Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council, Aldrete Again Spar Over FPC

Shouting, an open letter, highly-sensitive leak. The mess at Fire & Police Commission continues.

By - Jan 16th, 2020 11:25 am
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FPC Executive Director Griselda Aldrete speaks before the Common Council. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

FPC Executive Director Griselda Aldrete speaks before the Common Council. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

It’s hard to assess if things are getting better or worse at the Fire & Police Commission (FPC). But they’re certainly getting increasingly complicated.

A January 9th Steering & Rules Committee meeting of the Common Council resulted in shouting, warnings for Public Meetings Law violations and a debate over differing assessments of the department and how independent they are.

It also triggered an open letter sent Tuesday by FPC Executive Director Griselda Aldrete to Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton expressing frustration with meetings with the council and a pledge to be transparent. Without naming names, Aldrete castigated some council members for being “unprofessional,” “outright grotesque” and “misogynistic” in their questioning of her and Department of Employee Relations Director Maria Monteagudo.

“We are working extremely hard to make much-needed changes within this department while also keeping the Council apprised of the challenges we face. However, base and relentless attacks, rumors and speculation regarding me and my staff, is not something I will allow moving forward,” wrote Aldrete.

The meeting continued the council’s questioning of changes at the FPC that have occurred since Aldrete started in August. The new executive director, the third in as many years, changed the organizational structure of the 28-member department and multiple employees publicly resigned or were terminated. The commission board, who Aldrete does not manage, also voted to reappoint Milwaukee Police Department Chief Alfonso Morales with less than 24 hours notice, against the wishes of at least nine members of the council, on December 19th.

The January 9th meeting was planned to center on four topics: the commission’s role with the American Civil Liberties Union settlement, updates related to council requests for more information from the FPC, an audit scope by the council’s Inspector General and communication from the commission regarding needed support.

“We can probably do all of that in just 30 minutes if we let them give their presentation,” said Hamilton. In fact, the committee spent almost two hours on the matter.

Aldrete made a brief presentation detailing the various things that FPC staff has been engaged in and outlining her priorities for next year. The commission staff’s work includes posting the stop-and-search data on the FPC website in compliance with the ACLU settlement, managing the reappointment of Chief Morales, producing a hiring list for new emergency communications officers and working to launch a commission newsletter as part of a transparency campaign. “For 2020 my current priorities are to go through the promotional exams for the police department. We’re also working to get the police class and fire class hopefully done by February or a little further after that,” said Aldrete.

Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II asked about changes in staffing. Aldrete had told the committee in early December that half the positions in the 28-member department were vacant. “I haven’t made any hires since the last time we were here,” said Aldrete.

Assessments and Audits

The Common Council’s concerns with the FPC are giving the newly-hired Inspector General Ronda Kohlheim her first chance to conduct an audit. The position, created over the objection of Mayor Tom Barrett, reports only to the council.

Kohlheim issued a notice of the FPC audit on December 16th. It will focus on the adequacy of internal controls, policies and procedures and the efficacy of the investigation of citizen complaints. “I’ll also evaluate how whether the FPC is effectively managing to achieve its mission,” said Kohlheim. She said the audit would not include reviewing the FPC’s management of oversight of the police and fire departments, disciplinary appeals from public safety departments and the FPC’s community outreach.

“All that stuff that you’re not looking at, how do we get that to be looked at?” asked Stamper.

“I want everybody to understand she’s an army of one,” said Hamilton. The council president said the things Kohlheim would review are things that are under the purview of the FPC and are priorities for review.

But another assessment will also occur at the same time.

The Department of Employee Relations (DER) intends to hire a human resources expert to assess the FPC’s culture. “This is looking forward, not looking back,” said Monteagudo. “This is someone that has done similar work for other city agencies.”

But who would control that assessment asked Ald. Robert Bauman? Monteagudo said if her department and the FPC paid for it, they would control it.

“That’s the fox watching the hen house,” said Bauman.

Monteagudo said the report could come back to the council.

“I think so much of what members are asking for would be covered by that assessment,” said Hamilton, attempting to calm the waters.

“I don’t have all the answers. You don’t have all the answers,” said Monteagudo of the need for the assessment. She said it would help Aldrete rebuild the team.

Bauman raised concerns that a consultant paid by the FPC would just tell DER what it wanted to hear. “That’s how it works in the consulting industry, I’m not stupid,” said Bauman.

“The information we’re getting from employees, ex-employees, paints a picture of a completely dysfunctional, toxic work environment,” said Bauman. “I have no confidence that this DER assessment will result in any positive results.”

“I don’t believe that,” said Hamilton. “There has to be a process. We cannot create a process and then jump to conclusions.”

“Can you at least RFP [request for proposal] it,” asked Stamper? Monteagudo said that would take substantial time. “We are working on completing this by the end of February.”

“Nah, it has to be an RFP,” said Stamper.

“Then you come up with the money and the scope because here I am trying to help,” responded Monteagudo.

Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs said what Monteagudo was proposing didn’t sound like it needed independent oversight. “I think an investigation would, but that doesn’t sound like that you’re doing,” said Coggs. She said many of the council members were focused on something different than Monteagudo. “I think that’s accurate,” said Hamilton.

“The worst thing that can happen is to raise expectations to something this is not,” said Monteagudo.

Ald. Mark Borkowski interjected. “You can’t demand information and say that you want an RFP, because we all know that an RFP takes a long time,” said Borkowski. He suggested a six month pause to let Aldrete right the ship. “We have work to do. It seems like every step forward we are taking two back because of all these other issues.”

“None of us likes to get letters from disgruntled employees, but you know what? I don’t know who isn’t disgruntled,” said Borkowski. “I can’t believe we have been going through this for four months. It has just been battle royale. It’s been unprecedented.”

Questioning the Commissioners Themselves

After that tense back-and-forth between Monteagudo and the committee, the council moved on to questioning the FPC commissioners. The part-time commissioners, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Common Council, are responsible for hiring and firing police and fire chiefs, setting public safety department policies and handling disciplinary appeals.

Vice-chair Nelson Soler said he was representing the commissioners because of concerns regarding public notice and open meetings laws. Soler said the commissioners cannot talk to each other outside of public meetings because of quorum concerns. “We are independent.”

Coggs asked for information on what led the commission to call a meeting to reappoint Morales to a full four-year term the day after the council appointed former police officer Raymond Robakowski as the seventh member of the commission.

“The fact that it happened within 24 hours of our vote for a commissioner led many of our constituents to believe there was some level of a conspiracy between the commissioners and council members,” said Coggs. Whether the meeting was legal or not is “not the question,” she said. Rather it was a matter of “common sense and decency.”

Clearly members of the council felt the meeting was being rushed as nine council members signed a letter asking for a delay after the special FPC meeting was called.

But Soler claims the timeline in question had been previously proposed. “This was published. It was transparent,” said Soler. He said there was no urgency. “It was already agreed we were going to vote on the 18th,” said Soler. He called the meeting, with a necessary second coming from Robakowski. Soler added that he would have called the meeting with or without the new commissioner.

Coggs questioned that. “One could interpret that you ain’t being transparent right here,” she said.

Soler said he emailed the other commissioners asking for the special meeting. As for how Robakowski, who had just been appointed to the commission, learned about the meeting and voted to authorize it, Soler said “I did not know that email was forwarded to the new commissioner.”

“Who forwarded it?” asked Coggs. “I don’t know,” responded Soler. Bauman and Coggs started laughing with Bauman stating: “C’mon, Jesus Christ.”

Aldrete, who cannot call meetings in her executive role, said that calling the meeting was not planned, nor a conspiracy. She said she was still in City Hall working on the regularly scheduled meetings, as was City Clerk Jim Owczarski, when the meeting was called on the evening of December 17th.

Access to Commissioners and Their Access to FPC Staff

During the discussion with Soler, Bauman also brought up the difficulty in contacting commissioners directly through official channels.

“How do citizens get in touch with you to express their opinions?” asked Bauman. Soler said they talk to him personally and he is regularly stopped in public.

The commissioners do not have public email addresses, nor phone numbers. The commissioners also do not have an office within City Hall.

“You basically have no one that staffs you, that reports to you,” said Bauman. “How do you function as the most powerful Police and Fire Commission in the United States? You have to have somebody that reports to you and not the mayor.”

“I think that’s true, that will be a budgetary issue, but I agree,” said Soler.

Aldrete said her entire office staffs the commissioners, but as activist Paul Mozina has made an issue, the commissioners cannot direct the staff, only Aldrete can.

“They come, they have iPads, they have all the documentation they need. They’re not city employees, that’s why they don’t have an office,” said Aldrete.

“They’re accountable to the public, yet the public can’t find them. How does the public find them? Through you and your staff and that’s not right,” said Bauman pointing at Aldrete.

She said past executive directors had the commissioners set up special email addresses, which Urban Milwaukee has learned are through Gmail and not the city’s servers.

“Then that changes. This is an absurdity that the most powerful commission is standing out there naked,” said Bauman.

“I want you to understand that’s a structural point he’s pointing out, that’s not directed toward you,” added Hamilton.

Stamper asked Soler about the difficulties with the lack of physical access, which the commissioner said was a challenge. Aldrete removed access to FPC staff offices after an audit revealed prior employees of the commission were accessing FPC’s offices, which have direct access to DER. “There’s no doors, there’s no walls,” said Monteagudo.

“It’s hilarious what you’re describing,” said Bauman.

“It is not,” said Monteagudo.

“These people can’t function,” said Bauman.

“You’re being so disrespectful right now,” said Monteagudo.

“You’re assuming we’re idiots,” responded Bauman before Hamilton cut things off.

Aldrete said a wall would be constructed by February. She said commissioners were welcome to talk to staff, but she asked her staff to report those interactions to her.

“Do you have the ability to do your job?” asked Stamper. “To some extent, yes,” said Soler. “There is room for improvement.” He then said “no,” he doesn’t have the ability to do his job.

“Mr. President, that’s a problem,” said Stamper.

Chief Morales and the Leak

The commission’s perceived inability to do its job isn’t the only issue the commission is faced with.

Ald. Nik Kovac raised the issue of a high-profile, highly sensitive leak of details to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of an investigation regarding an alleged sexual assault just before the commission voted to reappoint Morales. Developer Kalan Haywood voluntarily agreed to be questioned by MPD this summer, but brought along the Haywood Group‘s counsel, FPC chair Steven M. DeVougas.

The Milwaukee Police Association called on DeVougas to resign as a result of a conflict of interest, with DeVougas responding that he was there only to take notes and wasn’t representing Haywood on the matter. DeVougas, prior to this leak to the press, had said he was in no rush to reappoint Morales.

“It was a very strange 30 some hours,” said Kovac of how quickly the meeting was called, the chief was voted on and sworn in the next morning.

“It would appear whoever released that information was hoping to discredit the integrity and authority of one of your colleagues. That came from within the department and the department did not disavow it. The chief himself implied the media should continue digging into it,” said Kovac. “I assume all the commissioners were aware that was going on.”

Kovac asked Soler if he thought the police department should investigate the leak or should the FPC? “It happened on the chief’s watch and it may have indirectly benefited the chief’s career. Should there be an investigation into that?” asked Kovac. Soler said he shouldn’t answer directly because he couldn’t initiate the investigation, but that as described the matter should be investigated.

“It’s one of the reasons we’re concerned what happened during those very strange 30 hours in Milwaukee,” said Kovac.

Coggs called the matter “utterly disturbing.”

DeVougas then approached the table, with Soler leaving to avoid an Open Meetings Law issue. DeVougas has created the issue, according to Aldrete and the City Attorney’s office, by appointing himself to every standing committee of the FPC.

He backed up Soler’s assessment of the difficulties with the job. “Oversight has been difficult at best. The only way oversight works is by having free-flowing information and when it isn’t flowing there isn’t oversight,” said DeVougas. He said oversight by the commissioners is a “legal fiction” at this point given staffing challenges, public meetings laws and other structural challenges. He agreed with Bauman’s assertion that the independent commission has all of his communications filtered through a mayoral appointee.

“I know Griselda Aldrete is doing the best that she can,” said DeVougas.

What about the leak? DeVougas said he would recuse himself from voting on any investigations, but said both the Milwaukee County District Attorney and FPC should investigate various aspects of the leak.

What’s Next?

“If you don’t agree with the pathway forward, I hope there is an agreement that there is a pathway forward,” said Hamilton, addressing everyone at the meeting. “As long as we need to have these discussions we will have this forum as a place for doing so.”

Will Aldrete appear before a council committee again? That’s unclear.

“Mr. President, in closing I would ask that you please express my staffing limitations and time constraints with your fellow Council members and understand that I may need to begin sending a designee in my place to any respective Committee(s) seeking updates from the Fire and Police Commission Office,” wrote Aldrete in her letter to the council

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