Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Former Health Director Blames Barrett

Bevan Baker breaks his silence, slams Mayor and other city departments.

By - Dec 24th, 2019 01:02 pm
Tom Barrett and Bevan Baker

Tom Barrett and Bevan Baker

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 public statements that have been made about me over the past two years are defamatory and false,” said Baker. “Most notably, nearly two years after my departure there is a concerted effort to misrepresent my role as Health Commissioner to be the only individual responsible for the lead service line removal and lead in water concerns. This is false.”

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.

But he did ask the Common Council to “fully and fairly investigate the serious problems that continue to exist due to the mismanagement of this issue by the Mayor and others in his office.” The council has recently hired an Inspector General who reports to the council through the City Clerk.

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.”

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.

More about the Lead Crisis

Read more about Lead Crisis here

Categories: City Hall, Politics

3 thoughts on “City Hall: Former Health Director Blames Barrett”

  1. Trmott says:

    Here is a perfectly worthless statement from the Mayor’s office: ““Since the Mayor first learned of the problems two years ago, the health department has made good progress on its lead efforts.”

    When may we expect to see documented and audited details supporting the City’s claim of “good progress on its lead efforts”. Or has that update appeared in the Journal/Sentinel or via other media and I just missed it (which IS possible, I admit). Might there actually be a press briefing coming with quesions and answers?

    Someone should give the Democratic Party visitors a heads up and tell them to stick with beer to be on the safe side.

  2. Trmott says:

    Oh, wait. I looked for something more, and I found it. Turns out the Mayor has been laserlike focused on this for a LONG time… hiis office said this two years ago: “Mayor Barrett continues to take the health and safety of Milwaukee residents seriously. Decisions are made based on data and science provided and the resources available.”

    So that settles it. Having been reassured that our leaders are on top of this, not just now but were in January 2018 as well, rest easy. We’re fine. And the alderpersons will make sure something happens someday. My bad.

    As a favor to all the readers, if anyone spots the Mayor outside practicing his distance kicking of cans down a road, let us know.

  3. Lee Bitts says:

    Barrett told Baker to resign. Baker should have been given an opportunity to defend himself from the get-go. Why didn’t this happen? Why all the silence from Baker these past few years? Did he agree to say nothing?

    The sudden and immediate dismissal of Baker really sounds like an immediate rush to judgment without trial or jury. How was this in any way fair to Bevan Baker?

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us