for mayor. “The accusations made against Mayor Barrett and his administration by former health commissioner Bevan Baker are very serious,” wrote Zielinski to Urban Milwaukee. “I have wanted to hear Mr. Baker’s side of the story for some time.”
Baker was scheduled to appear before the council’s Steering and Rules Committee last fall, but declined to appear. Council President Ashanti Hamilton, on the advice of the City Attorney, declined to subpoena Baker as part of the council’s formal, open investigation. The news came just days after text messages between Baker and a top subordinate revealed Baker knew of health department lead program problems going back to at least 2017.
The Freshwater For Life Action Coalition (FLAC) issued a statement blasting Barrett in the wake of Baker’s letter. “Baker’s letter only reaffirms what we have been stating for the past four years. The Barrett administration has been covering-up the seriousness of this matter for too long,” wrote FLAC spokesperson Robert Miranda. The group called on the Department of Justice to brief the public on its investigation.
A third-party audit of the health department is ongoing under the direction of the non-profit Public Health Foundation.
City officials announced October 1st that the city won a $5.6 million federal grant for lead paint and soil abatement. The grant, intended to last 42 months, comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development which previously suspended the city’s ability to spend lead-abatement grant funds after finding issues with the city’s program. The health department has been led by Jeanette Kowalik since September 2018.
“The Mayor’s concerns about the Health Department’s lead program have always focused on protecting Milwaukee children from lead exposure,” said the Mayor’s office in a statement. “Since the Mayor first learned of the problems two years ago, the health department has made good progress on its lead efforts. The Mayor continues to be focused on the future and making sure Milwaukee children are kept as safe as possible.”
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